For the past year, I’ve been co-writing the memoir of one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan. Fleeing from Arab marauders at only seven years of age, Deng found his way to the refugee camps in Ethiopia. Later, fleeing again—this time from the revolution which had taken place in Ethiopia—he returned to Sudan for a brief stint before, again in flight, he found his way to Kenya. Finally, under the auspices of Catholic Charities, he came to the United States where he finished high school and college and obtained a master’s degree. Now holding dual citizenship in his homeland of South Sudan and the United States, Deng hopes to help build bridges between his two countries.
With the recent election, Deng asked me to assist him with a new writing project. “Just a short paper to help the leadership in Juba and in the South Sudanese diaspora around the world to understand how to work with this new administration,” was his request. He followed this with an additional recognition of what might make this such a difficult task. “But Trump’s so unpredictable, I don’t know what to say.”
We met to work on this “short paper,” something my friend and writing colleague could publish in Juba and share on the social media.
Before that meeting, I spent some time thinking about Mr. Trump and his unpredictability. Of course, I was also focusing on what I knew of South Sudan. As I thought, I reached a few conclusions. I share them here.
First, unpredictability is in the eye of the beholder. I learned that a long time ago working with the mentally ill. The behavior of even the most erratic seeming patient in the asylum could be predicted a good portion of the time if one merely started with the assumption that behavior makes sense to the individual. I might not see the reason why the severely schizophrenic youngster stuffed crepe paper in his mouth, but knowing that it made sense to him to do so immediately implied that he might stuff other bright things in as well. “Put coloring in his food and he’ll be more willing to eat,” was one obvious suggestion.
I do not suggest here that Mr. Trump is mentally ill. I’ve seen many posts and articles offering diagnoses of him. Some have even been well argued. However, I don’t necessarily think diagnoses of public figures help much. Were I to assign one to the President-Elect, it would be oppositional defiant personality. By the way, that tendency to reject anyone telling him what to do was found in another American leader, a fellow named Teddy Roosevelt, who was incredibly successful in the job.
That diagnoses leads to my first bit of advice to Deng and to the other South Sudanese who want to improve relations with the U.S. under this new regime: Don’t try to tell Mr. Trump what he has to do. Don’t try to appeal to higher principles and notions of good. That will only antagonize this new POTUS.
So, what will work? Appealing to the motivations that he exhibits as being important to him. Back to that bright colored food. What does Mr. Trump attend to? Certainly, not to advice. Certainly, not to reasoned arguments and position papers.
I came up with a list of things that appear to interest this new POTUS.
Top of my list is business and making money. Can South Sudan offer him and American business, which he sees himself as part and head of, ways to make money, significant amounts of money?
Second, what does he want to seem in the eyes of the world and especially his followers? This is a man who takes offense at Saturday Night Live. He’s thin-skinned. He needs to feel that others see him as the tough guy, the hero, fighting off the enemy. Who is that enemy? Perhaps sadly, he and the Republican party have defined the enemy as radical Islam and Sharia law. Can South Sudan help him look tough on those two branches of the Muslim tree?
Third, underneath, of whom is he most afraid? Under such bluster has to be a core of inadequacy and fear of failure. To feel safer is something we all crave, but especially this new President. As a businessman—which is his main self-identification—Mr. Trump has had many failures. In the end, the biggest threat to that identity comes from the burgeoning economy of China. To make China even more of a threat in his eyes, Trump has been forced to turn to China for both products and financing for his various businesses. This is a man who hates those to whom he feels beholden. That’s one reason why—to keep his own head from exploding with the ambivalence he feels towards his father—he understates the degree to which his success has depended on family assistance. Can South Sudan help him diminish China in a meaningful way? Can that fledgling nation help him to feel that he has done successful battle with the dragon and protected himself? That he has made the world safe for Donald Trump?
There it is, my three-pronged approach for the South Sudanese government to follow in communicating with this new American President: Offer business opportunities to make him and his peers richer; Offer a stand against radical Islam to make him appear tough; Offer a way to act against China to make him feel safer, like he is more in control. Three prongs are enough. More and the resulting approach would be too long, too complex, and require too much reading to affect a man who has little use for complexities and academia.
Were we able to put together that action plan, something that Deng could offer to the government in Juba and to South Sudanese leaders throughout the world? Yes, in just over 600 words. Deng and I put together a position paper that may well allow South Sudan’s diplomats to make a major breakthrough. That plan says nothing about the genocidal civil war that has been tearing their country apart. It says nothing about the need for American assistance to help their people.
Just three things: Make money; Stop radical Islam and Sharia; Push back China.
Now, of course, the big question: Will the leaders in Juba take time to read those carefully chosen words? That I can’t say, but what I can say with some certitude is that crafted documents such as that paper can make a difference in the world. That’s just one more reason why I will keep writing in The Time of Trump.
In addition to the recently completed and not yet published memoir, A Journey Between Worlds, which he co-authored with Deng M. Atem, Ken Weene has published a number of books, stories, poems, and essays. To buy a book.