The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

By the time you read this, I’ll be in South Africa. As I write, I’m about to fly from Seattle to Cape Town via Amsterdam. I’ll be in South Africa for three and a half weeks, researching a book that I’m writing about a community in that country’s Eastern Cape province that’s dealing with the ongoing crisis in poaching of endangered rhinoceros. It’s a rich, complex subject with many aspects involving social and historical injustice, relations among multiple racial communities within a diverse country with a fraught political history, and the entire human race’s relationship with the planet that sustains us and all other living creatures.

Not to put too fine a point on the point I’m trying to make, but it’s the variety and complexity of the subject matter that convinced me to spend several years of my life researching and writing a book about how the Fowlds family – white farmers living on and working the same land in South Africa since the 1870s – and their neighbors, both black and white, are coming to terms with poaching and with the wider ecological crisis, as well as continuing to come to terms with each other. All of those challenges are in the “easier said than done” category, but I can attest that most of the South Africans I know are facing them amicably and with good grace, if not always with success.

It’s that personal knowledge – which I’ve earned by paying close and sustained attention to ground-level realities in South Africa over more than two years – that makes Trump’s tweet about alleged widespread killing of white farmers there particularly offensive to me. The latest odd coincidence in this time of odd coincidences and bizarre juxtapositions is that, just two or three days before I landed in Cape Town, the President of the United States tweeted that he had “asked Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.” Again, I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but my quarter-century of experience as a working international journalist has taught me that, in order to know what you’re talking about, you first have to do the work of learning something about what’s really going on.

Given what we know about how America, conventional journalism, and Twitter all function, it’s hardly surprising that, within 24 hours of Trump’s tweet, many explanatory articles had been published about how “killing of white farmers” in South Africa is a hot-button topic for the American racist far right. And, like every topic in America now, it became instantly divisive. For example, a New York Times writer named Helene Cooper tweeted: “In 1913, the white South African government stripped black people of the right to own land outside a few plots set aside for them. 105 years later, weighs in – on the side of the white farmers who still own most of the land in this African country.” She’s right, of course, but the problem with writing such things is that no one who needs to know them is going to want to learn them from the liberal likes of her. Or rather, they don’t care if Helene Cooper points out at tweet length that South Africa’s white colonial rulers dispossessed indigenous Africans, because they’re for such dispossession. And they’re apparently quite happy with the state of things in the USA, because they have their man in the White House.

Of course it’s maddening that Americans need a crash course in the history of race and land in South Africa, but it’s really not the great American public’s fault that it needed those things explained, except in the sense that we all ideally should know everything about everything that’s happening in the world. The real problem is that Trump’s regime knows full well that the topic is a dog whistle to racists and is willing to use it as such, while taking advantage of the wider public’s ignorance. This kind of abuse of the public’s gullibility has nothing to do with governing, and everything to do with weaponizing a small but angry and heavily armed faction of the population against the rest of us. It’s what authoritarian regimes have done in Pakistan and many other countries over many decades. If you lived through the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, you understand the dynamics that such a regime is willing to foment and manipulate, and for what purposes.

Tweeting like Helene Cooper’s plays right into the Trump regime’s hands, or at best misses the point, because what’s happening today in America is not political at all, in any sense that peaceable liberals can understand or respond to. What’s happening is the weaponization of divisive controversy and of vulnerable populations, in the service of an intention to rule by lawless brute force. In the short term, this particular tweet of Trump’s had a lot to do with distracting us from the guilty plea of his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and the conviction on multiple counts of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort. But its larger, longer-term purpose was to signal to Trump’s supporters on the angry and heavily armed – and, yes, almost entirely white and racist – American far right that he’s with them.

It’s not overstating the situation to say that America now is on a knife edge that could tip over into widespread public disorder and violence. The once-legendary former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani saw fit to warn that “the American people” (always beware politicians invoking that vaguely defined phrase) would “revolt” if Trump were to be impeached. Giuliani himself may well be losing the plot – so we can only hope – but in his role as a regime mouthpiece what he’s saying all but explicitly is that his mob boss, Trump, not only doesn’t mind if the armed crazies rise up against the rest of us, he wants them to. •