People have worried for a while that the United States is coming to resemble some of the worst aspects of Latin America in economic and social terms: increasing income inequality, the growth of an economic elite that is more or less permanent as those who have either great wealth or educated, professional status pass that along to their children, cities divided to reflect those inequalities, growing numbers of rich people afraid of poor people behind the walls of gated communities, greater police violence against minorities. However, we did not worry, until recently, of the dangers of Latin American populist, strongman rule coming to the U.S.
People have increasingly begun to worry about Donald Trump in terms of European fascism. A Washington Post story on July 22, 2016, observes, “Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who single-handedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.”
Trump reminds me less of classic European fascism than a Latin American populist. The unique individual strongman who will fix all the problems because his is so strong and capable. Like many in LLILAS, I have lived and traveled extensively in Latin American countries for 40 years, and have seen this up close. In case after case, Argentina for almost 50 years after Perón, Vargas in Brazil on and off from 1930 to the 1950s, Venezuela in the last twenty during and after Chávez, these populist leaders often gravely damage the institutions of the country and leave it far more dysfunctional than they found it. Beware the strongman as solution. He is very pleasing to a mob of angry people but can do great harm.
Part of the problem is that populist strongmen are less about ideas or proposals than about their individual charisma and strength to change things single-handedly. The same Washington Post article notes, “what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.”
While I fear the Latin American precedent for strongman rule and its usually disastrous aftermath for democratic institutions and the national economies themselves, there is also an interesting strain of concern about mob rule leading to strongman rule within U.S. history and those who have observed it since its beginning. The Post also observed, “But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”
It would be interesting to compare these distinctive U.S. roots for concern about populism with how it has developed in Latin America. This is a good moment for rigorous academic work on this. But this is also a moment to take action against the concrete threat of Latin American-style populism this year in the form of Donald Trump.
Amon G. Carter Centennial Professor of Communications
Department of Radio-TV-Film
The University of Texas at Austin
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.