British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested in comments he made to parliament this week that the new US president didn’t have quite as bad an international reputation (yet) as the longtime African strongman President Robert Mugabe.
Trump has only been in power for less than two weeks. No-one knows – though many fear – what he’ll achieve in office and how easy he’ll be to dislodge.
Mugabe, on the other hand, has been in power in Zimbabwe for nearly 37 years. His record is well-known: massive strides in education and black empowerment that are overshadowed by the Gukurahundi killings of the mid-1980s and the economic collapse that picked up speed from 2000.
But there’s no doubt some Mugabe officials will be looking on in triumph as Trump’s first far-from-faltering steps at the helm of the US provoke words like “autocracy” and “tyrant” from sections of the media that have long used the same language to talk about the Zimbabwe president.
Can the two men really be compared? Here are some (OK, very superficial) similarities:
Fear of falling
This is the time of year that Mugabe watchers remember #MugabeFalls: that embarrassing moment in February 2015 when the Zimbabwe president stumbled on the red carpet at Harare International Airport on his return from an AU summit. The fall – which wasn’t a fall, his officials maintained – sparked a rash of internet memes.
It also sparked the enduring worry that it might happen again, which is why we see Mugabe gingerly feeling his way forward every time a camera manages to focus on him walking (Zimbabwe state TV isn’t supposed to). But what of that curious moment when Trump clutched British PM Theresa May’s hand last week as they went down some steps? There are rumours that Trump has bathmophobia, the fear of steps. Trump certainly seems to be very conscious of the need not to fall: see this Tweet from him in 2014.
A much younger, very glam wife
Gucci-loving Grace Mugabe’s affair with and subsequent marriage to the Zimbabwe president is well documented. Rather humiliatingly, Mugabe told South Africa’s Dali Tambo in a 2013 interview that Grace “happened to be one of the nearest” women to him when his first wife Sally was dying. Grace is 41 years younger than her husband, who turns 93 this month. The age gap between Melania Trump and her husband is not as wide: 25 years. As Trump’s third wife, Melania’s outfits attract the same kind of attention that Grace Mugabe’s do. Oh, and neither first lady was born in the country she now lives in.
Anti-abortion vs. anti-gay
So Trump waved the anti-abortion ticket to win support from conservative US voters? Mugabe does something very similar with his anti-gay rhetoric, appealing to the many traditional Zimbabwe Christians who may approve of this position. (The Cline Centre for Democracy estimates that in 2013, when elections were last held in Zimbabwe, nearly 70% of the population considered itself Christian).
Though he hasn’t compared it to Mugabe’s anti-gay stance, Zimbabwe’s former education minister and frequent Mugabe critic David Coltart wrote on Facebook this week that he suspected Trump’s stance on abortion was “an expedient position and certainly not one which he has always held.” Mugabe has never wavered in his anti-gay rhetoric. But he won’t be unaware that it wins him votes.
Vast chunks of the population support his policies
It has long seemed incredible to the hand-wringing Western media: Mugabe has support at home, despite his controversial policies. Significant swathes support him, particularly in the rural areas (though that doesn’t mean he hasn’t engaged in a bit of vote-rigging in the past). Zimbabwe’s Daily News reported this Wednesday that local think-tank the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute predicts Mugabe will win again in 2018.
That prediction is partly derived from the fragmented nature of Zimbabwe’s opposition but it also points to Mugabe’s enduring support base, largely convinced by his anti-Western-sanctions diatribes. Meantime, Trump’s much-chewed-over immigration ban actually has the strong support of 49% of Americans, Reuters reported on Wednesday. See a pattern yet?
Trump is 70, slightly older than Mugabe was when he took power. (Mugabe was 63 when he became president, 56 when he became prime minister). Let’s just say that neither president is a Justin Trudeau (45) or even an Adama Barrow (51). After 37 years under the same ruler, Zimbabweans have been pouring water over one widely-noticed tweet from Cape Town-based @Keananhomel. He said: “The good thing is Trump is 70 and could die soon!”.
Famous last words?