Flirting with Populist Politics
“He reminds me of Hugo Chavéz”, I blurted out to the group discussing Donald Trump and the current state of the US presidential election. Befuddled looks abounded.
Much has been written and plenty discussed regarding Trump’s authoritarian streak. Mainstream media is rife with articles, memes, and comments comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. Two Mexican presidents, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon, have already compared Trump to Hitler. Trump’s call to ban all Muslim travel to America is eerily reminiscent of the Nazi regime. The Huffington Post has linked Trump’s style of politics to the historical populist regimes of Adolf Hitler and Silvio Berlusconi, adducing this as reflecting a division within the Republican Party between conservatives and rightwing populists who do not embrace conservative values.
Much has also been said of Trump’s “reality show” brand of political engagement. For months leading up to the primaries, Trump was dismissed as a viable presidential contender due to his inexperience, his lack of substance, and media retorts that are more reminiscent of a Kardashian than a serious contender to the presidency of the United States. The Daily News has been especially strident in its critique of Trump as a potential entertainer-in-chief with multiple covers that depict Trump as a bumbling clown. In an interview with Bret Baier on Fox News, Trump’s rival Marco Rubio adopted the analogy, laughing off a Trump attack by referring to the presumptive Republican candidate as a clown and a “basket case”.
For those of us who study Latin America, the description of Trump as an authoritarian, unconventional, self-styled entertainer should evoke memories of another controversial political figure. In 1998, former coup leader Hugo Chávez won the presidential election in Venezuela, running as a political outsider and promising to “save the country” (Salvemos a la patria!).
Venezuelan cartoonist Roberto Weil best characterized the response of the country’s political elite to Hugo Chavez’s election. Weil equated Chávez with Hitler plus a circus clown. Chávez was to Venezuela’s political establishment what Trump is to the establishment in the United States: a charismatic figure with an authoritarian streak who bucks political conventions with the disdain of an entertainer. These are the hallmarks of classical populism.
In all fairness to Trump and Chavez, populist leaders do not necessarily descend into the throes of fascism, though as Ernesto Laclau would remind us, populist leaders certainly harbor the potential for extreme forms of authoritarian rule. Unusually charismatic, populist leaders are characterized by their ability to cater to multiple political demands from diverse ideological persuasions within an all-encompassing vision of the future which generally identifies a threat to be defeated. It is therefore not surprising that Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency in 1998 through a leftwing coalition with wide appeal to the middle class. In the case of the Venezuelan election, “the establishment” of both the Left and the Right was the enemy to defeat.
In the United States, Trump has amassed (or perhaps capitalized on) a coalition on the Right that sees their collective ideal of American exceptionalism exposed to both foreign and domestic threats. At stake is the model of the United States as a beacon of personal liberty and unique democratic ideals. It is a vision we cherish from the moment we recite the pledge of allegiance and is firmly based on our belief in the American dream. American exceptionalism grounds our support for “change we can believe in” or “making America great again”. Yet, the Left and the Right paint American exceptionalism on two completely different tableaus. The Right paints brushstrokes dunked in fixed constitutionalism, individual merit, founding Christian values, and an overall Norman Rockwell-esque America. The Left shades its canvas with the strokes of interpretative constitutionalism, the melting pot, and equality before the law.
It is the former vision of American exceptionalism that Trump has proposed the Right must defend. His call has coalesced a diverse if interconnected group of staunch fiscal and social conservatives, evangelical Christians, and libertarians, whose interests, though represented within the Republican Party, at times stand at odds with each other. As the New York Times reports, despite his impieties, Donald Trump has succeeded in winning the hearts of evangelical Christians in a country that in past years has reacted puritanically to the sexual indiscretions of establishment politicians. And as Trump’s win over Rubio and Cruz among Hispanic (and Muslim) Republicans in the Nevada primary clearly demonstrates, the identification of a common enemy within his populist discourse, represented by (other) immigrants, (other) Muslims, activists, and potential Supreme Court appointees, trumps self-interest.
Herein lies the appeal of populist rhetoric. Populism has the potential to transform politics from a self-interested rote exercise at the ballot box into a battle to be waged for a future that transcends the self. As Laclau reminds us, populism can be a vehicle for change. We must therefore understand it as a political tool that is triggered in times of national crises. But it is also as a tool that operates on a continuum that, as in the case of Venezuela, may come at the cost of inclusion in political discourse and citizen participation, or at the very least can generate the public perception of exclusion of certain groups within the nation-state. .
There can be no doubt both Chavez’ and Trump’s political performances push the boundaries of what is considered a proper performance in politics. In his seminal work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, American sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) describes human behavior as a “performance” with two “stages” where social demands are made. The front stage is where individuals act for others, providing socially established performances of the social role they play. Proper front stage performance guarantees general acceptance. Back stage performance, on the other hand, does not require decorum. Actors can simply be, within socially accepted limits. Both Chavez and Trump are derided by their respective establishments for front stage performances acted as if they were back stage. Chavez delivered hours-long speeches interspersed with personal anecdotes and singing. Trump delivers one-liners from his personal experience, sings his own praises, and most importantly dismisses his opponents with insulting hyperbole.
This has led to a remarkable turn of events for American political engagement. Contrast the public’s response to Trumps performance with its response to Howard Dean’s 2004 “I have a scream” speech. Dean’s enthusiasm broke with political decorum and put the final nail in the candidate’s presidential run. In 2016, epithets for opponents such as “loser,” “lightweight,” “weak,” “hypocrite,” and “worthless” hardly seem to raise an eyebrow among Republican primary voters.
Critics of both Chavez and Trump rightly claim that their discursive strategies polarize and divide the population, but they fail to acknowledge how that discourse can only take root if the public accepts its message. This is perhaps the most overlooked and most striking similarity between the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez and the United States of Trump.
In 1998, Hugo Chavez was running as a political outsider. After years of economic decline, the country’s ruling party had attempted a swift turn towards neoliberal economic policies, resulting in massive rioting known as the “Caracazo” that ended in violent confrontations between ordinary citizens and the military. This watershed moment in Venezuelan history sealed the fate of the country’s established political parties as they descended into a steep legitimacy deficit. By 1998, the military was the most trusted institution in Venezuela. In the years leading to Chavez’s election, the country witnessed an outburst of political mobilization in the form of social movements and protests that demanded a new form of democratic government — one more responsible to the people. Chávez capitalized on this state of affairs and won the 1998 election, promising to transform Venezuela’s representative democracy into a participatory one. In subsequent years, the president and his party set out to accomplish this regime change. Political turmoil followed, unleashing an opposition that viewed the president’s call for change as a threat to their vision of progress and democracy, rooted in a liberal meritocratic system. For Chavez’s supporters, his permanence in power was essential to defending this new vision of a socialist Venezuela. The inability of public political actors to overcome their differences spread to their constituencies, resulting in a polarized society that continues in its struggle to reconcile apparently antagonistic visions of the future of Venezuela.
The state of affairs in the United States in 2016 has similarities with that of Venezuela in 1998. The United States is recovering from an economic downturn characterized by a widening income gap that has little potential for translating into improved livelihoods for many of the country’s citizens. Like the “Caracazo,” the election of Barack Obama marked the turn from politics-as-usual to a period of increased political contention between and within the Left and the Right in the United States. The election of Obama, though still adhering to the conventions of American politics, represented for the Left the possibility of constructing a more progressive American democracy, while for the Right it signaled the beginning of the end of Norman Rockwell’s America rooted in the collective consciousness of a predominantly white conservative constituency.
Eight years of political gridlock have served to reinforce the notion that the establishment can no longer address the needs of the population on the Left or on the Right. Post-2008, the country witnessed the rise of the Tea Party, the predominance of rightwing and leftwing media, and increased mobilization on the part of minority populations in the form of Dreamers and the Black Lives Matter movements. Though less brash in its disdain for the establishment, Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid also responds to the Left’s disillusionment with the establishment Democratic Party.
Like the Venezuela of 1998, the revolt of the American electorate in 2016 is about more than the choice of the next presidential candidate. For many within the constituencies on the Left and the Right, the next American president will determine which vision of American exceptionalism prevails as we enter the 21st century. For those who believe change is necessary, an increasingly anti-establishment electorate embracing a populist rhetoric may seem like a viable path out of the current gridlock that characterizes the American political system. But if we are to learn from our Venezuelan counterparts, we must be vigilant and ensure political candidates’ populist rhetoric does not undermine the governing mechanisms that allow us to coexist despite our differences in values and ideologies. Trump has proposed to enact anti-defamation legislation to silence media, to use the position of commander-in-chief to order troops to commit war crimes, and to restrict movement of populations based on their religion. These proposals may appeal to American electoral constituencies, but they jeopardize centuries of nation-building and peace-keeping. They defy the very tenets upon which American exceptionalism is built.