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.
But there is something 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.
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