For years I imagined a comprehensive article showcasing all the ways Donald Trump is just like the tinhorn dictators in shithole countries of Latin America. I never pulled the trigger because those similarities never stopped coming. As they continued piling up, I decided to put them all together only when they were finished. That moment has arrived (I think).
The rise of Trump was jarring for expats in and watchers of Latin America, to whom he was remarkably similar to the standard template of the autocrat or “caudillo.” And above all, to the modern master, Hugo Chavez.
This isn’t news. Regional analysts have covered this. According to WSJ Latin America editor David Luhnow, “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…”
It didn’t get as exhaustive as I imagine, but here is the list of familiarities, starting with the trivial and progressing to those most concerning to people who don’t want to live in a shithole country. Why the trivial? Because even those add up to something uncanny.
Having a distinct identifier in apparel, aside from more specific campaign swag, goes back at least as far as Mussolini’s Blackshirts. The red MAGA hat became an immediate way to identify adherents of the Trump cult of personality. Having such a tell is enough to be worthy of note, but to make the list it had to be, of all the colors and garments, they’re red hats like in Chavez’s PSUV.
Both Chavez and Trump were television stars and media whores. “The Apprentice” played a similar role to Alo Presidente” in casting Trump as a competent executive before a national audience, as opposed to a hotel/casino operator with a checkered business record. If you haven’t seen it, “The Hugo Chavez Show” is an excellent documentary. Watch it for free at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/hugochavez/
From Luhnow: “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.”
Personal Branding of Public Resources
One of the curiosities expats get used to in Latin America is the shameless personalization of government resources, or as Quico Toro gives as example, “the billboards trumpeting the name of every Podunk politician who ever filled in a pothole anywhere in the country.” There are various examples, but nothing “trumps” (hehe) putting your name on checks from the treasury.
Examples abound, but one of my favorites for creativity are Lima’s former mayor Luis Castañeda installing staircases across the city in bright yellow, the signature color of his political party.
Trump wanted a military parade. Peru has one every year on Avenida Brasil in Lima. I enjoyed going and took pictures (see Great Military Parade of Peru). The United States has had a handful of military parades over the last 150 years, but suffice to say we aren’t in the habit because the pageantry and spectacle is better suited to shithole countries whose militaries need all the glory they can get.
Chummy with Rogue Despots
Maduro relies heavily on Iran, while Chavez was close to Castro in Cuba, Gaddafi in Libya, al-Assad in Syria and even … wait for it … Zimbabwe’s Mugabe! And of course everybody loves Putin.
Us vs. Them
You can’t get through a Trump speech without villains. There isn’t an inspiring vision of hope so much as “owning the libs” and a constant definition of villains, whether it’s Democrats, RINOs, the deep state, Big Tech, the media, Mexicans or whoever. He is the boot, and there is always a heel.
Luhnow: “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.”
If you watched Hugo Chavez, you were always on the brink of being invaded by the United States. There was never a year the empire wasn’t planning an invasion. In Venezuela, “the empire” became as recognizable as “the deep state.” If it wasn’t the United States, it was “the oligarchy” in Venezuela and global “speculators.” In the nonstop “us vs. them,” there were various “thems” to best apply to whichever situation ailed the country.
Luhnow: “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….”
Cult of Personality
Here is a Google Image search for “Trump followers”.
Luhnow: “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’.”
One of my biggest dealbreakers for Trump is his calling journalists “enemy of the people.” But people have heard complaints of media bias for so long they’ve been desensitized. The president oversaw record levels of violence against journalists, both inspired by him (MAGA Bomber) and otherwise (Capitol Gazette shooting).
Luhnow: “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. [In Mexico,] 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…”
While disparaging journalism-based media, caudillos enjoy effective propaganda networks and echo chambers of misinformation. Hugo Chavez financed TeleSur and VenezuelaAnalysis. Donald Trump enjoys Fox News, Breitbart, talk radio and much more. A key difference is the American right-wing echo chamber is self-sustaining, built on profitable business models, as opposed to government subsidy.
One of the best contrasts I heard about Latin America (from Mario Vargas Llosa I believe) goes like this. In the U.S., somebody who is purely motivated by money goes into finance, or at least business / commerce. In Latin America, the person motivated by money goes into politics.
Remember when Trump claimed he wouldn’t be beholden to special interest because he self-financed his campaign? Yeah, that was a thing. A talking point believed by the same kind of shrewd voters that tout his donating his $400,000 salary to the Treasury as evidence he’s not looking to profit from the job.
How to define, and more importantly enforce, the Emoluments Clause is a conversation that still needs to happen in the wake of Trump. But it’s clear that politics is the new family business. What started as billing the government and enticing government clients into hotel stays has graduated to gaining control of the party machine’s political contributions.
Anonymous Law Enforcement
With the highest crime rates in the world, Maduro attempted to gain control with a new unit called FAES, which according to Reuters, “is highly secretive, known for signature dark masks and black uniforms bearing skull insignias but no name tags. Officers typically remain anonymous even after blood is shed.”
Things didn’t get that far in the United States when the Trump administration deployed anonymous agents to cities like Portland and Seattle. But there were unidentified federal agents in action.
Identifying exactly when Venezuela ceased to be a democracy is rife with debate, but one of the main points in the slow slide was after 2015 legislative elections. The opposition should have won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, which would have given the body real power to hold the executive branch to account.
Maduro effectively blocked the supermajority by alleging voter fraud in the jungle state of Amazonas. The allegation was held up by a supreme court that was recently packed with loyalists, and the opposition ultimately settled for a large majority. Which they have since lost.
Violence in Congress
During the previous opposition-controlled congress, Maduro supporters stormed the legislature and beat lawmakers. Amazing how much these incidents rhyme. For reference, watch footage from Jan. 6 capitol insurrection.
Known as “colectivos” in Venezuela and “militias” in the United States, depending which word is more palatable in its culture, nonstate paramilitaries loyal to a politician or party are a fixture in shithole countries. Some of the better-known brands including Proud Boys and Oathkeepers were at the Banana Republican insurrection.
Trump is No Chavez
For all the similarities, Trump obviously failed to consolidate or even retain power. And the main difference is what Quico Toro (again) calls Long Game.
Say what you will about Chávez, but he had Long Game. He knew how to delay gratification. The Comandante was entirely happy to wait for years, over a decade in some cases, for the right time to implement some part of his master plan. Some people would call that strategic acumen, but I think it’s much simpler than that. It’s impulse control. His outbursts were controlled, planned, designed for a particular purpose. Chávez ad libbed constantly, but he never exactly improvised…
By contrast, one of Trump’s abiding traits seems to be a catastrophic inability to delay gratification. Ever. At all … It’s, as Jon Favreau has mused, as though you can forecast a Trump eruption with eerie precision to the 24 hours after he’s forced to read a script from a teleprompter.
All this makes Trump much more erratic, but in some senses much more error prone and less ultimately dangerous. Because it would take not just charisma but enormous self-discipline and self-control to carry out the multi-year plan it would take to actually dismantle the institutions of the American republic the way Chávez dismantled ours. And there’s just zero sign that Donald Trump has any of that.
Quico wrote that before the 2016 election!
I nixed a few of the trivial, from the juvenile insults and drama queen beefs with other political figures, heavy-handed suppression of a peaceful protest, trying to coopt the central bank, spending deficits and more.
The irony of his uncanny similarities to them fueled an exponential increase in my use of the term “shithole,” which some readers have said they don’t appreciate. But I started to use the word so much precisely because Donald Trump was a shithole president. That is how shithole countries’ leaders behave, and the irony that he himself used it felt inspiring, after everything that happened here in the United States.
Did I miss any familiarities, trivial or concerning? Let me know in the comments!