ACCRA, GHANA — Last March, the African-American website Grio ran a tongue-in-cheek article listing the five best places for black Americans to move if Donald J. Trump won the presidency. First on the list was Ghana, which the article identified as “one of the more stable democracies” in Africa.
That’s true. But as presidential elections approach here in Ghana, where I'm teaching a study-abroad course, Americans might be surprised to find that some Ghanaians wish they had a leader like . . . . Donald Trump.
That speaks to Trump's international appeal, which isn’t something that you hear a lot about in the United States. With opinion leaders around the world ridiculing Trump, who accepted the Republican presidential nomination last week, you might think that the only people warming to him are right-wing nationalists of the Vladimir Putin variety. But Trump remains a political inspiration to many ordinary citizens, for one simple reason: he’s not a politician.
“Where is our ‘Donald Trump’ when we need one?” Ghanaian journalist Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi recently asked, condemning both major candidates in this November's presidential contest. Corrupt “professional politicians” had ruined Ghana, Adu-Gyamfi wrote, toeing their respective party lines even as they lined their own pockets. So it was time to look outside of the system, to someone so rich that he can say whatever he wants. Like you-know-who.
“He gets under the skin of corporate giants, politicians, lobbyists, and the media,” Adu-Gyamfi wrote, praising Trump. “Donald Trump is not afraid [to] tell the establishment what he thinks."
Here the blogger referred to reports from last December, when several African websites claimed that Trump had threatened to “lock up” Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni. The story turned out to be a hoax, but even reactions to false reports speak volumes about Africans’ impatience with their poor leadership. Trump “has already pledged to deal swiftly with Africa’s dictators,” an enthusiastic Rwandan journalist wrote in April. “You can expect him to make their opponents happy.”
At the same time, though, many commentators across the continent have noted similarities between Trump and these same African leaders. "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah fired the first salvo late last year, comparing Trump’s eccentric, self-aggrandizing personality to Mugabe, deposed Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, and South African president Jacob Zuma.
To other observers, however, the comparison is no laughing matter. African leaders have too frequently used propaganda and xenophobia to sway voters, as Nigerian journalist Chude Jideonwo warned in May. “Trump follows in this distressing tradition, a politician in a fact-free zone," Jideonwo added, "telling people what they want to hear without the interruption of reality.”
And that’s precisely what so many Ghanaians see in their current presidential contest. “It’s that time again, when people go crazy, create weird slogans, promise chickens and give us nothing but false hope of a better life,” one blogger wrote last month. “Gosh I hate Politics.”
Meanwhile, the politicians are spewing hate at each other. Earlier this month, a parliamentary minister from the opposition party claimed that the woman directing the country’s electoral commission—and a member of the ruling party—got her job via “sexual favours.” And ruling party members have charged that the opposition’s presidential candidate is a charlatan in the mold of—you guessed it—Donald J. Trump.
Like Trump, one critic claimed, opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo believes that “a falsehood repeated over and over again” will be “accepted as the truth.” And, again like Trump, Akufo-Addo is known “to demonize all of his opponents as weaklings and lightweights.”
Even as some voters here long for their own Donald Trump, then, others invoke him as a weapon to, yes, demonize their opponents. And that erodes politicians’ legitimacy still further. The less that people trust their government, the more likely they are to put their faith in demagogues like Trump.
In that sense, the Trump phenomenon really is a global one. Around the world, Ghanaian economist Lord Mawuko-Yevugah observed last month, “the political establishment” is under fire. The real question, in Ghana as well as the United States, is whether it can offer people anything better than what the Donald Trumps are promising. We're about to find out.