For the first time in 40 years, on Tuesday night a US presidential debate was televised from Cleveland, Ohio.

Since this debate is scheduled for just after the deadline for this column, it is impossible to know if the result of it will move the dial on the outcome of the election on November 3. And since nearly 90% of American voters have already settled on their preference, perhaps not much. But as the battleground swing states – around just six of them – will determine the winner, a relative shift of a few votes can make a huge difference.

But there is one augury which bodes ill, among a rising number of them, for President Donald Trump. In the October 1980 presidential debate in Cleveland – the only one in that election year – the challenger Ronald Reagan turned in a far more assured performance than the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter. The polls determined he won the debate and three weeks later Reagan was elected in a landslide. Carter, like Trump, was a one-term president facing re-election, and the big issue then was the fate of the American hostages in Tehran. This time round, the “October surprise” is the just-leaked tax returns of Trump, or the fact that for the first two years of his presidency he paid just $750 in annual federal income taxes.

This led a friend of mine, former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum, to the waspish conclusion: “You can read Trump’s tax returns two ways: either Donald Trump is the greatest tax cheat in US history or he is a financial desperado hopelessly in debt to God knows who and needs every dollar he scams from Secret Service golf car rentals just to pay the electricity bill.”

The one confident prediction on Tuesday night’s debate, even unseen, is that Trump will be no Jimmy Carter. The worst that could be said of Carter at the time was that he was preachy and “had a mean streak”. Trump has the latter in spades and his famous attack style – “if they hit you, make sure you hit back five times harder” – will be on full display.

For his opponent Joe Biden, simply pitching up, stringing a few sentences together in vaguely coherent sequence and not collapsing off the stage might be enough to disprove Trump’s charge that his opponent is gaga, or lacks the cognitive ability to hold a thought properly let alone preside over the world’s largest economy and military power.

But to hit Biden where it hurts, Trump will certainly zone in on the Biden family – especially wayward son Hunter, who is accused of using, in the best SA tradition, his know-who, not any perceived know-how, to accrue lucrative board appointments in dodgy companies in Ukraine and China.

But since SA, which, long-shorn of our turn-of-history moment in 1994, is today sadly just an also-ran country mired in corruption, crime, debt and misgovernance, the prospect of Biden in the White House at least gives us a foot in that famous doorway.

The problematic Hunter Biden, in 2019 after an apparent six-day romance, married Johannesburg filmmaker Melissa Cohen, who is about 16 years his junior. They both have matching “Shalom” tattoos and are doing their best to avoid the spotlight despite Trump’s best endeavours to spotlight Biden jnr as a corrupt influence peddler.

Less controversially, the debate was held at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, in the $5m auditorium the Johannesburg steel magnate (Samson is founder of international company Macsteel) donated to the university. No doubt if the Zumaities had known of Samson, who maintains a low profile here despite his gifts of philanthropy in SA and across the world, he would be dubbed an exemplar of “white monopoly capital”.

But it is these capitalists, some of them South African originating, who keep our country name in the US frame, still and for likely a very long time, the most important economy in the world.

Far more significant than either the newish Mrs Biden jnr or even the gifts of Samson philanthropy is the case of SA-born Elon Musk of Tesla. Apparently, he can be as disagreeable as Trump, but on any measurement far more successful and economically important, and his start in life owed nothing to a rich father.

This month, Musk entered the record books as one of only five people in the world to enjoy the title of “centibillionaire”, or people worth in excess of $100bn. Musk weighs in at $115bn, which in our depleted national state is about 40% of the estimated 2020 GDP of his former homeland, SA ($295bn). Musk’s electric car manufacturing company, Tesla, currently has a market cap of $450bn, far more than our national wealth, and twice as large as the previously most valuable automobile manufacturer, Toyota.

Of course, it is the power of the American economy which could be the only remaining arrow in the Trump quiver. There was on the eve of Tuesday night’s debate a fascinating interview in the New York Times conducted by its master columnist Bret Stephens. He interviewed an anonymous – for obvious reasons – “New York lesbian” who is that rarest of people, “a secret Trump supporter”, even though she is a registered Democrat. Her reasons for supporting someone who is the antithesis of so many of her circle? It’s in her bank account: the stock market up 35% from four years ago, the gas price well below what it was under Barack Obama, and her 401(k) (the US version of a retirement account with tax benefits) up 19.6% before coronavirus struck.

If the polls are right, such private musings are off key. But as Stephens (like David Frum, a “Never Trump Republican”) notes: “You can easily dismiss her as in outlier, an anecdote, a red voter in a blue state. That would be a mistake. If good political analysis were merely a matter of looking at big data, Hillary Clinton would be president today.”


Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in Times Select on the 30th September 2020