Opinion: If only Trump’s Mandela comparison were the most outrageous thing he’s said

This week, at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, former President Donald Trump compared himself to Nelson Mandela.

Jill Filipovic - Courtesy of Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic - Courtesy of Jill Filipovic

Yes, the man who was born into a wealthy family and whose companies still managed to declare multiple bankruptcies, who has been accused of acts of sexual harassment and abuse, who stoked racial and ethnic division, who tried to dismantle American administrative and democratic systems and norms every chance he got, and who currently faces charges on 91 crimes across several jurisdictions, compared himself to a man who risked his life to end apartheid and establish democratic rule in South Africa, eventually becoming the country’s first Black president and a global icon for all of those who believe in equality and democracy. (Trump has denied wrongdoing in the accusations against him.)

It doesn’t take a whole lot of historical knowledge to know that Trump is no Nelson Mandela. And anyone who has the gall and the gargantuan ego to compare themselves to Nelson Mandela is probably no Nelson Mandela.

For any other president, hyper-narcissistic comments like this would be a major liability. For Trump, they’re the norm — and his followers, disturbingly, seem to eat it up.

Trump made the Mandela comparison because he is facing so many criminal charges, which he says are politically motivated. “I don’t mind being Nelson Mandela, because I’m doing it for a reason,” he told his New Hampshire audience. Mandela, of course, was jailed for his pro-democracy activism; he fought one of the most brutally racist regimes in the world and was a political prisoner for 27 years. He won the presidency in South Africa’s first ever free, fair, democratic election.

Trump, by contrast, faces charges related to attempting to overturn a free and fair democratic election. Some of his former allies are set to testify against him, and some have pleaded guilty to save themselves from even harsher potential outcomes. This week, Trump’s former attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen is set to testify in Trump’s civil fraud trial. Three of his former lawyers have pleaded guilty to crimes related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

That isn’t exactly the biography of a pro-democracy national hero fighting a violent system of enforced racial segregation.

Nor has Trump behaved in any way that could be described as “statesmanlike” since leaving office. He has continued to perpetuate the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen, a flatly false claim that stokes his ego and inflamed his base, but badly undermines public confidence in American democratic functioning.

Contrasting Trump with former President Barack Obama is instructive: while Obama has used his platform to cheer for America and make measured, thoughtful statements in times of global crisis, Trump has used his to insult Americans he believes have wronged him and to issue absolutely unhinged missives.

In the aftermath of Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s subsequent devastating war in Gaza, Obama issued a statement condemning Hamas, empathizing with Israelis, reasserting Israel’s right to defend itself and urging Israel to protect as many innocent Palestinian lives as possible.

Initially, the former president lashed out at Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the Israeli prime minister was caught unprepared by Hamas’ attack and called Hezbollah terrorists “very smart.” But after facing wide criticism, even among his party, Trump has said he stands with Israel and has vowed to bring back his infamous travel ban and extend it to include people from the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

The former president is, at this point, notorious for making comments that run the gamut from offensive to delusional to obviously false to disturbingly grandiose to profoundly dehumanizing.

In 2020, enough Americans were sick of him to boot him from the White House. His base of loyal, almost cult-like supporters, though, continue to rally behind him, seemingly determined to prove Trump’s claim that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and [he] wouldn’t lose voters.”

Comparing himself to Mandela is unhinged, egomaniacal and outrageous, but it’s also far from the most absurd thing this president has ever said. And it very well might not lose him even one voter.  But it does, again, show just how troublingly tolerant a vast swath of the US electorate is of a man who has repeatedly demonstrated he cares about himself (and his own wealth and his own power) more than anything else — and at the expense of the nation.

It is not good for a country to have a malignant narcissist in charge. It is not good to have a president who chooses self-aggrandizement and self-pity over statesmanship. It’s a shame that so much of America didn’t learn that lesson the first time around.

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