Why do so many Nigerians love Donald Trump?
I spoke to my Trump-supporting acquaintance Fred to try and find out.
When Donald Trump became president in 2017, America’s global image plummeted. In countries across the world, the superpower’s favourability fell off a cliff. In 2018, just 9% of people in France had confidence in the US president, down from 84% in 2016, according to the Pew Research Centre. The same story was true around the world. In Mexico, that number fell to 6%; in Tunisia, 17%; the UK, 28%; and Japan, 30%.
In at least one unlikely country, however, perceptions remained fairly stable. In Nigeria, an impressive 59% of people said they had a lot or some confidence in the US president.
By the time these surveys were conducted, Trump had described Africa as being full of “shithole countries”. He had imposed his Muslim ban (though not yet added Nigeria with its 90 million Muslims). And he had defended white nationalist protests as containing some “very fine people”. Yet despite these anti-Muslim and anti-black attitudes, a significant majority of Nigerians retained faith in him.
Curious to get an insight into this mindset, I sought the perspective of a Trump-supporting acquaintance, Fred.
Talking to a Nigerian Trump supporter
Fred (not his real name) is a 37-year-old father of two. He grew up in Nigeria but moved to the US with his wife five years ago. Before he left, I knew him to espouse relatively progressive views. He had decried Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and was once physically attacked for posting pro-gay rights messages on social media.
Through our conversation, however, I found that his views had completely inverted. He now admired Trump for his plain-spoken views – even when they were at odds with the facts.
For instance, Fred parroted Trump’s insistence that the Central Park Five, a group of black men and Hispanic men wrongfully convicted of rape in the 1990s, were guilty despite DNA evidence acquitting them. He regurgitated the president’s attacks on the “fake news media” and “the lying New York Times”. He defended the Trump administration’s Muslim ban on the grounds that the US has the right to protect its “Christian values”. And in response to Trump’s disparaging comments about his own homeland, Fred retorted: “Is Nigeria not a shithole country? Tell me otherwise.”
Fred now seemed to agree with the US president on a whole array of matters. I began to realise, however, that those which most resonated with Fred were related to notions of social conservativism. “I’ve been conservative the whole time, even when I thought I was liberal,” declared Fred. He then went on to express this very clearly by arguing, for instance, that women are biologically suited to childcare and should take responsibility for the housework even if they work full-time. “I grew up knowing daddy does work and mummy does work or is at home.”
Fred shared similarly regressive thoughts about women’s rights.
“I used to be a big feminist,” he said. “I’m not anymore because feminism used to be – and I support that – that women have equal rights as men. But now it’s all man-bashing. Men are to be blamed for everything.”
Fred argued that American women had no reason to complain, unlike those in Nigeria. And when I disputed this reasoning, he changed tack. “Keep seeking perfection, hope you get it,” he said before going on to claim, without any evidence, that feminist movements in the US are mostly led by lesbians who are trying to mislead heterosexual women. Fred bragged about having been “red-pilled”, a term used to describe becoming aware of certain kinds of – usually reactionary, misogynistic or nationalist – “truths”.
The heart of the matter
I found Fred’s vehement defence of all things Trump curious. But through our conversation, I came to realise that at the core of his adoration is a deep anxiety: an anxious desire to preserve a heterosexual, male-centric world in which men like him head the family, preside over matters of importance, and act without fear of repercussions.
This fear sometimes took the form of defending “American values”, but its driving force seemed to be an acute dread at losing personal advantages in a deeply patriarchal society.
“We are the ones who, in speaking now, are ostracised and made to disappear,” said Fred. “Words are being deleted from the parlance of people because Big Brother doesn’t like it.”
Fred wasn’t clear on who exactly Big Brother is, but he seemed deeply aware of the threats this bogeyman posed to his ability to do and say whatever he wants.
“If I misgender you, it’s a problem; people say it’s hate speech,” he said at one point. “Western civilization is going down because we want to sit down and care about how we’re addressed.” If he was forced to regulate his behaviour and use people’s preferred pronouns, Fred seemed to say, the world – or rather his version of it – would crumble.
A bulwark against change
It is perhaps here that many Nigerians find their support for Trump. For them, he embodies and gives voice to the ultra-conservative attitudes that hold great sway in Nigeria. For all his less palatable comments, Trump is perceived as a bulwark against what they see as the emasculation of America – and themselves – by the likes of feminism and political correctness.
For this, Trump gets a free pass or has his other views enthusiastically endorsed. Fred, for instance, seemed prepared to defend Trump’s every single position and policy.
“Having the government deny life to the very beginning form of it is in direct contradiction to our constitution,” he said on abortion. “Democrats want to leave the borders open for all of them to cross…we can’t let that happen” he said on migration. “We are going through a war,” he said of tariffs imposed on Chinese imports.
All these answers revealed a frustrating narrow-mindedness, but also a sad irony. Trump’s rhetoric is founded on notions of exclusion that Fred has so willingly imbibed. It imagines an “us” that needs to be protected from a “them” that includes everyone from liberals and feminists to trans-rights activists, to China and Muslims. Tragically for Fred, it also includes migrants like him. And for all his easy use of “we” and “us” in talking about Trump, his uncertain fate in Trump’s own country – which imposed an immigration ban on several African countries including Nigeria in February 2020 – rests on the xenophobic whims of the very man he so readily supports and defends.