American Caudillo – Trump and the Latin-Americanization of U.S. Politics

Source: Foreign Affairs | May 12, 2016 | Omar G. Encarnación

For those of us who study Latin America, it has been fascinating to watch the gradual but certain Latin-Americanization of U.S. politics. The latest and most compelling sign yet is the rise of Republican presidential contender Donald J. Trump, whose braggadocio, demagoguery, and disdain for the rule of law puts him squarely in the tradition of El Caudillo (loosely translated into English as “the leader” or “the chief”), a mainstay of Latin American politics. Although difficult to define, the phenomenon of caudillismo is easy to trace through Latin American history. During its golden age—the nineteenth century—the typical caudillo was a charismatic man on horseback with a penchant for authoritarianism. Early caudillos such as Argentina’s Juan Manuel de Rosas and Mexico’s Antonio López de Santa Anna ruled their countries by the sheer force of personality as they sought to negotiate the rough-and-tumble world of politics of postcolonial Latin America.


Another iconic postwar caudillo was General Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina, who reinvented the type by infusing it with a pronounced nationalist-populist streak. During the apotheosis of Peronism, 1946-1955, Perón harnessed nationalist rhetoric to create an intimate connection with the working class while pursuing an economic program intended to realize Argentina’s potential for grandeza (greatness). He also repressed the press and the opposition whenever they criticized his policies, going so far as to send political enemies to prison and shut down the opposition newspaper La Prensa.

…. Like Perón, all of these leaders struggled to maintain the institutional façade of democracy while dramatically subverting civil and political freedoms. In turn, the latest generation of caudillos has pioneered and mastered the use of social media to bond with the masses and to render conventional means of political organization, especially political parties, almost obsolete. They have stretched executive power well beyond its limits and shown remarkable ideological fluidity in their economic policies. And they have exploited the anger among the poor toward globalization and neoliberalism. In doing so, these caudillos provide a more appropriate point of reference for understanding the causes and consequences of the Trump phenomenon than the overblown comparisons that have been made to European fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, and even the populist former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.



In classic caudillista fashion, Trump has been quick to exploit the anger of those whose economic livelihoods have been upended by declining incomes, especially the white working class. He has bashed “the establishment” for neglecting “the little guy” and promised to bring back jobs outsourced to China and Mexico by forcing American companies such as Apple to produce their goods at home and by renegotiating international trade agreements. Trump has also displayed a penchant for demagoguery that few caudillos, past and present, could match. Central to Trump’s plan to “make America great again” is to build a wall from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico that would keep “rapists, drug dealers, and criminals” from entering the United States; to impose a moratorium on Muslims entering the United States; to allow torture as a weapon in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS); and to “open up” libel laws that would allow for the prosecution of journalists who criticize public figures such as himself. In pushing for these policies, Trump, like many caudillos, has capitalized upon his status as a political outsider. This status, Trump argues, best allows him to blow up the current political system and to replace it with something that would work for everyone, but especially for those feeling left behind.


A cursory review of the legacy of caudillismo offers a window into what a Trump presidency might portend for the United States. The picture is decidedly dark; caudillismo rests at the very heart of Latin America’s most serious ills—from political violence, to economic backwardness, to the creeping authoritarianism still found in many of the region’s democracies. Not surprisingly, many Latin Americans have greeted the arrival of what they have termed “Trumpismo” with a mix of knowing and apprehension. “A lot of people in Mexico and Latin America are worried about this,” Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former minister of foreign affairs, reported to The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not just the substance of what Trump says, but it’s the style. It’s a familiar and worrisome style to us.”


Perhaps worst of all, caudillismo has contributed mightily to the blurring of the lines between authoritarianism and democracy that is so pervasive in contemporary Latin American politics and that is broadly echoed in some of Trump’s policy proposals. A testament to the remarkable capacity of caudillismo to survive and even thrive following the wave of democratic transition that swept through Latin America since the mid-1980s, this mixing has resulted in a wave of imperial presidencies that appear to have more in common with monarchical rule than with constitutional government.


Among the many casualties of Chávismo, meanwhile, is freedom of the press. Chávez was famous for launching Twitter rants against the media, for referring to journalists as lowlifes and pigs, and for creating newsprint paper shortages intended to silence Venezuela’s non-state newspapers. Chávez’s handpicked successor, Maduro, has kept up the attacks on freedom of expression by going after social media, almost the only outlet left for Venezuelans to criticize the government. He has threatened journalists with jail time for criticizing him on Twitter. These tactics, however, pale in comparison to those adopted by Ecuador’s Correa in his ongoing war against the press. In 2011, Correa availed himself of a new law to prosecute the opposition newspaper El Universo for libel after one of the paper’s columnists referred to Correa as “a dictator.” The paper’s editor and three of its executives received three-year sentences and the paper was fined $40 million, all but ensuring the journalists’ and the paper’s ruin.


Despite the many parallels that can be drawn between Trump and the caudillos, it does not follow that a Trump presidency will automatically bring about the worst excesses of caudillismo. The United States’ strong constitutional tradition and expansive landscape of civil rights protections would likely serve as a bulwark against the political mayhem that the caudillos have unleashed throughout Latin America……

All of this said, Trump’s success so far signals a bright future for caudillo-like presidential contenders. After Trump, it is no longer disqualifying for someone aspiring to the presidency to denigrate the competition; to traffic in bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia; and to propose policies that have no basis in reality and that cross the line of what a civilized society should tolerate. More worrisome is the manner in which structural conditions such as inequality are greasing the wheels of candidacies like Trump’s. These conditions promise to make U.S. politics more bitter and dysfunctional, and hence more prone to making the electorate receptive to demagoguery and even authoritarianism. The mere fact that the millions of Americans who support Trump do not seem bothered by how his extreme and often bizarre policies are antithetical to the country’s institutions and values is evidence of how vulnerable these institutions and values actually are.


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