Trump is just a Latin American populist.
Chavez, Morales, and Correa perfected his tactics long before he tried to ‘Make America Great Again.’
Amid a seething crowd, a charismatic orator takes the stage. He raises a fist, a wave, a hearty clap for himself. The crowd screams.
“The current establishment is broken,” he shouts. More screams. “The politicians want to screw you over. I am here to change that.”
It’s a well-worn trope. The political outsider steps in to save the working people from the common enemy. A metaphorical swamp draining, one might say. A figure who hands prizes to their supporting coalition and disdains those who criticize them. Whether democratically-elected or not: he is a populist.
Donald Trump is a textbook populist, and that’s why he’s so successful. Yes, every politician wants to be popular, grow the economy, and get re-elected. But populist leaders focus on generating rapid economic wins that help them maintain their popularity, with no thought toward the long-term consequences. Those convenient tax cuts, which lowered government revenue by $64B last year, did save Americans in many tax brackets thousands of dollars. But they have also ballooned the government deficit, leaving us ill-prepared to provide federal support to fight a pandemic. (More on this later)
In Latin America, populists have gained power in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela when there was frustration about economic inequality or stagnation. Populists’ anti-elite, redistribution rhetoric appeals to people who feel they have been excluded from the national economy. Check and check.
Yet ironically, all these Latin American leaders are leftists, with deep anti-capitalist tendencies. They are political outsiders (at least at first), often with a genuine desire to resolve entrenched inequality in the region. But power corrupts. Latin American politicians and voters who lean right of center watch these tendencies warily, repeating a desire to avoid become another ‘Venezuela.’ (Arguably, many of these leftists must fight an uphill battle against US influence in the region and have often been treated unfairly. But they are no perfect martyrs either. Just bears noting.)
As a US citizen who has spent the past three years living in a right-leaning Latin American country (Chile), I have heard these concerns repeated time and again.
And yet, our populist, who borrows his tactics and techniques from his Latin American forbears, stands out from the crowd for one clear reason: he represents the far right. He was a political outsider who claimed he would ignore the unfair rules to make the system work for the working class. He is (incomprehensibly) considered a charismatic orator. But he is a “billionaire.” His loyalty lies with the ultra-wealthy business elites who like his laissez-faire style (which, by the way, also benefits his own businesses).
So his claims to make life better for working people are empty. But he saw what worked in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Nicaragua, and has applied to US politics in a way that has rarely been used in the past century. And even after he leaves, this tit-for-tat system may stick around for a while, like the loyalties in an old mafia neighborhood.
Trumpish clientelism is not a sign of a healthy democracy. In Latin America, these firebrand populists that connected directly to the people by going around the distant politicos were a sign of industrial-age growing pains. In the US, a long-flourishing democracy by many accounts, it may be a sign of decay. In any case, it just takes a quick look at several of the countries on the list above to realize that the decrease in inequality that populists have created in Latin America has not resulted in the desired economic growth. Argentina just defaulted on its debt for the 8th time. Ecuador is in a painful economic contraction, hit hard by the pandemic and related shutdowns.
So what does this mean for the US? A significant period of economic pain, which would have arrived even if COVID-19 had never reared its ugly head. How can we know that? History repeats itself.
Here are three ways the populists who gave Trump his ideas have broken their countries.
1. Spending big during boom years.
According to economist Sebastian Edwards in a 2017 Atlantic article that fiercely criticized Venezuelan populism: “the number-one rule for proper economic management in a natural resources-based country is to save during the boom years in order to be prepared to survive the lean years.” Chavez did quite the opposite, using the oil surplus to subsidize products for his supporters…until the money ran out.
One might argue that by comparison, the United States is not a natural resource-based economy. Yet if anything, one of the main features of Trump rhetoric is to push the US back toward resource extraction in the form of fracking, drilling, coal, steel, and other industries that have naturally drifted out of our country over the past 50 years. With the repeal of nearly 100 environmental protections, the Trump administration has presided over an economic expansion that comes on the back of natural resource industries. And at the same time, he cut taxes and spent hard.
In response, the budget deficit has tripled in the past year, reaching a record high. Yes, some of that spending has been on the pandemic. But arguably, we are now in lean years in which some savings from the supposed Trump boom could come in handy…if they existed.
It is worth noting that both Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) also led during convenient commodities booms that boosted their popularity during good years. But things went south fast when the global economy turned. Sound familiar?
2. Delegitimizing the media.
Rafael Correa was president of Ecuador from 2007 until 2017, presiding over a significant period of economic stability, growth, and poverty reduction, mostly on the back of government spending through an oil boom. Yet in 2013, his high approval ratings went to his head and he overreached his presidential mandate, creating a law that enforced de facto censorship of the media, fining organizations critical of his administration. He also forced all channels to broadcast his televised statements to the people through an emergency clause in the constitution.
Arguably, the Trump version has been much more insidious. Our system of checks-and-balance is too powerful to enable a strong-handed move like Correa’s. But his work to undermine the media has had much the same effect.
He has repeated a critical dogma of the mainstream media (those that do not ‘like’ him) for treating him unfairly and ignoring the wrongdoings of his rivals. This stream of attacks has delegitimized responsible news sources by comparing them to Youtube conspiracy theorists and far-right bloggers. And while he has not ‘forced’ any platforms to share his messages to the people, his ever more ridiculous tweets are broadcast on every news channel, every night. Every tweet gets a full article analyzing its meaning and its blasphemy. He is everywhere, just like Correa. And that plays to his favor and his ‘ratings.’
Sadly, it will take a long time to fully trust the media again and build a robust system of fact-checking that is approved by the general public. His negative impact on national education and current events knowledge will be one of his strongest legacies.
3. Playing the political outsider card too long.
The supporters of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, continued to laud him as a visionary and pioneer, even as he built himself a new 29–story palace in La Paz. After nearly 14 years in power (he was ousted last year), he still touted himself as a political outsider who would decrease inequality for the country’s large indigenous population.
And while Bolivia has seen unprecedented poverty reduction under Morales, it may be dangerous to draw a direct correlation to his policies for an explanation. All of Latin America (barring Venezuela) has seen enormous poverty reduction throughout the 21st century.
Now take Trump, who similarly presided over a period of economic prosperity (pre-pandemic) built on investors’ optimism for his pro-business policies, as well as the aforementioned natural resource exploitation. Trump, who has been President of the United States for nearly 4 years. One would be hard-pressed to find a speech in which he does not paint the Democratic Party as a rotten establishment sowing seeds of chaos and disruption across the country, seeds that only he — the outsider, the businessman — can protect you from.
Yet this man has been President of the United States for four years. In his first two years, he presided over a Republican Senate and a Republican House. The Senate is still Republican now. He has purposefully removed checks and balances on himself, giving himself ample leeway to fix the problems supposedly caused by the body politic. And yet, standing on the deck of the White House, he reminds his followers that he is just a meek businessman who gave up everything to take up his duty in the Oval Office to protect the American people. And that the media and the political insiders are constantly doing everything in their power to undermine his work.
Hugo Chavez did it. Evo Morales did it. Rafael Correa did it. Even after tens of years in office, these men described themselves as the main weapon in the fight against the political establishment. It’s the classic marker of a populist. And it’s incredibly dangerous to democracy and economic prosperity.
Latin American conservatives may celebrate at the defeat of their local left-leaning populists, to avoid becoming ‘Venezuela,’ the bogeyman of the South American right. Yet by the looks of it, here in the US, we were looking in the wrong direction. And the results could be catastrophic for our democracy, our economy, and our national values. (So please vote.)