Saturday, January 21, 2017

Trump the Caudillo and the Latin American-ization of US Politics

Top: Juan Peron, two-term president of Argentina     Bottom: Donald Trump

Donald Trump's authoritarian, demagogue-like tendencies frequently merit comparison to Hitler and Mussolini. On the morning after Il Orange entered the Oval Office, a search for "fascism" turned up about 285,000 listings on Google News, with the vast majority of results (on the first three pages) pertaining to the Cheato.  Unfortunately, the gross, genocidal excesses of both the fascist and Nazi regimes make these comparison a bit ineffective in my opinion (as long as he does not start a World War and commit mass murder of ethnic minorities, Trump will be "okay"). A more effective (and recent) parallel may be drawn to the Caudillos, or populist strongmen, of Latin America.

Often (but not always) emerging from the military, and including leaders as diverse as Augusto Pinochet, Juan Peron and, disputedly, Hugo Chavez, the Caudillo rises to power through brash appeal to the disaffected working classes. Once he takes control (sometimes through military coup but often through popular vote) the Caudillo dilutes or abolishes the legislative checks on his executive power (e.g. amending the constitution to run for additional terms or evicting the press from the Oval Office), without actually upending with the democratic system or its institutions of governance. When the political establishment cries foul, the Caudillo declares that he is "under attack" by the ruling (e.g. beltway) elites, thereby rallying support from disaffected segments of the lower or middle classes.

Furthermore, an essential component of a Caudillo's appeal (particularly for right-leaning ones) is the projection of masculine dominance--the image of the "macho" man who can get things done (and have his way with woman).

What is particularly striking about the comparison of Donald Trump and Latin American strongmen are the similar political contexts which have birthed them. Latin American countries are among the few in the world that share the United State's presidential form of democracy, where the executive branch is chosen independently from the legislative branch. In contrast to the form of parliamentary democracy dominant in Europe, the executive in a presidential republic does not leave office if an opposing gains control of the legislature. And yet, presidential republics naturally subject the executive's law-making authority to the legislature's approval as part of the system of checks-and-balances. Therefore, when the branches of government are divided, especially between ideologically-opposed parties, gridlock is the most likely outcome.

Since the president's derives his legitimacy independently from the legislature, arbitrary executive authority provides a convenient tool to break inaction, one that--unfortunately--subverts the legislative checks crucial to democracy's survival.

For a long time the American President did not need to override Congress because members of both parties could compromise to enact legislation with a broad centrist appeal. The ideological polarization of recent decades has changed this. Presidents Bush and Obama both came to rely on executive mandate. God only knows how Trump might wield his power on immigration policy or trade.

In Latin American countries, by contrast, the legacies of a colonial caste system have long produced sharp division between white criollo landowners and a mixed-race and indigenous laboring class. Thus presidential democracy has been tested from an early age by a combination of class- and race-based polarization (often augmented by geography), which has only afflicted the US political system for the last 50 years.

(Of course, the US political system largely muted racial divisions for much of its history by actively excluding the colored working classes from political participation. My argument is that such polarization did not previously manifest itself in politics, not that it did not previously exist).  

With sharp polarization, partisans on one side will believe the worst of the opposing party (even ludicrous mistruths). When their party secures the presidency, they will support any executive initiative to overcome opposition in the legislature (especially by a minority party). If their party controls the legislature (but not the presidency) they will demand obstruction of governance, to the point of a breakdown (or unilateral action).

Such contempt for minority rights (or, alternatively phrased, support for authoritarianism) is especially evident among classes that feel like their position of privilege is threatened.

Will Trump use the slightest threat to declare a state of emergency (with the military by his side)? Will he simply work to perpetuate GOP rule by appointing justices who strike down the remainder of our voting rights protections? Or will he alter libel laws so that he can stifle critical media coverage with lawsuits?

The future is uncertain, terrifyingly so.

Our country is not exceptional (i.e. destined to be a liberally democratic). The historical moment is not normal.

For the next four years, we must never let down our guard.

We must always resist.