The Surprising Trend of Trump Support in Africa

The trend of Trump support and rise of authoritarian leaders in some African countries showcases the surge of the radical right is beyond the western world.
President Donald Trump with a cross-section of African Leaders at AU summit – September 20, 2017 (Official Photo)

President Donald Trump with a cross-section of African Leaders at AU summit – September 20, 2017 (Official Photo)

Kat Parsons is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, and a doctoral student in Justice, Law, and Criminology at American University.

It is true to say that the majority of academic work on the radical right focuses primarily on Europe and the United States. While current political trends across much of the Western world, combined with a surge in far-right violence across the globe, has increased mainstream focus on the radical right, it is often overlooked outside of the West.

For instance, a preliminary glance at the Wikipedia page on far-right politics only includes country sections for Australia, Italy, the UK, and the US. To provide another example, case studies in the Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right only examine Israel and Japan as examples of the radical right outside of the Western world. At face value, it may seem that the radical right is a predominately-Western problem, born out of the Western system, cultures and norms. However, beyond the Western context, far-right parties are starting to thrive – with the South Korean New National Participation Party a good example of this.

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One possible explanation for this lacuna is “western exceptionalism” or chauvinism itself. The recent re-election and mass support of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is frequently heralded as a “victory” of far-right Hindu nationalism – certainly in line with the defining characteristics of the radical right as we know it. Further, other far-right leaders have gained prominence in recent years, such as Turkey’s Erdogan and Brazil’s Bolsonaro. Clearly, the far-right is far from reserved to the Western world, and even seems to be growing influence elsewhere on the globe.

A recent extended trip to Kenya further raised this question for me. A range of individuals I encountered across the country, upon discovering I was American, gushed with praises for President Donald J. Trump, who is a right-wing nationalist, frequently accused of espousing white nationalist views. This support is particularly surprising, considering that Trump is well known for referring to African nations as “shithole countries.

Yet, Pew Center polling data reveals that between the Obama presidencies to the Trump presidency, Kenya’s approval of the US has increased seven points. The only other countries that saw an increase from Obama to Trump include Russia and Israel. In fact, some of Trump’s highest approval ratings across the globe are in Nigeria and Kenya—both decidedly “shithole” countries, according to President Trump. One has to wonder if far-right ideology does, in fact, play a role in African political life or public sentiment.

When scholars look at the far or radical right in Africa, it is typically either regarding white nationalism in Africa, or the role of US-based Evangelical Christian groups shaping African policy, such as the 2014 Uganda Homosexuality Act. While some work looks at fascism and populism in Africa, it is rarely framed as connecting to the same ideological underpinnings of the radical right as described by scholars who study Western contexts. So then, is there African brand of radical right ideology, and does that explain the high approval ratings of Donald Trump? Relatedly, how does radical right ideology manifest itself in other parts of the world?

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One could argue that Islamophobia may be the reoccurring theme in these contexts. It plays a central role in the Indian case and there have certainly been reports of anti-Muslim sentiments and policy in Kenya, where Muslims constitute a sizeable minority. However, according to the Pew data mentioned above, Tunisia (a Muslim-majority country) has notably low support for President Trump compared to the other African nations polled. In addition, an Arab Center poll found that support for Trump was notably low in the Arab world, even in countries with governments that are friendly toward the administration, like Saudi Arabia. Overall, this suggests generally low support for President Trump in Muslim majority countries.

However, in Nigeria, where support for President Trump hovers around 60%, Muslims constitute about 50% of the population. While Islamophobia may not explain the radical right across the globe in its entirety, it seems that most Muslim-majority countries show limited support for President Trump. Thus, Islamophobia does not solely explain pro-Trump or radical right sentiments around the world. Rather, it is the combination of Islamophobia in tandem with other elements of radical right ideology that likely work together to, at least in part, explain support. We see this constellation of factors playing out in the India example mentioned above. There, Islamophobia is tied to nation-building and preserving a majoritarian identity. These combine to form major components of the radical right ideology and support in the country.

Other confounding factors might offer alternative explanations. For example, the Pew polling cited in this article could be explained by the trend of authoritarian leaders across much of Africa. A second scenario could be that it perhaps speaks to support for fascist styles of leadership, or public mistrust of democratic institutions. In addition, with only four major African countries polled, it could be that Nigeria and Kenya serve as outliers (although Gallup polling suggests that support in Africa is widespread).

A final counterfactual could be that people in developing countries that experience widespread corruption and often rigged elections simply like the fact that Trump “says it like it is,” and calls out their “shithole” leaders (a depressingly common interpretation of his comments). With such disparate and conflicting research on the subject, however, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact explanation for support of the radical right in the African context.

Given these trends, it seems that it is time for scholars of the radical right to extend their scope beyond the Western world. Most existing radical right scholarship beyond the West is confined to regional studies, oftentimes drawing from disciplines removed from traditional radical right scholarship. And, it certainly seems there’s a case to be made that the radical right extends beyond the Western context in noteworthy ways as well as the need to analyze the radical right through a global lens. At the very least, it is worthwhile to explore the paradox that so many in the places the US president derides the most show some of the highest support for him on the globe.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

News // Africa / CARR / Donald Trump