Joshua Roberts / REUTERS U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Washington, November 2016. 

A Caudillo in Washington

Democracy Will Survive—But at What Cost?

From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, Latin Americans have reacted with shock to the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency. Especially notable was the reaction in Mexico, where in the months leading to the election, people from all walks of life had been expressing their dismay at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Mexican immigrants to the United States had become U.S. citizens in historic numbers just to be able to vote against Trump. Piñatas of the Donald were hard to come by in major Mexican cities and in Los Angeles, a reflection of the fondness that Mexicans developed for beating paper effigies of the American tycoon. On Election Day, hundreds of people gathered on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main boulevard, to celebrate Trump’s defeat. But as the results dribbled in, the crowd’s mood went from euphoric to despondent.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone paying even cursory attention to the presidential campaign. No other foreign country loomed larger than Mexico did. Trump famously launched his presidential run by referring to undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and accusing them of “bringing drugs and crime” to the United States. Throughout the campaign, Trump blamed the disappearance of factories in the United States and a hemorrhaging of jobs to Mexico on the North American Free Trade Agreement (an agreement that he has threatened to dismantle), and he pledged to build a wall to separate the two countries—to be paid for in its entirety by the Mexican government. Trump’s trip to Mexico City in August to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a visit intended to demonstrate to the American public that Trump could act presidential, and for which the Mexican president got a great deal of flack, was the only foreign travel of note by Trump during the presidential campaign.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in Guayaquil, September 2008.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa in Guayaquil, September 2008.

But there is something unique in the way in which Latin Americans, including the U.S. Latino population, have reacted to Trump that goes beyond disgust for the man’s xenophobia and that separates Latin Americans’ response to Trump from, say, that of Europeans. As I wrote for Foreign Affairs last May, there is much about “Trumpism” that Latin Americans find eerily familiar, and therein reside the roots of their deepest concerns about a Trump administration. For many in Latin America, Trump embodies the figure of El Caudillo, the leader, a mainstay of Latin American politics. Characteristic of the phenomenon, the origins of which can be traced to the chaos that prevailed in Latin America following the end of colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century, is a narcissistic demagogue who promises to fix whatever ails society with a populist zeal and an authoritarian streak. Today, as during the nineteenth century, charisma rather than ideology rules the day. 

The arrival of caudillismo in Washington, I noted in my previous article, is the most telling sign yet of the increasing “Latin Americanization of U.S. politics.” This development has come into clearer view since the completion of the presidential campaign. Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, a dystopian, narcissistic, and authoritarian rant most memorable for the claim “only I can fix it,” revealed his inner caudillo. Beyond that, the presidential campaign mirrored the ugliest and most distressing aspects of Latin American presidential campaigns—such as demeaning and bullying political opponents, promises of revenge after the conclusion of the vote, incivility and violence at political rallies, the destruction of families and friendships by political disagreement, and even people’s reluctance to freely advertise their political loyalties for fear of reprisal. At the heart of much of this toxicity is social and economic inequality, which is endemic in Latin America and is on the rise in the United States. One of the by-products of inequality is a large portion of the population that feels left behind and is thus vulnerable to the seductive power of a caudillo.

The arrival of caudillismo in Washington is the most telling sign yet of the increasing “Latin Americanization of U.S. politics.”

At this point, we can only speculate about what is in store for the United States under a Trump administration. But much of what Trump promised during the presidential campaign—from expelling some 11 million undocumented immigrants by deploying a “deportation force” to banning Muslims from entering the United States to erecting trade barriers, “opening” libel laws, and prosecuting his presidential opponent—echoes the policies of patriarchal caudillos past, such as Argentina’s Facundo Quiroga and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, as well as those of their contemporary heirs, such as the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and his replacement, Nicolás Maduro, and Rafael Correa, the current president of Ecuador. These strongmen stood for economic nationalism and protectionism, thought nothing of viciously attacking their political opponents and the media (going as far as jailing political rivals and shutting down newspapers), and rallied the masses against the so-called establishment and other people not like them, all in the name of helping the little guy. And all of them either severely curtailed civil and political freedoms or left them in shambles.

In the wake of the election, pundits have rushed to assure an anxious public that the left’s fears that Trump might destroy American democracy are for the most part either misplaced or grossly exaggerated. After all, what sets the United States apart from other countries is its constitutional traditions, respect for the rule of law, and robust civil society, all of which serve as a check against authoritarianism. But the fact that Trump’s agenda (much of it directly at odds with American democratic principles and practices) was endorsed by some 60 million Americans at the ballot box should give pause when it comes to the sturdiness of U.S. democratic institutions. In any case, seen through the Latin American experience with caudillismo, the most pressing question about Trump is not whether American democracy can survive him; it certainly can. The real issue is at what cost to our democratic institutions and political culture. 

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