Donald Trump gave his first official foreign policy speech in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and reminded Americans that his understanding of world affairs is just short of a “Street Fighter” world map.
To Trump the world is a brightly colored, dangerous place full of bad guys whom Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have ignored, coddled or abetted. He suggested that the United States get out of NATO, saying that the treaty with our European allies had outlived its usefulness. He said that he could get the Middle East back in line with “better deals,” and he said that he would finally put an end to China’s, and much of Asia’s, unfair trade policies.
What he didn’t do, however, was lay out any policy vision for the continent of Africa. (The only mention came when Trump discussed the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, mispronouncing Tanzania as “Tan-ZANE-nee-ya.”)
Africa, that big continent in the middle of the world, which includes 54 nations, is apparently not part of the grand vision that Trump’s presidency will be enacting. Which might actually be a good thing, because what little we do know about how Trump looks at Africa would make for tone-deaf, foolish, horrible foreign policy.
The American public has a funny relationship with foreign policy during presidential-election years. On the one hand, since 9/11, voters desperately want a candidate who makes them feel safe. On the other hand, most voters’ eyes still glaze over if discussions of foreign policy involve anything beyond which country we’re currently bombing (the ratings prove it). However, that hasn’t meant that presidents and candidates have been lax in their foreign policy talks, especially with the African continent.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama as candidates and presidents spoke about engaging with African nations economically, for security purposes and to battle HIV/AIDS. President Bush, rightly or wrongly, was praised extensively for his work to combat AIDS in Africa. He visited the continent twice and spoke out about how Africa was the new battleground against global terror.
President Obama went even further, becoming the first president to host a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the White House in 2014, where he discussed greater economic ties between the U.S. and several African nations, and he followed it up in 2015 by becoming the first American president to deliver a speech to the African Union. In other words, knowing about Africa and having a policy toward the nations there is not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing; it is now to be expected for any legitimate candidate for the office of the presidency.
Since Trump said nothing about Africa on Wednesday, what do we actually know about what he thinks? Not much.
In 2011, even though he wasn’t running for president, Trump was asked by conservative magazine Human Events what a President Trump would do about the rash of Somali pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa.
“I’d wipe them off the face of the earth,” Trump said.
This is not a particularly specific or nuanced plan, but in Trump’s defense, that’s the same plan he has for ISIS, Mexican drug lords and Black Lives Matter activists. His plan also happens to be the absolute opposite of what was eventually done to combat East African piracy, but Trump has never been much for details.
In 2013 Trump claimed to have had a wonderful relationship with former South African President Nelson Mandela, suggesting that he actually knows where the nation is and who Mandela was. However, a year later he declared that South Africa was a “total—and dangerous—mess.” During the Ebola crisis in 2014 and 2015, Trump was one of the main talking heads in America fomenting the rumor that Africa was a hotbed of sickness and disease, even though Ebola was found only in six out of 54 African nations, and the majority of cases were in three neighboring countries in West Africa (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone). He warned that Americans going over to combat Ebola would have to “suffer the consequences” and shouldn’t be allowed back in the country.
The only other time Trump has said anything publicly about Africa was when he was defending his sons’ hobby of going to Africa on safari to kill rare and exotic animals. Trump defended their actions as a “Second Amendment” issue. While Trump might have just been trolling all the Americans who were heartbroken over the death of Cecil the lion, it’s equally possible that he doesn’t realize that the Second Amendment is about as applicable to nations in Africa as Ubuntu is to American economic policy.
Just because Trump knows nothing about Africa doesn’t mean Africans know nothing about him. He’s become a bit of an Internet celebrity around the continent for his bizarre rants and aggressive style. Earlier this year, there was an Internet hoax that Trump swore to deport all Nigerians because they (along with Mexicans) were taking all the American jobs. The rumor was taken so seriously that Nigerian elected officials and celebrities responded in kind.
Another rumor reported in many African press outlets was that Trump vowed to jail Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. And while there are probably millions of people in both nations who would welcome a change in political leadership, Trump made no such vow. And the only thing Trump knows about putting out African dictators is when he told Muammar Qaddafi to get off his lawn.
Trump’s lack of foreign policy knowledge is actually just one of the many reasons he would make a terrible president of the United States. Nevertheless, the fact that he tried to sound informed on foreign policy, and still missed an entire continent that is the location of crucial economic, political and military partners for the United States, is amazing. Then again, Trump’s knowledge of Africa isn’t that much worse than his knowledge of America—and that hasn’t hurt him yet in the polls, either.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.