At first glance the similarities between Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump are a cynical headline to attract clickbait. Yet by comparing the two men we can see there is some degree of similarity about who these men are, how they got to be President and, more importantly, what we can learn about what the next POTUS will do in the coming four years.
So, here is a brief list of where there are similarities in both the individuals and the political circumstances surrounding their rise to being President.
- both had no political experience before taking office
- both were in their 70s when they did
- both have had three wives
- both had more children than most – Trump has five whilst Mandela had six
- both were tolerated by their political parties establishment rather than loved by them
- both tapped into a group who had, or felt they had, been discriminated against because of the colour of their skin
- both had empty slogans that resonated with their voters. “A better life for all” v “Make America Great Again”
- both aimed their ambitions squarely at the working classes
- both promised undeliverable pledges both around construction ambitions – Mexican wall building compared to constructing a million new homes in five year
- both sets of voters didn’t care that the commitments weren’t deliverable -they were more concerned with sending a message of change and of ending the current establishment status quo
- both delivered speeches in ways that tapped into their electorates but grated against those who disliked them
- both were heavily branded as being extremists – one a terrorist and communist, the other a misogynist and fascist – yet this branding helped, not hindered their electoral appeal
- both relied or rely on fairly dishonest political aides for their advice – Mbeki and Zuma v Christie and Manafort (and probably a shedload more in the coming weeks)
- both sets of voters who were against the election result set out to leave the country – Democrats to Canada, white South Africans to anywhere but South Africa
- both rely on people with views that go against science – Mandela had Aids deniers, Trump has enough climate change deniers to set up a cult
- both were elected with a carte blanche of what they could deliver as their respective parties won with landslides and complete control of the legislative houses.
- both, after having been elected, promised to unite their countries and heal divisions
Stay with me here. If I have convinced you even remotely that there are political, social and human similarities in how they came to prominence, then without a crystal ball perhaps we can fortune tell the future for a Trump, America and the planet.
Firstly, we can probably predict that there will be a myriad of scandals to come centred perhaps less around the incumbent, but around his coterie of appointees. People on fringes tend to have murky pasts and individuals elected on landslides and misinformation tend to develop an arrogant security that they are untouchable. That will be a dangerous and unpalatable combination.
We can also find that people will simmer down as the new President realises that what he wants to deliver just cannot be achieved without compromise. This will appease many and will stop any brain drain to other nations, whilst at the same time boosting his short term popularity as many start to think ‘he wasn’s as bloody awful as we thought he was going to be’.
Age is likely to catch up with the new President – he is 70 after all. He is already diagnosed as mildly obese and lugging a large frame around like that will take its toll – as will the 18 months of hardcore nationwide campaigning. The strains of being the oldest ever POTUS and the demands the interconnected world will place on him will mean he will struggle to exert as much effort as he once could or would have.
Finally, it doesn’t really matter what Trump pledged during the election. In part because most of it will never be delivered. But also, for his electorate, it won’t matter. The job, in many ways, in their eyes, has been done – the message has been sent loud and clear. On the upside it could mean that Trump could strike a much less confrontational tone with the rest of America and the world and still not lose votes. On the downside, just like in South Africa, the very people who hoped so much that things would be better for them were sold a pup and will remain the ones at the bottom end of the pile.
For whilst being a symbol of change, Trump, like Mandela, will end up being nothing more. Just a symbol. For all the hype around the radical change in South Africa, the status quo remained. Sure, blacks rather than whites hold political office. But aside from the colour of the skin, the types of individual in post are no different and 22 years on from the revolution and with the ANC still in power, poverty, unemployment and inequality for black South Africans is as bloody awful now as it was then.
The sad reality is that in this day and age, where multinational corporations and ‘the markets’ control the levers of power, no one man or government – even Mandela or Trump – can reverse the tides of change. That may be a blessed relief for Democrats. But maybe the biggest lesson will be that for those who believe that democracy can actually deliver any change, good or bad, in this day and age, it simply can never happen.
If Trump is like Mandela then he will remain a deity amongst his supporters and a demon amongst his detractors. And just like Mandela, no matter what he does or achieves he will leave the country as polarised as it was before he took office – if not more so. But those who had channelled their hopes will be left even more disillusioned with democracy than they were before.