Donald Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism carries echoes of strongmen, such as Hugo Chávez and Juan Perón


By: David Luhnow

Donald Trump is something new to the American political landscape. But to many in Latin America he is—stylistically, at least—a far more familiar figure: the caudillo, or authoritarian populist.

In re­cent weeks, grow­ing num­bers of news­pa­pers across Latin Amer­ica have tried to ex­plain the rise of Mr. Trump to be­wil­dered lo­cal au­di­ences by point­ing to the re­gion’s own strong-men, a long list that in­cludes Ve-nezuela’s late Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s cur­rent pres­i­dent, Rafael Cor­rea.

In a re­cent op-ed in El Uni­ver­sal, a lead­ing Venezue­lan daily, the jour­nal­ist Roberto Giusti de­scribed Chávez and Mr. Trump as “con­sum-mate show­men with a shrewd abil­ity to man­age emo­tions of a large au­di­ence and, us­ing a mix­ture of half-truths, pin the blame for peo­ple’s ills on en­e­mies, real or imag­ined.”

Like Mr. Trump, Latin Amer­i­can caudil­los rec­og­nize and ex­ploit real griev­ances in their coun­tries. They con­front an os­si­fied po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish-ment, de­velop a strong bond with their fol­low­ers and at­tack their op­po­nents and the me­dia with no holds barred—some­times even en­cour­ag­ing vi­o­lence. ​

“A lot of peo­ple in Mex­ico and Latin Amer­ica are wor­ried about this. It’s not just the sub­stance of what Trump says, but it’s the style. It’s a fa­mil­iar and wor­ri­some style to us,” says Jorge Cas­taneda, Mex­i­co’s for­mer for­eign min­is­ter.

All pop­ulists—of the left and the right—tell nar­ra­tives that place the blame for the peo­ple’s trou­bles on oth­ers and free the peo­ple from re­spon­si­bil­ity, says Moisés Naim, a for­mer Venezue-lan cab­i­net min­is­ter.

For many Latin Amer­i­can pop­ulists, the poor are vic­tim­ized by big busi­ness and cor­rupt politi­cians work­ing with the “em­pire,” mean­ing the U.S. For Mr. Trump, Amer­i­ca’s work­ing class is be­dev­iled by im­mi­grants and an in­ept lead­er­ship that gets suck­ered by savvy Chi­nese and Mex­i­can gov­ern­ments into en­act­ing lop­sided trade deals.

Mr. Trump isn’t the only U.S. pres­i­den-tial can­di­date with a pop­ulist streak. Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders serves up a strong dose of eco­nomic pop­ulism—a nar­ra­tive of rich-vs.-poor that would fit com­fort­ably in the rhetoric of a Latin Amer­i­can so­cial­ist. Hillary Clin­ton has started sound­ing such themes more loudly too. And Mr. Sanders also has pop­ulist, pro­tec­tion-ist views on trade—some­thing he shares with Mr. Trump.

But to many ob­servers in the re­gion, Mr. Trump’s style pro­vides the ob­vi­ous par­al­lel to the caudillo. The best ex­am­ple of the type re­mains Ar­gen­tine strong­man Juan Domingo Perón. As a mil­i­tary at­taché in Italy from 1939-41, Perón saw how the fas­cist leader Ben­ito Mus­solini used na­tion­al­ism and a di­rect con­nec­tion with the peo­ple, cul­ti­vated through ral­lies and ra­dio, to de­velop a cult of per­son­al­ity and be­come “Il Duce.”

Like their fas­cist fore­bears, that di­rect link be­tween leader and peo­ple is the most im­por­tant trait of au­thor­i­tar­ian pop­ulists, ac­cord­ing to En­rique Krauze, a Mex­i­can his­to­rian who says that Mex­i­co’s fiery An­drés Manuel López Obrador fits the pro­file. Mr. López Obrador lost bids for the coun­try’s pres­i­dency in 2006 and 2012, but he is cur­rently lead­ing in opin­ion polls for the 2018 elec­tion.

All good politi­cians try to con­nect with large num­bers of cit­i­zens, but in the case of caudil­los, the move­ment de­vel­ops into a cult of per­son­al­ity. The politi­cian be­comes an al­most mes­sianic fig­ure, an in­car­na­tion of the peo­ple’s de­sires and a per­son­al­ity that tow­ers above in­sti­tu­tions like po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Perón led to Perónismo. Chávez cre­ated Chávismo. And al­ready there is talk about Trump­ism—or, as Latin Amer­i­cans call it, “Trump­ismo.”

“It’s like déjà vu,” said Roger Nor­iega, the top diplo­mat for Latin Amer­ica in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. In a re­cent tweet, he wrote that Chávez “got 56% in 1998; mid­dle class vot­ers wanted to shake up sys­tem, make Ve­nezuela great. His nar­cis­sism de­stroyed the coun­try.” He la­beled his re­mark with the hash­tag #Trump.

Trumpismo | WSJ

Tele­vi­sion helps to re­in­force the di­rect link be­tween such a leader and the peo­ple. Long be­fore be­com­ing a politi­cian, Mr. Trump built his brand as a re­al­ity-tele­vi­sion star. Chávez amassed power, in part, by cre­at­ing a sort of re­al­ity-tele­vi­sion pres­i­dency. On the show that he launched, he would sit for hours, telling sto­ries and rib­ald jokes and some­times break­ing into song. He was also an early adopter of Twit­ter MMTWTRMM and had mil­lions of fol­low­ers.

Michael Pen­fold, the co-au­thor of a book on Chávez, sees a sim­i­lar me­dia strat­egy at work with Mr. Trump. “Both guys knew what head­line they wanted to see the fol­low­ing day,” he said, “and worked back­ward from there.”

“Fol­low­ers be­have more like mem­bers of a cult than fol­low­ers of a po­lit­i­cal party,” wrote econ­omist Ser­gio Ne­grete in Mex­i­co’s El Uni­ver­sal news­pa­per, com­par­ing Mr. Trump with his own coun­try’s Mr. López Obrador. Oth­ers have noted that both men have asked sup­port­ers at ral­lies to raise their hands in pledges of sup­port.
Vir­tu­ally all caudil­los also share an al­pha-male per­son­al­ity. Ecuador’s Rafael Cor­rea once ac­costed po­lice who were on strike, tear­ing open his shirt and scream­ing at them to shoot him in the chest, “if you dare.” Mr. Trump has talked about want­ing to punch pro­testers “in the face.” And he has de­fended his man­hood. Chávez once said on tele­vi­sion that his wife should get ready be­cause “tonight, I will give you what is yours.”

“The body lan­guage of these types is very sim­i­lar: an al­pha pri­mate, some­one al­ways on the edge of vi­o­lence,” said Car­los Al­berto Mon­taner, a Cuban ex­ile who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on Fi­del Cas­tro and other Latin Amer­i­can caudil­los. “It’s a kind of ad­mi­ra­tion for the al­pha male that gives them a big edge. It’s like the girls in high-school fall­ing for the jock.”

Op­po­nents, there­fore, are not just to be chal­lenged but mocked and hu­mil­i­ated. Chávez called the 40% of Venezue­lans who didn’t sup­port him “the squalid ones,” dubbed ri­val politi­cians trai­tors or lap dogs (he called one politi­cian “a fly”) and had a vir­tual dic­tio­nary for then-U.S. Pres­i­dent George W. Bush: a don­key, the devil, a cow­ard, a drunk and Mr. Dan­ger.

In­de­pen­dent me­dia out­lets have of­ten been tar­gets for Latin Amer­i­ca’s au­to­cratic pop­ulists. Ecuador’s Mr. Cor­rea calls the press “lowlifes,” sued the coun­try’s lead­ing news­pa­per for $40 mil­lion and pressed crim­i­nal charges against its ed­i­tors. Mr. López Obrador has claimed for years there is a me­dia con­spir­acy against him. His sup­port­ers have oc­ca­sion­ally ac­costed jour­nal­ists at ral­lies.

Chávez went fur­ther: He sim­ply shut down in­de­pen­dent broad­cast­ers and set up state pro­pa­ganda net­works. Mr. Trump has railed against many ma­jor me­dia out­lets and vowed that, once in of­fice, he would change li­bel laws to make it eas­ier to sue.

Mr. Naim thinks that a Pres­i­dent Trump would be hemmed in by the U.S.’s strong in­sti­tu­tions and sys­tem of checks and bal­ances. But he wor­ries that the rise of Mr. Trump is part of a global trend of vot­ers who are fed up with po­lit­i­cal par­ties. In the U.S., he said, ger­ry­man­der­ing has weak­ened both par­ties and cre­ated grid­lock.

“The trou­ble is, what hap­pens if par­ties col­lapse?” he said. “You get caudil­los.”

Publicación original del periódico The Wall Street Journal.