Robert Mugabe wrote the playbook for Donald Trump
By Ed O’Loughlin | Irish Times |
He is a thin-skinned autocrat, contemptuous of truth and democratic norms. A xenophobe and bully, he exploits fear and hatred to generate his power, whatever the cost to society at large.
While unscrupulous courtiers vie for his favour, the institutions of law, media, and administration crumble before his nihilistic onslaught. A towering narcissist, he has sycophants to cheer him wherever he goes.
You might almost think that Robert Mugabe wrote the Donald Trump playbook, were it not unlikely that Trump even knows who the Zimbabwean president is. Still, 16 years after Mugabe’s regime was sanctioned by the West for electoral and human rights abuses, the 92-year-old autocrat has high hopes for the new Washington administration.
“As a government, we were quite happy listening to Mr Trump’s acceptance speech,” Mugabe’s information minister Chris Mushowe recently told the Herald, a Zimbabwean government newspaper. “Zimbabwe has never had any quarrel with America and does not need to have any quarrel with America.”
Even before Trump’s victory, Mugabe himself was signalling his support.
“Once [Trump] is your president, you’ll wish you’d been friendlier to me,” he warned two US Democrats, senator Chris Coons and congressional representative Adam Schiff, when they visited Zimbabwe last year.
Mugabe has cause to be optimistic. True, he and his supporters are militantly pro-black, whereas Trump’s “alt-right” ideologues unabashedly call for white power. But Trump, unlike his predecessors, probably won’t have many moral or practical objections to Mugabe’s brutal, post-factual 37-year-old rule, or any interest in maintaining sanctions.
Meanwhile, progressive states and foreign rights activists, already weary of the prolonged standoff with Mugabe, will have battles of their own to fight against post-democratic forces closer to home.
Still, Zimbabwe’s steep decline in the past 20 years from economic power house into aid-dependent basket case, from popular democracy into violent totalitarian state, shows just how badly things can go wrong when liberal institutions conflict with an entitled and grasping elite.
For the United States, this means the tax-averse rich, who have short-sold their own democracy to persuade millions of working Americans to vote for an anti-tax, low wage, deregulated economy inimical to their own personal interests.
Kleptocratic inner circle
In Zimbabwe’s case, the entitled “elite” consists of the kleptocratic inner circle of Mugabe’s Zimbabwean African National Union, and beyond them, the police, soldiers, civil servants and former liberation fighters dependent on Mugabe to maintain their slice of an ever-shrinking pie.
It must be stated in fairness to Mugabe that, in stark contrast to Trump, he once served boldly in his country’s service. As leader of one of the main factions in the armed struggle against white minority rule in the then Rhodesia, Mugabe outmanoeuvred his rivals to win the first post-racial election in 1980.
He was fortunate in the country he inherited; by African standards Zimbabwe had good infrastructure, strong institutions and a thriving economy based on agriculture, tourism and minerals. It also had the best public education and health systems in sub-Saharan Africa, boasting a literacy rate of well over 90 per cent. Its food exports were vital to the southern African region.
But as Mugabe’s reign became increasingly corrupt and dictatorial, many ordinary Zimbabweans tired of him and his arrogant party. In 2000, after 20 years in office, he suffered a shock defeat when citizens rejected a referendum to give him extended powers, including the authority to confiscate white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks.
This was a stinging repudiation by black Zimbabweans of Mugabe’s new platform, which centred on the attempt to scapegoat the country’s white minority for the country’s political and economic decline.
Soon after the poll, newly-formed gangs of “liberation war veterans” – many of them far too young to have served in the bush war – were sent to seize white-owned farms, beat up opposition leaders of the opposition and disrupt rallies. Confiscated farms were mostly handed to government cronies, who quickly ran them into the ground, or were broken up into less economical small holdings.
Commercial yields collapsed, with disastrous knock-on effects for the economy: employment soared to over 80 per cent, and an estimated three million of the country’s 13 million people left. To pay its supporters, the government printed ever more money, causing hyperinflation which destroyed private businesses and wiped out personal savings. The Zimbabwean dollar was eventually replaced by foreign currencies in 2009, after hyperinflation reached levels over two hundred million per cent.
Yet despite this grotesque misrule, Mr Mugabe can still cling to power by a combination of bribery, force, and vote rigging. Since the 2000 referendum defeat a series of elections have been stolen by intimidation, procedural abuses, voter suppression, and the arrest and beating of opposition leaders.
No one is fooled, but it makes little difference. With the army, police, ruling party inner circle, “war veterans” and most judges on his side, Mugabe has been able to get away with lying to people’s faces. There are worrying signs that Trump’s close advisers are hoping to pull off the same trick.
Yet in one respect, Trump’s strength is Mugabe’s weakness. Whereas Trump surged to power with the help of fake news on the internet and Facebook, bypassing the fact-checking regimes of traditional media, Mugabe’s regime is still dependent on its domestic monopoly of old-fashioned printed newspapers and broadcast news.
The internet is not his friend: last year Evan Mawarire, a charismatic pastor, sparked nationwide protests with a short online denunciation of Mugabe’s alleged debasement of the national flag. Cleared of public order charges by a Zimbabwean court, Mawarire was nevertheless re-arrested last week when he returned to Harare after a long stay abroad.
Should Mugabe’s officials go ahead with threats to charge him with subversion and insulting the flag, there is now a plethora of independent and opposition websites, bloggers and activists waiting, beyond all government control, to turn him into a martyr. Because there are still places on earth where “alternative fact” means the exact opposite of what it does to the Trump administration.
Ed O’Loughlin is a writer and journalist