President Trump is no stranger to controversy. His very run for the White House was perpetually mired in controversy. That the American people elected Donald J. Trump as their president may be celebrated as a victory for democracy, seeing as a relative political outsider managed to beat established politicians to the highest political office in the United States of America (USA). It could, however, also be decried as a manifestation of the vices of democracy, this because democracy, at least liberal democracy, has the propensity to easily consort with populism and demagogues in rather nefarious ways. Anyway, the adage is that an election delivers leaders that the voters deserve and I believe the American people deserve the president they elected.
Once safely installed in the White House, the controversy surrounding the Trump presidency has not subsided and to say we haven’t seen/heard the real thing yet may be something of an understatement—more is yet to come from President Trump. A crucial avenue through which President Trump often generates controversy is his Twitter account. Many a battle has President Trump fought with opponents via Twitter. This is certainly his favourite channel for expressing himself. There also seems to be a trend to his most far-reaching tweets, they tend to come in the very early hours of the morning. By the time the American people wake up, they are often in the midst of a hurricane generated by some tweet that the President made while they, probably, were still sleeping. Via his twitter account, the US President has commented on serious policy issues and often concluded in his customary ways by putting a ‘sad’ at the end of his tweet.
The international furore this past week has been due to remarks attributed to President Trump in which he labelled Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as shitholes. President Trump, it is reported, was expressing his frustration with the high levels of immigrants coming from the so-called ‘shithole countries’. These remarks have generated widespread, and diverse, responses from across the globe. Botswana took the lead by condemning the remarks, South Africa followed suit and the African Union Commission (AUC) delegation to the United Nations (UN) has also demanded an apology. Even the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has spoken out against the remarks.
There are others though, who believe that President Trump may not have been entirely off the mark since conditions in many African countries, due to bad governance, it is argued, have deteriorated to levels comparable to a shithole. This line of reasoning suggests that President Trump simply called a spade for what it is.
It is poignant to note that there has been no repudiation of these remarks by the Whitehouse this far. The usual damage limitation overtures have been employed but no one has refuted the remarks.
Speaking for myself, the fact that President Trump could make such remarks about African countries did not come as a total surprise. We must remember that the Trump administration’s policy mantra is ‘America First.’ This has many connotations and implications. For now, it is important to remember that President Trump has expressly linked his ‘America first’ approach to matters of immigration. Just ask the Mexicans as well as the DACA beneficiaries. The shithole remarks, therefore, are simply embedded within the broad approach that the Trump presidency has chosen for interacting with the rest of the world— sadly, President Trump seems to be rather clueless about the world outside the USA!
I have to agree with those that find a racist tenor to the remarks. Remember, the way these remarks were reported included an immediate comparison between the shithole countries and Norway. It is said President Trump would rather have immigrants from Norway than from the shithole countries. It is not insignificant that the so-called shithole countries are largely populated by people of colour (never mind that Africa was, again, treated as a country).
There was a very demeaning intent in the remarks by President Trump. I don’t think these remarks were accidental. They are very much in keeping with the Trump presidency. This presidency was vigorously supported by racist elements in the USA and, at times, it still panders to these supporters. Recall how President Trump equivocated when asked to comment about the Charlottesville violence? The disdain shown by President Trump has no place in the world today and, in the context of the USA, it smacks of deep ignorance. The USA is a nation of immigrants, except if you are a native American! For a nation that has been built on the back of migrant labour, some of it patently illegal—recall the transatlantic slavery?—Such remarks are very unfortunate. Sad?
A word or two on those that have come to President Trump’s defence. It has been argued that President Trump was only speaking the truth since the bad governance in many African countries has indeed created shitholes. Well, I would never defend bad governance, but I would find racism abhorrent anywhere, at any time. Apart from the fact that the President’s remarks lacked diplomatic tact, it is the underlying bigotry that worries me—and, I repeat, this bigotry is no coincidence. We should all be worried that the supposedly most advanced and prosperous nation on earth is led by a president who believes in racial superiority and that he has support for his nefarious ideas.
The Trump presidency is probably going to be the most ‘controversial’ presidency in American history. Just a nagging thought though, post the Second World War America maneuvered itself into a position of global prominence. Others believe the USA actually became the global hegemon and has maintained some sort of hegemonic dominance over the world. This resulted in the USA playing key roles in many parts of the world in terms of, for example, democratisation and respect for human rights. The current administration’s ambivalence about such issues and its almost blind adherence to ‘America First’, risks eroding the American influence across the globe. Hegemonic dominance is only meaningful if the lesser partners in the matrix are also made to tow the same line and see the benefits of towing the line.
* Mwiza Jo Nkhata is Associate Professor of Law, University of Malawi.