For those of you who pay a modicum of attention to international goings-on, Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump’s antics give one a feeling of déjà vu. We have seen this act before, and recently. Perhaps it is the name calling, or the loose grasp of facts, or maybe the self-promoting television shows, or even the populist message. Perhaps it is Trump’s appeal to an ignored part of the electorate and the vocal disdain of the political elite. Possible it is due to a sudden interest in foreign politics by a near-totalitarian regime. All of these things have played out in front of us, but in another place and in another time.
And then I remember. It is Hugo Chavez that is so similar to Trump.
Chavez, a military officer who once attempted to seize power before using the polls to gain what he wanted, swept into office in Venezuela on a populist message of raising the poor at the expense of the filthy rich. And make no mistake about it, Venezuela’s poor were quite poor and Venezuela’s rich were quite rich. Once in power he reveled in his Robin Hood image, redirecting large parts of the economy towards providing for the poor while nationalizing most of the country’s industry. The expropriation of private assets drew international condemnation, but Hugo scoffed. He berated other countries, called their politicians insulting names, liberally lied about them and his domestic enemies, and actively courted totalitarian regimes like that in Cuba. He began hosting a multi-hour television show every week where he rambled about his unseen opponents and how he was going to redistribute wealth to those that needed it. His political opponents hailed mostly from the former elite, and this were easily discredited.
Trump, once a cadet at a private military school and flamboyant business gadfly before using his inheritance to gain power and influence, has swept into his party’s presidential nomination on a populist message of raising the disenfranchised white at the expense of the liberal rich and recent immigrants. And make no mistake, the U.S. has a significant disenfranchised white political class and a large number of recent immigrants, while the country’s liberal elite have used minority demographics to advance their own particular political agenda. Trump vows that once in power he will redirecting large parts of the economy towards providing for his disenfranchised supporters while making it tougher for more immigrants to come to the country and making sure those immigrants who are here illegally get the boot. This xenophobic agenda has already drawn international condemnation, but Trump has scoffed. He berates other countries, calls their politicians insulting names, while liberally lying to his own supporters and anybody else willing to listen. He goads other countries to hack his opponent’s emails and release them the public. Already a household name due to his reality television shows where he got to gleefully fire down-on-their-luck celebrities, his political opponents, both Republican and Democratic, hail mostly from the political elite, and thus are easily discredited.
The similarities are a little chilling, considering that once in office Chavez dispensed with rule of law, jailing his opponents and closing opposition newspapers. He seized control of the electoral process, placing his own cronies in almost every state and federal political office, as well as the armed services and the state oil company. He stacked the courts in his favor, and if he didn’t get his way with a domestic business, he nationalized it. The only thing that stopped Chavez was cancer. His hand-picked (and considerably less charismatic) successor has struggled to continue Chavez’s mission in the face of low oil prices and ten years of deficit spending, so Venezuela faces utter economic collapse.
This is what scares the shit out of people in the U.S., and no amount of assurances by Trump have been able to assuage the fears of many citizens. Conversely, Trump supporters all fervently believe that “Trump will do the right thing” when he takes office, convinced that Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will be the ruin of the nation and that Trump will “fix what’s wrong with America”.
Sure, America is a little screwed up. The citizens fight amongst themselves and the melting pot the country aspires to be has become more of a tossed salad. There are too many who are ignorant, too many who are self-righteous, and too many who are arrogant. This allows demagogues to gain too many political offices, where subsequent battles cause more divisiveness.
It took cancer to put Venezuela on the wrenching and self-destructive path to (hopefully) eventual resurrection. Let us hope that no such phoenix event will be required in the US. I think every U.S. voter who has any sense are crossing their fingers.
3/2/17 postscript: Trump won the both the Republican party nomination and then the U.S. presidential election, being sworn in a month ago. Let the fun begin!