Donald Trump talks a lot about sending messages to other countries.
He’s going to send a message about trade.
Or he’s going to send a message about everyone needing to “pay their share” for defense.
Or he’s going to send a message about the US being ready to “lead again.”
Of course the only message he’s really succeeded in conveying is that it’s possible for authoritarianism to take root in America, a prospect that would have been all but unthinkable just two years ago.
Indeed, to the extent Trump can legitimize anything (and I’ll be the first to admit that “Trump” and “legitimize” probably shouldn’t ever be used in the same sentence), the belligerent billionaire has managed to prove to the Marine Le Pens, Frauke Petrys, and Geert Wilders of the world that exploiting the electorate’s fears with regard to multiculturalism and globalization is indeed a viable political strategy.
But beyond reinforcing the particularly noxious brand of xenophobic nationalism that’s poisoning Europe, Trump has also managed to convey to the would-be dictators of the world that it’s remarkably easy to lay the foundation for autocracy – even in a country that should by all accounts be immune to such blatant power grabs. I talked a bit about this in “Sorry Donald, You Can’t Build An Autocracy Here.”
Well in the same vein, The Economist has a good piece out exploring the similarities between Trump and Latin American populist nationalism. Those interested in the short version of the message Trump is sending to Central and South America may find the following of interest.
A PRESIDENT is swept into office after whipping up a wave of grievance and resentment. He claims to represent “the people” against internal exploiters and external threats. He purports to “refound” the nation, and damns those who preceded him. He governs though confrontation and polarisation. His language is aggressive—opponents are branded as enemies or traitors. He uses the media to cement his connection with the masses, while bridling at critical journalism and at rebuffs to executive power. His policies focus on bringing short-term benefits to his political base—hang the long-term cost to the country’s economic stability.
Donald Trump? Yes, but these traits come straight from the manual of Latin American populist nationalism, a tradition that stretches from Argentina’s Juan Perón to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and beyond. Yes, Mr Trump is a billionaire capitalist whereas Chávez was an anti-capitalist army officer. But populism is not synonymous with the left: conservatives such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori used its techniques, too. “Post-truth” politics and “alternative facts” have long been deployed in Latin America, from Mr Fujimori’s use of tabloid newspapers to smear opponents, to Chávez’s imaginary coups and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s fake inflation statistics in Argentina.
So when they contemplate Mr Trump’s first few weeks in the White House, many Latin American liberal democrats think they’ve seen this movie before. And they know it usually ends badly. Some of the continent’s own populists, by contrast, recognise Mr Trump as a kindred spirit. Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s dictatorial successor, criticised a “hate campaign” against Mr Trump—though that was before the United States [last] week blacklisted Venezuela’s vice-president as a drug kingpin (an allegation Mr Maduro called “baseless”). Guillermo Moreno, the former official entrusted by Ms Fernández with producing Argentina’s statistics, has identified “a Peronist” in Mr Trump, “who is trying to do what we did”.
Latin American experience teaches that populists are easily underestimated and can stay in power for a long time. But not forever. Populist regimes are often corrupt and spendthrift, and usually fail to make people better off.