Donald Trump Brings Latin American Populism to the USA

Trump's populist fodder on campaign trail has him leading in the presidential polls. (El Comercio)
Trump’s populist fodder on the campaign trail has him leading in the presidential polls. (El Comercio)

EspañolOh, how the tables have turned. Not too long ago, I was the one scratching my head with bewilderment. I was the one asking the questions. At the other end of my inquiries stood my Latin American friends, shrugging their shoulders with embarrassment, unable to come up with a logical response.

I couldn’t understand how on earth a man as comically unqualified as Nicolás Maduro could remain president in Venezuela. And I questioned my Argentinean friends how a woman as unstable and nonsensical as Cristina Kirchner could hold the country’s highest office for two terms.

At a time when Venezuelans and Argentineans continued to suffer from economic turmoil, it especially baffled me to watch these leaders, with cheering supporters all around them, engage in some of the most blatant distortions of facts.

I listened to their self-serving propaganda and bellicose rhetoric with disbelief. And, for a time, it worked. Their supporters grew in numbers, becoming more fanatical and more loyal with each promise.

Yet, as we’ve witnessed during the past month, the lies and deceit of Maduro and Kirchner couldn’t keep up with the economic hardships on the ground. For only the third time in history, Argentina elected a non-Peronist candidate as president, Mauricio Macri. And for the first time since Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 2002, the opposition claimed an overwhelming majority in Congress.

Ironically, at the same time South America has begun to overcome these fruitless populist movements of the “left,” North America appears to be witnessing the rise of populism from the “right.” And its leader, real estate tycoon and leading presidential candidate Donald Trump, is borrowing the same campaign tactics utilized by Latin American populist leaders once mocked by North Americans.

Now, I’m the one who has to answer questions from my Venezuelan and Argentinean friends: “How can Donald Trump be leading in the polls? Did you hear what he said today? Do you really think he’ll win?”

Perplexed and embarrassed, I shrug, not knowing how to respond.

Reason’s Peter Suderman, in his scathing piece of the reality TV star, describes Trump perfectly:

“He is consistently ungracious and egotistical, and he is prone to insults and bullying when challenged. He is xenophobic and bigoted. He does not tell the truth when called on his insults. He has the maturity level of a middle-school bully, but with less sophistication about policy.”

Trump’s petty persona in front of the camera reminds me of the grandstanding we grew accustomed to seeing from Maduro and Kirchner. These are traits that, historically, the US electorate had immediately dismissed and deemed unfit for the office of the presidency. But to Trump’s credit, he possesses a keen political sense and plays the media to his advantage. Just as many populists have done before him, he sees people’s fear, and exploits it.

However, there is one difference worth mentioning between Trump’s personality and the populist leaders in South America. Trump flaunts the wealth he earned from the private sector, often using it as a prop. His Latin American counterparts, conversely, hide their money, likely derived from corrupt state business deals while in office.

In terms of Trump’s public policy, we know little other than unrealistic generalities in areas of immigration and the economy. Like the populist socialists in South America, he props up straw men as a means to influence his “policy.” In the cases of Maduro and Kirchner, that burden usually fell on the “imperialist” North Americans.

On the other hand, Trump holds the governments of China and Mexico, and the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States (mostly arriving from Latin America), responsible for “stealing” jobs. These assertions are absurd and unfounded.

It’s unfair to Venezuelans and Argentineans to compare “Trumpism” to Chavismo and Kirchnerism. After all, the former presides over a long and grave list of human-rights violations in Venezuela (in addition to countless other failures), and the latter destroyed an Argentinean economy, nearly spending every last penny of national reserves along the way.

At the moment, Trumpism remains only campaign rhetoric, but the US public should take a look at how populism turned out south of the border, before it’s too late.

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