Trump’s Populism and the Future of Democracy: Lessons from Latin America

Donald Trump’s presidency brings American populism from the margins to the center of power. He uses populist rhetoric and strategies to confront “the establishment,” promising to end the neoliberal multicultural consensus that links globalization and the cultural recognition of different identity groups such as women, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and LGBTQ communities. Even though it is uncertain what impact Trump’s populism will have on American democracy, it is worth learning from Latin America, where populists of different ideological orientations have ruled since at least the 1940s. Even though Latin American populists promised to give power back to the people, they often moved toward authoritarianism by undermining democracy from within. Are the foundations of American democracy and the institutions of civil society strong enough to resist Trump’s brand of radical right wing populism? Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador led leftwing populist movements and administrations that rejected neoliberal globalization and placed the state in charge of nationalist and redistributive economic policies. But these nations underwent crises regarding the legitimacy of democratic institutions before these leaders came to power. Indeed, these crises fomented their rise.

Political parties were perceived as instruments of domestic and foreign elites that imposed neoliberal policies which increased social inequality. The perception that politicians had surrendered national sovereignty to the U.S. government and supranational institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank exacerbated this mistrust. Traditional parties collapsed as political outsiders rose to power on platforms that promised to eliminate corrupt politicians, revamp all existing institutions via constitution making, experiment with untested forms of participatory democracy, abandon neoliberalism, and redistribute wealth within society.

American elites faced similar challenges to their authority, which laid fertile ground for Trump’s rise. Donald Trump inherited the Tea Party, a right wing insurrection against the first non-white president and that president’s policies of incrementally increasing the social safety net. This safety net expansion began in response to the 2008 financial crash, when President Barack Obama introduced a stimulus package, a bill to help homeowners, and a national health insurance plan. To resist these measures, conservatives created a collection of grassroots organizations and relied on the right wing media and national elites that funded conservative candidates. They opposed Obamacare and mortgage relief as a plot by liberal elites to give handouts to the undeserving poor at the expense of hard-working Americans.

Another issue key to the Tea Party is racial anxiety. Similarly, Donald Trump led the “Birtherist” faction that denied Obama’s Americanness. As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson write in their book The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism, Tea Partiers view illegal immigrants as freeloaders who drain U.S. taxpayers by abusing social services and government funds. Tea Partiers advocate “restrictions on birthright citizenship, abridgments on freedom of religion for Muslim Americans, and suspension of protections in the Bill of Rights for suspected terrorists.”

But Trump reaches beyond the Tea Party’s social base of white, old, wealthy, educated conservatives, appealing also to the white working class. Industrial disruptions from NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in addition to corporations like Ford, Apple, Nabisco, and Carrier moving their factories overseas, set the stage for a demagogue’s rise. Capitalizing on this context, Trump’s base includes working class people who resent the American deindustrialization in addition to white conservatives unhappy with “unfair” affirmative action and political correctness that lower their perceived status. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes in Stranger in their Own Land that some white conservatives in America “feel like a besieged minority… part of a demographic decline.”

The populist leader declares himself able to speak on behalf of the true people, pretending that all can be represented through one voice. The late Hugo Chávez claimed to embody the people of Venezuela: “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a ‘people.’ I represent, plainly, the voice and the heart of millions.” On another occasion Chávez boasted, “I demand absolute loyalty to me. I am not an individual; I am the people.” Jan-Werner Müller, in his book What is Populism?, quotes Trump saying, “The only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.” Echoing Chávez, Trump asserted in October 2016, “it’s not about me—it’s about all of you. It’s about all of us together as a country.”

“The people” as a concept appears in confrontations between politicians who claim to be the people’s champions and saviors against groups they label as enemies of the people. In order to speak for the people, Trump combines an innovative use of media, ranging from television and Twitter to mass rallies. Trump’s rallies show his predominantly white supporters that they are no longer a “besieged minority.” The rise of a politician who claims to represent their interests and identities was a long-waited relief for supporters. As Trump said, he is the candidate of “the forgotten men and women of this country”: the white working and middle class.

Populist mass rallies are designed to gratify and embolden followers. Trump often tells his audience “let’s go and have fun tonight.” In similar fashion, Chávez rallies were parties during which he and his followers danced and reveled, while Ecuadorian populist Abdalá Bucaram used music and humor to make fun of elites and challenge their symbolic power.

Populists construct enemies that are the embodiment of all social and moral ills. Whereas in Latin America their targets were neoliberal, rich, white, political elites, Trump’s targets are Mexicans, Muslims, and the political establishment. He called Mexicans rapists, criminals, and drug dealers, and now targets Muslims with his travel ban.

Populist leaders justify their right to speak for the people by constructing themselves as extraordinary figures who can redeem their people from oppression. Chávez focused on his role as a savior who risked his own life leading a military insurrection against president Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Likewise, Trump consistently refers to his extraordinariness: “We need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’… We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again.”

Billionaire Donald Trump flaunts his wealth. His name is a brand for skyscrapers, hotels, and casinos. He owns the Miss Universe franchise. Essentially, he is a media celebrity. Attendees at his rallies told ethnographer Arlie Hochschild that they were amazed to “be in the presence of such a man.” Yet, he paradoxically claims that he is just like all of his supporters. He emphasizes the common interest for professional wrestling shared by his supporters and himself, but also hints at his superiority by mentioning that he was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 with the words “Donald Trump is a ‘WrestleMania’ institution.”

Populists like Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez included the excluded by distributing wealth while simultaneously displacing liberal democracy towards authoritarianism. Latin American populists used several strategies to consolidate their rule: they controlled state institutions, seized and regulated the media, and created loyal social movements from the top-down while repressing independent organizations of civil society.

Chávez incrementally gained nearly absolute command of all state institutions. He had a supermajority in the legislature, and in 2004 put the highest judicial authority, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, in the hands of judges loyal to him. He also politicized the National Electoral Council, because even though it made sure that the action of voting was free from fraud, it did not enforce rules during the electoral process and routinely favored Chávez and his proxy candidates. Similarly, Correa put loyal followers in charge of the judicial system, the electoral board, and all the institutions of accountability such as the Ombudsman and the Comptroller.

To impose their version of reality as the only permitted truth, Chávez and Correa created laws to control media content. Under Chávez, the Venezuelan state controlled 64 percent of television channels and became the main communicator. Correa created a state media conglomerate that included the two most-watched TV stations in Ecuador as well as several radio stations and newspapers.

Populist administrations in Venezuela and Ecuador also regulated the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Top-down social movements counteracted workers’ unions, students, and indigenous groups, while the governments elected “for the people” criminalized popular protest. The newly politicized judicial systems convicted union leaders and striking workers on terror charges. Similarly, the government accused hundreds of peasant and indigenous activists of terrorism and sabotage in Ecuador.

It is worth using Latin American experiences with populists in power to speculate about the future of democracy under Trump. The U.S. Constitution safeguards against dictatorial leadership through institutional checks and balances. Within these constitutional constraints, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where there exists a majoritarian control of the government as is the case in Latin America. Moreover, until Trump’s election, no populist since Andrew Jackson had won the presidency. Under this optimistic assessment, Trump’s populism is no more than a passing phase, and the institutional framework of U.S. democracy and civil society is strong enough to defy populist challenges without major destabilizing consequences.

An alternative and still plausible scenario is that Trump will follow the Latin American populist playbook of controlling all state institutions. With the Senate and House in Republican hands, Trump has significant influence in Congress; he has already threatened Republicans who did not support him wholeheartedly during the campaign. It is not inconceivable that he might want to transform the Republican Party¾an institution to which he does not have any long lasting loyalty¾into his

Like his Latin American populist counterparts, Trump antagonizes media corporations critical of his administration. He leads his followers at Trump rallies to heckle journalists who sat in a separate section and threatened to use libel laws to sue newspapers. He said that “Rolling Stone magazine should be put out if business,” and threatened to sue The New York Times. During the campaign, “journalists who opposed Mr. Trump received photos of themselves—and in some cases their children—dead, or in gas chambers. Jewish and Jewish-surnamed journalists were particular targets [of Trump supporters].” Trump as president has not softened his anti-media stance,

With regards to NGOs, Trump uses coarse language to describe civil rights groups such as Black Lives Matter. Some of his close collaborators talk about reviving the Committee on Un-American Activities, a relic of Cold-War era McCarthyism. These tactics meant to undermine civil rights groups will give Trump room to advance his campaign promises of mass deportation, stop-and-frisk in poor and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, surveillance of American Muslims, and rolling back gender and LGBTQ rights.

Institutional control, censorship of the press, and attacks on civil rights and liberties could lead, as in Venezuela or Ecuador, to the displacement of democracy towards authoritarianism. Chávez and Correa did not eradicate democracy with a coup d'état. Rather, they slowly killed democracy through the aforementioned strategies. Until this year, American democratic liberalism has been seen as impervious to authoritarian control for decades. Trump’s victory reminds those who believe in the modern, liberal consensus that this progress must never be taken for granted.

Americans could learn from Latin America that the fabric of democracy can be threatened from within. In the name of returning power to the people, Latin American populists undermined civil society’s independence. Even if the institutional framework of democracy does not collapse under Trump, he damages the democratic public sphere. Hate speech and the denigration of minorities are replacing the politics of cultural recognition and tolerance built by the struggles of feminist and civil rights social movements since the 1960s. Sexism, racism, and xenophobia played a role in Trump’s electoral success. As president, he has the power to expel the groups that he campaigned against, and to “free” his supporters from multiculturalism and political correctness.

The day after Trump’s inauguration, hundreds of thousands marched to defend women’s rights. Later, many came out to oppose his policy banning visas for Muslim immigrants. Soon after, the courts temporarily stopped his executive order on immigration. These first two months have shown that a strong, active civil society and independent democratic institutions will not allow Donald Trump to kill the dream of an inclusive, tolerant, and pluralist America. Yet a crisis of national security provoked by a terrorist attack or war could give Trump the excuse to crackdown dissent and impose his autocratic nationalist policies. The future of American democracy is certainly uncertain under Trump.