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‘Dangerous and poisoned’: Critics blast Trump for endorsing white-nationalist conspiracy theory on South Africa

South Africa's land expropriation debate and the myth of "white genocide" have been a rallying cry for white nationalists around the world for years. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s promotion of a white-nationalist conspiracy theory involving South Africa prompted fierce backlash there Thursday and fresh criticism in the United States that he is compromising American foreign policy to stoke his far-right political base.

Former U.S. diplomats and South African leaders denounced Trump’s declaration in a tweet late Wednesday that he had instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to monitor the “large scale killing” of white farmers and the government’s expropriations of their land.

White-nationalist groups have for years spread false claims about the murder rates, assertions that have been widely debunked. Local police data shows the number of people murdered on farms has dropped by half over the past two decades — from 140 in 2001-2002 to 74 in 2016-2017, according to the Associated Press.

Trump’s tweet appeared to come in response to a segment on Fox News in which host Tucker Carlson railed against a plan by South Africa’s governing party to pursue constitutional changes allowing the government to redistribute land without compensating the owners. The measure is designed to redress racial inequalities that have persisted for nearly a quarter-century after the end of apartheid in 1994.

White nationalists in the United States and South Africa, where a fringe group called Afriforum has advanced the conspiracy ­theory, hailed the president’s remarks. David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, thanked Trump on Twitter and tweeted an image of a white woman holding a sign reading “Stop white genocide.” Mike Peinovich, a far-right podcast host, called Trump’s endorsement “very big” and said that “this is how we slowly chip away at the all-consuming anti-white discourse.”

Critics lambasted the president for endorsing the conspiracy ­theory to his 54 million Twitter followers. Patrick Gaspard, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama, noted that this was the first time Trump had mentioned Africa on Twitter since he took office.

“He uses the occasion to lift a white-supremacist meme from the darkest place he can find,” Gaspard, now president of Open Society Foundations, said in an interview. “So many of my friends in South Africa are bewildered that a modern president of the United States, instead of leaning into issues of constitutionalism and jurisprudence, lifts up these themes. It’s dangerous and poisoned.”

Trump faced an intense backlash for saying last summer that a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where a counterprotester was killed, featured “some very fine people on both sides.” In January, he sparked more outrage when he complained to lawmakers in a private meeting at the White House that U.S. immigration law offered protections for people from “shithole countries,” referring to Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations.

The president’s tweet about South Africa was his latest bid to signal common cause with nationalist movements abroad, including in Europe, where Trump and his top aides have expressed solidarity with populist governments pursuing anti-immigration agendas.

Trump has not visited Africa since taking office, although first lady Melania Trump announced this week that she will visit the continent in October for her first major solo trip.

“President Trump’s unfortunate tweet in response to a Fox News broadcast should not distract the United States from improving relations with South Africa,” Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a joint statement. “We care deeply about the United States’ relationships with all African countries. Constructive relationships require measured dialogue as opposed to arbitrary tweets.”

The complicated issue of land expropriation has been fraught with emotion in South Africa, whose leaders quickly sought to stanch the enthusiasm of the far right over Trump’s tweet.

Government officials said they would summon U.S. diplomats to explain the Trump administration’s position, although Trump has yet to name an ambassador to the country.

“We would like to discourage those who are using this sensitive and emotive issue of land to divide us as South Africans by distorting our land reform measures to the international community and spreading falsehoods that our ‘white farmers’ are facing the onslaught from their own government,” David Mabuza, South Africa’s deputy president, said while attending a land summit in the province of Limpopo. “This is far from the truth.”

Members of Afriforum, the South African white-supremacist group, recently toured the United States, and the group’s causes have been taken up by other white supremacists, including Duke, said Jill Kelly, a South Africa scholar at Southern Methodist University.

She said studies have shown that farm murders in South Africa are at a 20-year low and that murders in general in the country have been declining since the end of apartheid.

Analysts said the idea that white farmers in South Africa were being unfairly treated and are attacked in large numbers by nonwhites has persisted for decades. Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice at California State University at San Bernardino who studies hate groups, said the narrative of “white genocide” has been central to the white-nationalist movement across the globe.

“Now we have an American leader parroting these talking points once they’ve been transmitted through cable news. It’s astounding,” Levin said. “Cumulatively, these messages — and particularly the bluntness and adherence to inaccurate information or conspiracy theories — are taken like rocket fuel within this fragmented, but still very significant, white-nationalist community.”

In a news briefing in Johannesburg, Julius Malema, the head of South Africa’s far-left EFF party, said: “We are more determined, after the Donald Trump tweet, to expropriate our land without compensation. . . . There’s no white genocide here. There is black genocide in the USA.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed that Trump and Pompeo discussed South Africa and added that Pompeo promised the president he would review the matter of land being taken from white farmers.

In general, she said, “expropriation of land without compensation would not be a good thing” and would send South Africa down the “wrong path.”

Foreign policy analysts said that Trump’s administration has not articulated a clear Africa strategy and that the president’s lack of interest has harmed U.S. interests in sub-Saharan Africa, which features fast-growing populations and economies. Obama visited the continent three times as president, and he gave the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture there last month.

“Countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of religious or racial superiority . . . eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil or external war,” Obama said in a speech widely interpreted as a rebuke to Trump’s worldview.

Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trump’s weighing in on the issue was “another example of the president’s comments derailing what is still a very unformed and unarticulated Africa policy.”

Rosa Lyster in Cape Town, South Africa, and Siobhan O’Grady in Washington contributed to this report.