- Third World Problems
One of the few benefits of the Trump presidency is the boon it has been to political satire. It has certainly helped Trevor Noah, brought in as a marketable "global" mixed-race figure to replace the beloved Jon Stewart, find his groove. The South African comic's recurring sketch of Trump as an African dictator demands further commentary, since it points to some larger ways of seeing in the US public sphere, both liberal and conservative, that underpin the notion of the "Third World" as the future of a decaying superpower.
For Noah, Trump is "the perfect African president"—a moniker which quickly shades into "an African dictator" as The Daily Show intercuts footage of Trump's campaign speeches in October 2016 with those of Idi Amin, Jacob Zuma, Yahya Jammeh, Robert Mugabe, and Muammar Gaddafi. Evidence of systemic corruption, family scandals, authoritarianism, xenophobia and migrant-baiting, and allegations of sexual assault link Trump to the most repressive and outlandish dictators on the African continent. Trump's bizarre statements about autism and vaccines, for instance, connect to the Gambian President Jammeh's claim that he can cure AIDS with bananas, while the self-aggrandizing speeches of Trump eerily replicate verbatim the pronouncements of an Amin, Mugabe, or Gaddafi. Noah concludes the joke with the punch line that in 2008, America [End Page 467] elected its first black president, and in 2016, it was ready to elect its first truly African one.1
Noah returns to the gag after the election, conceding that he now owes African dictators an apology for the comparison, and offering a prolonged comparison of Trump to Zuma, calling the two "brothers from another mother."2 Linked by their faux-populism, rural support, corrupt families, and threats to muzzle the media and intimidate political opponents, Zuma and Trump appear as the grim bookends to the promise signified by Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Exhorting his US audience to recognize that its possible future lies in the Third World, Noah at once undercuts familiar claims to the exceptionalism of US democracy and normalizes the association of Africa with political failure and systemic dysfunction.
In a similar fashion, the common meme of "First World Problems" that my title refers to at once acknowledges privilege and cements it further. Ossifying the racist notion of three worlds as well as forgetting the utopian political solidarities that birthed the concept of the Third World, the knowing self-critique that the meme showcases belies its well-meaning façade. Ever since the election and throughout the campaign, such assertions that the decline of the United States as a superpower makes it a "Third World" country or a "Banana Republic" have become ubiquitous in mainstream publications in a serious register as well. For many journalists, academics, former diplomats, and policy analysts, "if there is one clear result of this presidential election, it is that the United States has become a third world country."3 Such assertions necessarily create the sense of a before and an after—assuming, as Chris Arnade puts it, that there was once a time when "we are, to the rest of the world, the golden shining hope. We are where people fleeing dysfunction come. We are the safe haven for all the people who grew up in third world countries, who wanted a place without inequality, without cynicism, without anger, without violence. We are it." Arnade worries that "with this election, this country is feeling more like Mexico, or Brazil, Nigeria, or Venezuela. Like what used to be called a third world country" (The Medium, October 5, 2016). Philip Kotler similarly fears that if the United States joins "the rest of the Third World countries" and becomes "another Banana Republic" then the time when "the whole world" admired the United States, the preserver of "peace and order in the world" can never come back (Huffington Post, March 20, 2017). [End Page 468]
That this is a seriously amnesiac version of US and global history is not in doubt. Nor is it cognizant of the origin of the idea of a third way, non-aligned from either NATO or the Communist Bloc.4 As the...