Donald Trump supporters believe that he is what America needs to avoid becoming a third world country. But what many of his followers find spontaneous and refreshing, sounds all too familiar to us Latin Americans. It brings memories of past and recent populist experiences in the region, from Juan Domingo Perón to Peronist presidents Néstor and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina and to the Peronist-like president Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Trump’s basic message is “I’m best for America; end of story.” To his supporters, Trump represents the real America, and anyone who opposes him is against America. This is peronism distilled to its basic essence: peronism claims to represent the Argentine people. Juan Domingo Perón branded his opponents as unpatriotic; members of other parties were “traitors” or “sepoys” (the Indian natives at the service of the occupying British Empire). It’s a sentiment that continued under the government of the Kirchners (2003-2015).
Supporters see Trump’s message—claiming to be on the people’s side—as patriotism beyond ideology, a way of sticking to the country’s ideals by breaking with the intellectual and political elite of both parties in Washington, D.C. that have led it astray. Latin Americans see Trump’s patriotism as Manichean: black and white, America is good and immigrants are evil.
Again, it’s the underlying logic of peronism. As Perón used to say: “for an Argentinean there is nothing better than another Argentinean;” evil was found in external enemies, such as the U.S. and American imperialism.
Similarly, Trump says, “Trust me” and points to his business experience to show that he knows how to get things done. Rather than presenting a detailed government program, he stresses the need for flexibility to draw up the best plans when the moment comes. This personalistic leadership requires an almost blind trust from voters and recalls the worst of Latin America’s messianic and “enlightened” leaders who beseeched their followers to simply believe them, even as they led them off a cliff of economic disaster.
To succeed, peronism and other forms of populism are structured vertically, so presidents are not tied to any party program and can set the agenda unilaterally as they like. For traditional Republicans the hope is that Trump’s erratic personality and decision making will be contained by the Republican Party. But can it? The very logic of personalistic leadership—such as trumpism or peronism—is that it refuses to be shackled by the restraints of organized political structure.
The Kirchners came to power in Argentina claiming that the country needed to be re-founded. In the same vein, Trump wants to “make America great again.” To be fair, Néstor Kirchner was elected when the country was exiting its worst economic crisis in history, in which the unemployment rate soared to 21 percent and 50 percent of the population plunged below the poverty line. Trump’s message, on the other hand, sounds strange in the midst of the most successful democracy the world has ever seen, in a remarkably stable economy that is at the edge of technological innovation, and after 8 years of consecutive economic growth and declining poverty, with an unemployment rate that has fallen to 5 percent —albeit with an increasingly insecure middle class.
Trump’s name-calling, disparaging his opponents as losers, dishonest and un-American, is nothing new. Take Trump’s characterization of Hillary Clinton as the devil. It brings to mind Chávez’s speech at the United Nations in 2006, when he said about the U.S. president George W. Bush, who had been there the previous day: “the devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still today.”
Perhaps one of Trump’s most shocking traits for us democrats in Latin America is his affection for authoritarian leaders, such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. For domestic reasons, all democratic presidents in Latin America try to be on good terms with Fidel Castro in Cuba. And a handful (such as the Kirchners and Chávez) have been fascinated by authoritarian leaders like Putin, perhaps because they would have liked to be free of interference from Congress, the judicial branch, or the media. But the thought of a U.S. presidential candidate professing his admiration for an authoritarian leader for us seems, well, un-American.
Trump has defined protectionism as one of his main policies, also a trademark of Latin American populism. Kirchner and Chávez joined together to torpedo the U.S.’s plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Likewise Trump would like to torpedo NAFTA. The only problem is that while protectionism in Latin America hurts primarily Latin Americans, protectionism in the U.S. would hurt the global economy, weakening liberal democracies and strengthening authoritarian movements all over the world, as happened in the wake of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff.
Samuel Huntington worried about the detrimental influence of Latin America and Latin Americans, in particular, on the United States and its culture. The problem, however, might not be immigrants, as Huntington claimed. Instead, the influence might come from economic and political structural similarities; Latin America—rather than its migrants—has provided a model for strongman populism that feeds on those left behind by globalization and ignored by the country’s political elite. The rise of Trump, just like Latin America’s strongmen, represents the failure of the leadership of both parties to address a social divide that led significant sectors of society to feel ignored and left behind.
We have been there before. And unfortunately we know how this movie ends. Hint: while there may be moments of humor, it’s not a comedy; it’s a tragedy.
Alejandro Corbacho has a PhD in political science from the University of Connecticut and Jorge Streb has a PhD in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley. They are both professors at Universidad del Cema in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Jorge Streb is member of the Academic Council of CADAL (Center for the Opening and the Development of Latin America).