Donald Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism carries echoes of strongmen like Hugo Chávez and Juan Perón
Donald Trump is something new to the American political landscape. But to many in Latin America he is—stylistically, at least—a far more familiar figure: the caudillo, or authoritarian populist.
In recent weeks, growing numbers of newspapers across Latin America have tried to explain the rise of Mr. Trump to bewildered local audiences by pointing to the region’s own strongmen, a long list that includes Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa.
In a recent op-ed in El Universal, a leading Venezuelan daily, the journalist Roberto Giusti described Chávez and Mr. Trump as “consummate showmen with a shrewd ability to manage emotions of a large audience and, using a mixture of half-truths, pin the blame for people’s ills on enemies, real or imagined.”
Like Mr. Trump, Latin American caudillos recognize and exploit real grievances in their countries. They confront an ossified political establishment, develop a strong bond with their followers and attack their opponents and the media with no holds barred—sometimes even encouraging violence.
“A lot of people in Mexico and Latin America are worried about this. It’s not just the substance of what Trump says, but it’s the style. It’s a familiar and worrisome style to us,” says Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister.
All populists—of the left and the right—tell narratives that place the blame for the people’s troubles on others and free the people from responsibility, says Moisés Naim, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister.
For many Latin American populists, the poor are victimized by big business and corrupt politicians working with the “empire,” meaning the U.S. For Mr. Trump, America’s working class is bedeviled by immigrants and an inept leadership that gets suckered by savvy Chinese and Mexican governments into enacting lopsided trade deals.
Mr. Trump isn’t the only U.S. presidential candidate with a populist streak. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders serves up a strong dose of economic populism—a narrative of rich-vs.-poor that would fit comfortably in the rhetoric of a Latin American socialist. Hillary Clinton has started sounding such themes more loudly too. And Mr. Sanders also has populist, protectionist views on trade—something he shares with Mr. Trump.
But to many observers in the region, Mr. Trump’s style provides the obvious parallel to the caudillo. The best example of the type remains Argentine strongman Juan Domingo Perón. As a military attaché in Italy from 1939-41, Perón saw how the fascist leader Benito Mussolini used nationalism and a direct connection with the people, cultivated through rallies and radio, to develop a cult of personality and become “Il Duce.”
Like their fascist forebears, that direct link between leader and people is the most important trait of authoritarian populists, according to Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian who says that Mexico’s fiery Andrés Manuel López Obrador fits the profile. Mr. López Obrador lost bids for the country’s presidency in 2006 and 2012, but he is currently leading in opinion polls for the 2018 election.
All good politicians try to connect with large numbers of citizens, but in the case of caudillos, the movement develops into a cult of personality. The politician becomes an almost messianic figure, an incarnation of the people’s desires and a personality that towers above institutions like political parties.
Perón led to Perónismo. Chávez created Chávismo. And already there is talk about Trumpism—or, as Latin Americans call it, “Trumpismo.”
“It’s like déjà vu,” said Roger Noriega, the top diplomat for Latin America in the George W. Bush administration. In a recent tweet, he wrote that Chávez “got 56% in 1998; middle class voters wanted to shake up system, make Venezuela great. His narcissism destroyed the country.” He labeled his remark with the hashtag #Trump.
Television helps to reinforce the direct link between such a leader and the people. Long before becoming a politician, Mr. Trump built his brand as a reality-television star. Chávez amassed power, in part, by creating a sort of reality-television presidency. On the show that he launched, he would sit for hours, telling stories and ribald jokes and sometimes breaking into song. He was also an early adopter of Twitter and had millions of followers.
Michael Penfold, the co-author of a book on Chávez, sees a similar media strategy at work with Mr. Trump. “Both guys knew what headline they wanted to see the following day,” he said, “and worked backward from there.”
“Followers behave more like members of a cult than followers of a political party,” wrote economist Sergio Negrete in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, comparing Mr. Trump with his own country’s Mr. López Obrador. Others have noted that both men have asked supporters at rallies to raise their hands in pledges of support.
Virtually all caudillos also share an alpha-male personality. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa once accosted police who were on strike, tearing open his shirt and screaming at them to shoot him in the chest, “if you dare.” Mr. Trump has talked about wanting to punch protesters “in the face.” And he has defended his manhood. Chávez once said on television that his wife should get ready because “tonight, I will give you what is yours.”
“The body language of these types is very similar: an alpha primate, someone always on the edge of violence,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban exile who has written extensively on Fidel Castro and other Latin American caudillos. “It’s a kind of admiration for the alpha male that gives them a big edge. It’s like the girls in high-school falling for the jock.”
Opponents, therefore, are not just to be challenged but mocked and humiliated. Chávez called the 40% of Venezuelans who didn’t support him “the squalid ones,” dubbed rival politicians traitors or lap dogs (he called one politician “a fly”) and had a virtual dictionary for then-U.S. President George W. Bush: a donkey, the devil, a coward, a drunk and Mr. Danger.
Independent media outlets have often been targets for Latin America’s autocratic populists. Ecuador’s Mr. Correa calls the press “lowlifes,” sued the country’s leading newspaper for $40 million and pressed criminal charges against its editors. Mr. López Obrador has claimed for years there is a media conspiracy against him. His supporters have occasionally accosted journalists at rallies.
Chávez went further: He simply shut down independent broadcasters and set up state propaganda networks. Mr. Trump has railed against many major media outlets and vowed that, once in office, he would change libel laws to make it easier to sue.
Mr. Naim thinks that a President Trump would be hemmed in by the U.S.’s strong institutions and system of checks and balances. But he worries that the rise of Mr. Trump is part of a global trend of voters who are fed up with political parties. In the U.S., he said, gerrymandering has weakened both parties and created gridlock.
“The trouble is, what happens if parties collapse?” he said. “You get caudillos.”