Rethinking America

Donald Trump is a Latin American Demagogue at Heart

Trump is a living amalgam of Chavez, Juan Peron and Rafael Trujillo.

Credit: Tinseltown Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Trump is a living amalgam of Chavez, Juan Peron and Rafael Trujillo.
  • Trump has shown no sign of wanting to be a President. It is a demanding and exhausting job.
  • After all the lies that Trump has told, he has no choice but to continue the deception and misdirection.
  • Trump will ruin all of America’s commitments, values and institutions – and substitute caudillismo.
  • Americans turned their backs on demagogues like Joe McCarthy. But now things are different.
  • Now there will be other Trumps, just as there were strings of caudillos in Latin America.

“Is there no black or white?” – Alexander Pope

“The pain of not seeing that black is black soon enough will be ours, and the time to recognize this is now.” – Adam Gopnik

In Latin America, they have a name for Donald Trump. They call him “El Payaso”: “The Clown.”

They recognize him for what he is because they have seen so many like him. They have seen enough crude demagogues to have a special word for them: “caudillos.”

El Payaso has all the qualities of a stereotypical caudillo: the same absurd vanity, the same obsession with virility, the same braying style, the same penchant for putting his name on things.

10 ways Trump is a Latin American-style demagogue

Trump is a living amalgam of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Juan Peron of Argentina and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

Here is how:

1. Trump flaunts the same rude style which his followers love. Like Chavez and Peron, Trump is a bad boy, someone who taunts and sneers: a bully.

2. Trump evokes the same intense nostalgia for imagined past “greatness.” In Spanish, the word is “grandeza.” Caudillos rave endlessly about “grandeza.”

3. Trump attracts the same inflamed crowd of followers who will hear nothing that could ever change their minds about their adored hero. Caudillos are held in a strange saintly awe.

4. Trump feeds their angry nativism, their sense of being unable to compete and therefore their belief that the world must be stacked against them. Caudillos prey on the aggrieved.

5. Trump promotes a childish, quasi-mystical belief that some particular power inheres in him, in his name and in his image. Trump follows Peron in believing his name is magic and in feeding off the foolish hope that one person can and will fix everything, magically, everywhere, and at once.

6. Trump peddles the same ridiculous and megalomaniac projects that he claims will solve every problem. Trujillo wanted to wall off Haiti; Trump wants to wall off Mexico.

7. Trump sells the same crazy plans (barring imports, launching huge building projects, compelling business leaders to do his will) that have ruined the economies of Argentina and Venezuela.

Argentina, once nearly a global power, continues a decades-long slip into economic decay and irrelevance. Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, has been left by Chavez a bankrupt, failing state – this despite having the largest oil reserves on earth.

8. Trump displays the same quickness as every caudillo to turn against the press. Trump will “open up” libel laws, he says. Chavez did the same, then imprisoned reporters and editors.

9. Trump shows the same lack of reality about constraints, costs, commitments and standing obligations. Quite apart from how many laws one must break, what resources does it take to hunt down, round up and deport 11 million people?

10. Trump shows the same skills at using fear. Trump is mobilizing Americans against hordes of immigrants from Syria when there are no hordes of immigrants from Syria.

Is there anything new that Trump brings to the practice of caudillismo? The use of Twitter to connect directly to the disgruntled? No. Hugo Chavez, too, was a Twitter queen.

Like Chavez, and like all caudillos, Trump tries to shove aside intermediaries like the press and deal directly with his people.

Chavez, not unlike Trump with The Apprentice, held court on his weekly reality TV show, “Aló Presidente” like a patron with his clients. He would grant the faithful, who called and appealed to him, gifts like a refrigerator or a car.

Chavez soon shoved aside the government itself, requiring his cabinet ministers to attend the show and upbraiding them live on the air.

As the show began to displace the government, the caudillos of Ecuador and Bolivia started their own “Aló Presidente” shows. Chavez appeared on TV about 40 hours per week for a dozen years. Fans of “The Apprentice” can look forward to seeing lots more Trump TV. “Aló Trump.”

He will simply walk away

Like the other caudillos, Trump will be destructively impetuous. He says that in a negotiation, “you have to be ready to walk away.”

He has promised to confront allies with whom Americans have a carefully articulated and constructed relationship and insist that they change the terms unilaterally, at America’s demand and against their interests.

When they decline to do so, he will do as he promises: He will “walk away.” One year into his term, he will have walked away from a damaged NATO, NAFTA, IMF, and European Union – the sites of America’s most important leadership roles.

He also will have dramatized the extremely limited American power to dictate terms to others and so diminished America’s role and power still further.

Trump has shown no sign of wanting to be a president. That is an extraordinarily complicated, demanding and exhausting job. It is beyond his powers, even if he were willing to work at it.

What he wants to do is be a caudillo. It suits his nature. Besides, after the lies that he has told and the facts he has concealed, he has no choice but to continue the deception, misdirection and intimidation that are the hallmarks of a caudillo.

Trump cannot be allowed to attain the White House because he will ruin all that he touches – all of America’s commitments, values and institutions – but blocking his election is not enough. Americans need to address the appeal of caudillismo.

El Payaso (aka The Clown) has taught something important: caudillismo sells in the United States.

It never used to. Americans turned their backs on demagogues like Douglas MacArthur, Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. But now things are different. America may have changed, or Americans may have lost some of their balance and courage, or Trump may just be more skillful in drawing on their fear.

Need to address Trumpismo

In any case, now that there was one Trump, there will be other Trumps (including – in truly Latin American style – the family-style daughters and sons, as well as others beyond the family confines), just as there have been strings of caudillos in Latin America.

Americans need to address the features that make them susceptible to Trumpismo, and they are likely to be features that Americans have come to share with Venezuelans and Argentinians: inequality, disillusionment and disgruntlement.

Inequality apart, these are largely psychological factors, issues of confidence and morale. That does not mean that they are easy to address. They tend also to be permissive factors: they allow a clown to seize and hold center stage.

If Trump can seize the White House, more than morale will deteriorate. America has less corruption and less violence than Venezuela – at this point. However, caudillo-style governance can bring those things as well.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Naval Academy or the U.S. Government.

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About Stephen D. Wrage

Stephen D. Wrage is a Professor of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy.

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