I’ve Lived in Africa Nine Years: Trump Is an African (or Venezuelan, or Eastern European) Dictator

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Above: President Museveni of Uganda hands out sacks of cash to potential voters. Below: President Trump ensures his name is on stimulus checks to potential voters

I’ve lived in East Africa for nine years and witnessed two presidential elections in two different countries (Uganda and Rwanda). People here are genuinely fascinated by America and how we do elections. When I ask my African friends what they think of the United States, their reaction is often one of astonished admiration, along the lines of, “How did you do it? Our politicians in Africa are so corrupt. They steal money, they steal elections, they stay in power even when they lose. But in the US you can trust your elections, and your presidents don’t cling to power. How did you manage it? How did you beat human nature?”

My answer is usually that in America, we put our faith in institutions, not in one leader. We’re not perfect, but at least, even if we elect the wrong person, our institutions — and the good faith of the people working within them — check the worst impulses of human nature in our politicians. We also got lucky: our first President could have become a king, but instead stepped down voluntarily after two terms.

At least, that used to be the story.

Today my African friends talk very differently about our election. Their reaction is no longer “how did America do it,” but “how is this happening in America? In Africa we’re used to our leaders using politics to make money. We’re used to our elections being stolen. We’re used to tribalism. But not in America. Donald Trump is not like your other presidents. He looks more like one of ours.”

If you’ve come to America to escape strongmen in Cuba, Venezuela, China, or any number of countries whose ruling party so thoroughly dominates the society, you may be surprised at how much the new boss is just like the old boss. I’ve seen it myself.

In 2016 I was in Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni was standing for his 7th term (term limits having long ago been abolished despite his earlier criticism of African leaders who “cling to power”). In the months running up to the election, opposition candidates were routinely arrested and beaten, police were sent in to break up anti-government protests, and the President canvassed the nation handing out sacks of cash and boxes of soap, sugar, and salt to potential voters. On election day, tanks rolled through the streets, polling sites in opposition strongholds suspiciously opened late, and social media was shut down to prevent news of voter intimidation from spreading. The President was re-elected handily, despite widespread allegations of fraud committed by the ruling party. (And it’s ALWAYS the ruling party that commits the fraud — you can’t rig an election when you’re out of power).

And sadly, 2021 is looking no different: Museveni reportedly ordered 15,000 troops and artillery to guard the polls in the primaries. He is standing for his 8th term.

Donald Trump’s America is starting to remind me a lot of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda — or any of the other African (or Eastern European, or Central Asian) nations afflicted by strongmen leaders who cling to power and undermine democratic norms and institutions. As Trevor Noah put it, “The giant ego, the crazy sentiment, the huge and questionable fortune, the extremely causal relationship with the facts, Donald Trump is basically an African dictator.”

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Before going further, I should state that these are very much generalizations that do not apply everywhere in Africa, a huge continent with more than a billion diverse people, that has seen more and more peaceful transfers of power with each passing decade. The caricature of the Strongman is not unique to Africa — it is a human phenomenon that plagues countries as diverse as Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Belarus, and North Korea. Europeans toiled under strongmen for most of history, and wealthy, well-educated Germany succumbed to history’s worst authoritarian less than 100 years ago. I only focus on Africa because it’s where I have witnessed “Big Man Syndrome” most personally.

So to be clear, this story is not about Africa’s unique susceptibility to strongmen, but humanity’s: the instinct to fall in line behind a dominant “big man” and beat up on the rival tribe seems to be deeply ingrained in human nature. America’s Founding Fathers knew this, and designed our whole system of government to keep this instinct in check: it’s why people flee dictators to come to America.

But the 2020 election is revealing just how fragile these checks are. We have to remember that democracy is more the exception than the norm throughout the world and throughout history: rule by the strongman is much more typical.

There’s a pretty clear “strongman playbook” used everywhere from Cuba to Cameroon — and I’m seeing every aspect of it at work in Trump’s regime. No wonder he loves Kim Jong-Un so much.

The Strongman Playbook

Strongman dictators start by using state finances to support their elections. In Uganda when it’s time to win votes, the president hands out sacks of cash. In Kenya, voters gather around candidates to receive sugar and soap. My African friends joke that roads only get built in the months before elections. And Trump is little different. When stimulus checks went out, the President insisted that his signature was on them. When polls showed support slipping among seniors, the President demanded the government send them $200 checks. Is that really so different than an African dictator handing out t-shirts or sacks of cash in the village? As one colleague told me, “these guys are smart: they spend 10,000 shillings on a t-shirt, and buy an election to steal 10 billion.”

And steal they do: strongmen dictators notoriously use political office to enrich themselves and their relatives. From Mobutu in Congo/Zaire to Moi in Kenya to Dos Santos in Angola, my African friends joke that “in the US and Europe, people make money so they can go into politics. In Africa people go into politics so they can make money.”

In Uganda and Kenya refer to corruption as “eating money”; there’s even a book called It’s Our Turn to Eat. Mobutu was notorious for flying in private chefs from France while his country starved. When I visited Angola in 2015, the driver kept pointing out which buildings belonged to the daughter of the (former) President, whose father’s position had clearly had nothing to do with her business successes. “That one’s for Isabella, that one’s for Isabella, that supermarket — that one’s for the Big Boss himself. The telecom, that’s for Isabella. The TV station, that’s Isabella.” They ran the country like the family business.

How about America’s First Family Business? Again, Trump is little better than Mobutu or Dos Santos. Newly uncovered documents reveal that Trump’s businesses, which he pointedly refused to divest of as president, have charged more than $7 million to US taxpayers, his campaign, and the GOP, with untold millions more charged to corporations and foreign governments seeking to curry his favor. We’re used to seeing under-the-table influence of money in politics in America, but this sort of blatant self-dealing and nepotism is usually only seen in the most corrupt countries of Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe. From $3 bottles of water for the Japanese Prime Minister, to $22,568 for catering and flower arrangements at Mar-A-Lago paid by the US State Department, to millions charged to the Secret Service for hotel rooms and flights on Trump’s private jet: the President and his family have certainly been eating.

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Check for $22,568 from the US taxpayer to Donald Trump’s private business. Source: The Washington Post

Like strongman dictators, Trump blasts any unfavorable reporting as “fake news” and calls a free press the “enemy of the people”: a key plank of the playbook. I vividly remember in 2013 when tanks and APCs surrounded and shut down Uganda’s independent newspaper The Daily Monitor for several weeks after it had published unflattering stories about the government. That was only the latest in a long string of press harassment: whether it’s the president calling opposition newspapers “evil” and “stupid” and threatening to “do something” if they did not improve their coverage, referring to journalists as “enemies of the state”, or arresting more than 30 journalists for reporting on harassment of opposition politicians, Museveni’s rhetoric toward the press is indistinguishable from Trump’s. Do you think Trump does not dream of doing the same to his critics?

The press is doing everything within their power to fight the magnificence of the phrase, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! They can’t stand the fact that this Administration has done more than virtually any other Administration in its first 2yrs. They are truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!

Donald Trump, President of the United States

The media houses, both local and international, such as al-Jazeera, BBC, NTV, The Daily Monitor, etc, that cheer on these irresponsible people, are enemies of Uganda’s recovery and they will have to be treated as such.

Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda

Like strongman dictators, Trump has shown no hesitation to use force on his own citizens. When Trump teargassed protesters outside the White House, I was reminded of complaints from Ugandans in the poorer parts of town that teargas was becoming a frequent smell during election season.

And just like strongmen who refuse to transition power peacefully in countries like Uganda, Venezuela, or Equatorial Guinea, Trump has repeatedly undermined elections and refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, stating in frank terms his intention to cling to power no matter the results of the election: “There won’t be a transfer, frankly,” he said. “There will be a continuation.”

The “African dictator” comparison is so glaring that it’s become a theme at trivia nights in East Africa I’ve been to: “guess who who said it, Trump or Idi Amin” (answers at the end of the post).

  1. They are sabotaging the economy of the country!
  2. I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.
  3. The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.
  4. Politics is like boxing — you try to knock out your opponents
  5. I myself consider myself to be the most powerful person in the world
  6. They [a newspaper] better be careful or I will unleash big time on them
  7. My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.
  8. Apologizing is a great thing but you have to be wrong. I will apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I’m ever wrong.
  9. Although some people felt Adolf Hitler was bad, he was a great man and a real conqueror whose name would never be forgotten.
  10. Sometimes people mistake the way I talk for what I am thinking.

It’s easy to dismiss such words as the bluster of an egoistic leader. It’s easy to have faith that our laws and institutions will prevail.

But I am not so sure. Trust is the easiest thing to lose and the hardest to gain, and institutions only exist as long as we trust them. Without that trust, democracy doesn’t function.

The War on Trust, and How It Threatens Our Democracy

Here’s a question for you.

If you’re a Democrat, imagine that government announced a COVID vaccine tomorrow. Would you believe it was safe, and would you give any credit to Trump’s Operation Warp Speed?

If you’re a Republican, imagine that the results of the Russia investigation had turned out differently, and that there HAD in fact been collusion. Could anything have convinced you that it was true, or would you have dismissed the report as just more evidence that the FBI was biased against Trump?

Not long ago, these would not have even been questions. We trusted our boring bureaucrats to make boring reports without political interference. We trusted our Justice Department to keep the politicians in check. We trusted them because they owed their allegiance to their country and not to any one man.

But Trump has turned the value of democratic institutions on its head: in his world, institutions are not a necessary check on power, but evidence of a “deep state” out to get him. Trust is not a virtue, but a weakness to be taken advantage of by the strong: if you’re not willing to break promises and bash skulls to get ahead, you’re a sucker.

And this is so dangerous: I’ve seen it myself.

I’ve lived five years in a country with basically no institutions, and four in one where institutions are just being built. One country that seems to celebrates the archetype of the “trickster” as a clever way to get ahead, and another that looks down on corruption and stealing. I’ve seen how hard the institutions America spent 200+ years building are to build — and how quickly they can crumble.

In Uganda, for instance, no one trusts anything the government says, because they are so used to the government lying, cheating, and stealing. I love Uganda, it’s an incredibly fun place with incredibly friendly people, but no one would ever say its government works. When the government announces new laws, no one follows them, because they assume they’re for someone else’s benefit; when the government tried to require motorcycle drivers to wear helmets, for example, people joked that there must be someone in government importing the helmets. When statistics are released, many people assume they are fake. When politicians steal money, or when elections seem to be rigged, no one blinks an eye, because everyone just expects this to happen — it’s just the way things work. “Those guys are all eating.”

In Rwanda, by contrast, society is moving toward greater trust. When the government releases COVID test results, people believe them — the international community as well as Rwandans. Police officers don’t take bribes, and even the best-connected Minister can still be fired or punished. You can almost see institutions being built before your eyes. Yes, people will also be punished if they don’t follow the rules, but I don’t think that’s the whole story: Rwandans genuinely like where things are going, they compare their more corrupt neighbors with their government’s humility and results-orientation, and don’t want to screw it up.

When people see their leaders working for them, it feeds a virtuous circle whereby leaders want to work for the people: doing otherwise would bring social ostracism for breaking society’s norms. But when leaders encourage distrust in the system, when they use political office to enrich themselves, when they fail to show restraint in their use of power, it breaks the cycle and creates very different norms where corruption and abuse of power are expected — if everyone else is “eating,” you’d be a sucker not to take your turn at the feast.

The author of It’s Our Turn to Eat compares Kenyans’ lack of faith in the system with her parents’ contrasting Italian and English ancestries. In Italy, people dodge taxes and even skip paying bus fares because they have no faith that the system is there to benefit them; cheating is just expected. In England, by contrast, no one would think of cheating on a bus fare: there’s a strong tradition of trust in institutions, and you’d be a fool to damage a system that’s there to help you.

Human institutions and human laws, remember, are just human stories, and don’t exist in objective reality — if we stop believing in them, they cease to exist. People comfort themselves by saying, “They’re only words. He’s only attacking the norms. The laws and institutions are still strong.” But they forget that laws are just words. Institutions are just norms — beliefs in what is normal and acceptable behavior. If the norms go, so do the laws and institutions. President Andrew Jackson — Trump’s political idol — famously proved this when he sent in the Army to launch the Trail of Tears in defiance of a Supreme Court order to the contrary: “[Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” If Trump refuses to leave office but the Army and police are on his side, what happens?

This is why Trump’s behavior is so dangerous when he questions the integrity of elections, criticizes “fake news” and “corrupt doctors”, or uses the power of the presidency against opponents. He’s not just breaking the law: he’s undermining the idea that laws matter. He’s not just saying things that are untrue: he’s undermining the idea of truth, that there can be independent facts separate from the beliefs of the Dear Leader. He’s not just behaving badly: he’s undermining the idea that good behavior is something leaders should even aspire to, replacing democratic restraint with the idea that might makes right, that leaders should pursue power politics to the full extent available to them, like Machiavelli or Cersei Lannister.

We see this in who the President surrounds himself with. Career patriots like Gen. Jim Mattis and Gen. John Kelly have been pushed out in favor of sycophants and yes-men. Worryingly, the administration has just issued an order that would allow the President to fire career civil servants for almost any reason, which would give the president full political control over nearly all government data, fire prosecutors who refuse to arrest his political opponents on questionable evidence, and ultimately make his authority nearly impossible to challenge.

Trump just does not believe in “big-D” Democracy: he believes in the Law of the Jungle — that a good society is one that celebrates Winning At All Costs, even if you have to cheat and bully your way there. He’s replacing democratic “good faith” with a worldview where people don’t do things out of good intentions, but assume that everything anyone does must have an angle, and cheating is just part of the game. Doctors who treat COVID are inflating the stats to get money, climate scientists are faking temperature data to get grants, and election officials are pure partisans with no integrity who cheat to help their tribe win.

In Trump’s world, like an African dictator, only suckers follow the rules, and you should grab what you can while the grabbing’s good.

Trump’s followers have been the biggest victims of his worldview, because they no longer know who to trust. They don’t mind when Trump abuses his power, because they assume his opponents would do the same. The Republican party has been captured by unwavering loyalty to one man, and anyone who questions him is immediately cast out as “biased” against him; just witness the Right’s vitriolic reaction to Chris Wallace — a Fox News host! — for fact checking Trump in the first debate. Apparently even Fox News is not allow to fact check the president!

And this is the most dangerous thing Trump has wrought. When trust in institutions disappears, it’s replaced by trust in the tribe — or the Dear Leader. And when the tribe or the Dear Leader is the only source of trust, democratic institutions devolve into anarchy — or dictatorship.

These are the stakes of this election.

This election is not about policies. It’s not even about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about values: it’s about whether we preserve Democracy or succumb to the Law of the Jungle — or the Swamp.

Trump’s values are profoundly un-American: they more resemble the values of strongman dictators in Africa or Cuba or Eastern Europe than the humble, civic-minded founders of our country. Read the Federalist Papers. Read Jefferson. Read Washington’s Farewell Address. Could you imagine those words coming out of Trump’s mouth? If Trump’s values prevail over those of Washington and Jefferson, I fear our country will slide towards the likes of Venezuela or Equatorial Guinea more than the America we cherish.

So vote! Vote like your life — and the future of democracy — depend on it.

Answers to the quiz:

  1. Idi Amin
  2. Trump
  3. Trump
  4. Idi Amin
  5. Idi Amin
  6. Trump
  7. Trump
  8. Trump
  9. Idi Amin
  10. Idi Amin

Written by

Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, working on solar energy and rural electrification in Africa, BA in Social Studies from Harvard

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