African governments are understandably concerned about how Donald Trump’s surprise election as the 45th president of the United States might affect their interests.
Thus far Trump has given no sign that he will accord Africa any higher priority than his predecessors. His promises to expand and escalate America’s so-called war on terror, however, are raising fears of US military intervention in Africa. Beyond that he has offered no policy views on Africa and his campaign had only a tiny team of foreign policy advisers.
Unlike his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and all previous US presidents Trump has had no previous government or military service. His temperament and personal behaviour, however, have been on public display for most of his 70 years.
These too mark a sharp departure from past standards of presidential behaviour. At this stage, Africans might benefit more from an assessment of Trump the man we already know. His most distinctive personal attributes are not so foreign.
Consider the following leadership traits evident during Trump’s contentious campaign and current transition to his presidency.
Traits that will give demagogues comfort
Favoring strongmen over strong institutions:
His accusations questioning the integrity of the US electoral process and governing institutions were unprecedented in modern US presidential politics. And promises that he alone could save the nation sounded more autocratic than democratic. This will surely reassure the strongman in the Kremlin (Russian President Vladimir Putin) as well as those who still rule many African states and chafed at US President Barack Obama’s call for institutional reforms to limit executive powers.
The bane of many African countries, this risks becoming endemic to the new administration. Trump has demonstrated a disregard for conflicts of interest. In fact, he claims that he is legally exempt from such constraints. If America’s president can profit from public service, why should Africa’s strongmen not seize such opportunities?
Trump’s refusal to disclose his US tax returns is also unprecedented among modern major party presidential candidates. It is also a warning that his administration will lack transparency. Trump, no less than Africa’s strongmen, said whatever he felt served his selfish interests, with little regard for the public good.
Trump is tribal:
His campaign to “Make America Great Again” became a motto primarily for a return to an America dominated by white, Christian men. This appeal to ethnic rather than civic nationalism has a long history in Africa’s failed democratic experiments. Trump’s appeal to white nationalism may not spur a renewal of African tribalism but it is definitely an example Africa’s democrats will not welcome.
Dignity and equality for women:
Trump’s disregard for dignity and equality of women rivals the most orthodox behavior of traditional African leaders. His glamorizing of male dominance with a modern gloss is likely to resonate perniciously in Africa’s media and society.
This is another self-righteous trait Trump shares with African autocrats such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. It means never accepting responsibility and always blaming others. While Trump cannot ascribe his failures to American imperialism, his so far successful conjuring of conspiracies and excuses for his self-inflicted shortcomings may reassure his like-minded peers in Africa.
Freedom of expression: One of America’s most revered constitutional principles, this was repeatedly challenged by Trump’s extreme campaign rhetoric. And his recent call to make flag-burning a criminal offense suggests he is either ignorant of the constitution he will soon swear to uphold, or considers himself above the law. This is an all too familiar affliction of African autocrats, and even some duly elected.
Trump doesn’t accept criticism, whether in the media or from human rights and other civil society organizations. Repression of both groups has a long history in Africa and has recently been shown to be resurgent. Trump’s example that should alarm those in Africa who advocate for greater government transparency and accountability.
Trump’s “fact-free” emotional appeals during his campaign contained hundreds of easily verifiable falsehoods that appeared not to trouble his supporters. This new “post-truth” politics has continued with wrongful post-election claims of voter fraud. Such practices are not unknown in Africa.
Climate change denialism:
Trump’s disregard for facts and scientific evidence could undermine African governments and harm millions of their citizens imperilled by the effects of climate change. His likely failure to honour America’s commitments will deny badly needed relief to African countries, exacerbating local conflicts, imposition of emergency powers and suppression of dissent.
If aspects of Trump’s character and temperament appear as familiar threats to Africa’s democrats, this may be a timely reminder that no democracy is ever secure, including the country that was until recently the continent’s democratic champion, South Africa.