What do we know about President-elect Donald Trump thinking on Africa? Not much. The Trump Organisation’s website shows no evidence of commercial interest in the region. Maybe that will change. Sons Donald Jr. and Eric — Uday and Qusay, as some like to call them — get a kick out of slaughtering defenceless African wildlife, including big cats. Dad says that’s not his thing. He prefers golf, but he’s proud of their marksmanship.
Of course, if he had enunciated some sort of line on Africa while campaigning, we would still not be much the wiser. He treats truth the way he treats women. We are left to divine for ourselves what a Trump policy might look like were if it were to be broadly in line with his America First manifesto and with the views of those he appears to trust.
Were I the South African ambassador, the first Trumpster I would want to talk to would be Dan DiMicco, the retired steel executive who heads Trump’s “landing team” on trade and is a leading contender to take over as US Trade Representative. As chairman and CEO of Nucor, DiMicco kept his Washington lawyers busy driving allegedly dumped and subsidized foreign steel, including SA’s, out of the US market.
The new administration is unlikely to want to tamper with the African Growth and Opportunity Act whose renewal last year until 2025 had the unanimous support of both parties. The question is whether and to what degree a Trump White House will make use of the law’s eligibility conditions.
SA could find itself squarely in the cross-hairs, especially if the landing team pays heed to the Beyond AGOA report President Obama’s trade office put out in October. Its speaks repeatedly of the competitive disadvantage US companies face in SA vis-a-vis their European rivals because of the EU-SADC economic partnership agreement that just went into effect. Sales of “maybe a couple of hundred” products stand to be hurt according to one US diplomat. They include big-ticket times like mining trucks that go for close to half a million dollars apiece and are made by Trump voters.
All else being equal, my guess is that a Trump trade office will start leaning hard on SA to level the playing field — and perhaps even agree to relaunch negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement — or lose AGOA preferences on a much wider range of exports than were threatened in the late and unlamented chicken dispute.
More generally, one can expect the Trumpsters to take hard look at the costs and benefits of all non-reciprocal grants of market access like AGOA.
There’s no evidence AGOA has cost American jobs. US companies have not moved to Africa to make things for the US market they were previously making in Ohio (though it could be argued that the cars BMW and Mercedes have been making in SA for export to the US might have been built in South Carolina but for massive SA subsidies and AGOA).
There’s no evidence, either, that AGOA beneficiaries have been falling over themselves to make their more markets more accessible to US goods and services. Indeed, with the commodities slump, there has been a rising tide of economic nationalism in countries like Nigeria. It would not be surprising to see the Trump administration become more aggressive regarding non-tariff barriers and perceived bias towards other trading partners, China in particular.
Assuming Trump’s basic campaign pitch bears any relation to how he’ll govern, one should look for Team Trump to consider its priorities in Africa through two basic prisms: the creation and protection of blue collar jobs and the elimination of “radical Islamic terrorism” (to use the phrase Trumpublicans seem to think imparts magical powers to get the job done).
The Trumpsters, on this analysis, will likely care rather less about Ugandan President Museveni’s aversion to term limits and treatment of critics and the LGBT community than about his commitment to the extermination of ISIS and his willingness to see that US firms get their cut of infrastructure deals and supply contracts.
If there is anything that is potentially attractive about Trump it is that his mind is open to ideas. He’s protean. Like the shape-shifting Proteus of Greek myth, he is intuitively, and infinitely, adaptable, which is why he, and not Hillary Clinton, is president-elect.
There is not an ideological bone in his soft orange body. He is about himself and his insatiable desire to show them. Who are they? The elites that have sneered at him his entire life as the vulgar kid of a vulgar father who made the family millions as a slumlord on the non-Manhattan side on New York’s East River.
Show him that the elites he despises have made a dog’s breakfast of US Africa policy and that you have an idea that could make fools of them all by turning Africa from a playground for the development set into a driver of American growth and security, and he might just listen.