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Trump, America’s Caudillo–Why it Matters

November 23, 2020


And the impossibly dark punchline offered by the Broadway-caudillo drag of Trump’s latest phase is that the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, did not even get a real Perón. The authoritarian style arrives in America not in the form of a general or an intelligence-agency thug, but in the form of a guy who was sweating along to the disco cover of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” at Studio 54. Charles Homans, in the New York Times

As Americans  wait incredulously to find out whether Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and remain president are an attempted coup or just another con, either way the damage will be deep and lasting. Once elections become viewed by a large segment of the population as rigged and illegitimate, then democracy really is on the ropes.

In the US, we don’t know how to deal with this because we’ve never had to before, and the clueless public doesn’t even recognize the milestones of impending authoritarianism as we keep passing them.  But Latin Americans, including the millions who have immigrated to this country, certainly do or should, because they’ve been through this many times before. 

Political instability has been the enduring curse of Latin America, preventing democracy from ever taking firm root. Virtually every country in Latin America–not just the much-mocked “banana republics”, but big advanced complex societies like Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, and Cuba–have seen their constitutions discarded, elections manipulated or overturned, and watched as their freedoms disappeared in a descent into capricious thuggery or outright authoritarianism. Very often the US–both government and private corporations–has played a major role in abetting or instigating such changes and supporting anti-democratic caudillos once they achieved power. 

No two cases are alike, but the patterns are basically the same whether it’s authoritarianism of the Left or the Right. This is how it goes:

  • A large segment of the population festers with inchoate economic and/or social grievances against the existing regime.
  • A charismatic leader comes along who is able to exploit those grievances and present himself as the savior who will solve everyone’s problems. 
  • The charismatic leader is swept into power, often by (sometimes disputed) election or possibly with the support of the military or security forces.
  • Once in office, the caudillo makes radical changes in the country’s institutions to make sure he stays in power.
  • He gains control over the country’s law enforcement and judicial systems. 
  • He secures authority over the economic engines of the country either by nationalizing them (usually, though not always, if coming from the left) or co-opting the economic elite who then give him financial and political support and kickbacks in exchange for tailored favors from the government–always with the threat of retribution if their support should waver. 
  • Corruption inevitably increases, as it becomes evident that the only way to get approval and funding for projects is to secure the favor of the caudillo and his supporters. 
  • As opposition and criticism grow, the caudillo attacks the media and uses the levers of government to stifle dissent coming from the press, academia, and the political opposition. He mobilizes paramilitary groups and militias and popular mobs of supporters to intimidate opponents.
  • The caudillo panders to the military for their support and encourages  the police to target and harass groups that oppose him.
  • Subsequent elections are manipulated and tightly controlled to insure the caudillo is kept in power.

What is important to keep in mind is that caudillos usually retain strong bases of popular support. Even in cases where they are somehow removed from office, they remain major political power centers because of their hold over their true believers. Juan Perón was ousted by the Argentine military in 1955, but then regained power (initially through a surrogate) in 1973. In Cuba, Fulgencio Batista served as elected president from 1940 to1944 and then left for Florida when his handpicked successor lost the election. But he continued to conspire from exile, got elected to the Cuban senate in absentia, and ran for president in 1952. Then three months before the election, he staged a coup with military backing and reinstalled himself in the presidency which he held until ousted by Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959. Peru’s strongman Alberto Fujimori, even after fleeing the country following the disputed 2000 election, being extradited and sentenced to prison for corruption, still retained strong support among the Peruvian electorate. 

It’s easy put Trump somewhere in the authoritarian paradigm outlined above. There is no exact analog for him among the rogues gallery of Latin caudillos, but rather elements of several different ones.  He clearly has channeled Perón’s use of public pageantry with his White House balcony appearances. He even managed to create his own Evita, using Ivanka as an eager substitute when Melania proved unsuitable for the role. (Evita is reportedly Trump’s favorite Broadway show ever, and he claims to have seen it at least 6 times.)

But even caudillos from the right, like Perón and Batista, actually initially promoted labor reforms that strengthened unions and boosted wages for his political base. Trump has done nothing of the sort. The economic benefits of his policies have gone overwhelmingly to the very rich and big corporations–the very forces that created the conditions that his base claims to be upset about. His primary appeal was and remains rhetorical validation of the prejudices and perceived grievances of “forgotten” white Americans, who have stayed passionately loyal despite getting nothing tangible from his administration beyond stoking their resentments. So far, that seems to be enough.

Ironically, given the support Trump received from Cuban-Americans in South Florida, the caudillo who most closely represents a more extreme version of Trump’s own style and inclinations is indeed the Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista. Cubans who fled the island after Castro took over often look back with gauzy nostalgia on pre-Castro days as a time of Edenic prosperity and freedom. For a small minority, perhaps it was. But by the mid-1950s, the Batista regime was a thuggish and repressive criminal enterprise that had sold off most of the national patrimony to US and other foreign owners and was thoroughly in bed with the Mafia, which controlled the gambling, drugs, and prostitution that attracted Americans for hedonistic holidays in Havana. 

As John F. Kennedy stated in an October 1960 speech, the US supported the Batista regime with weapons, which reinforced the repressive apparatus, and gave “stature and support to one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression. Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years…, and he turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state – destroying every individual liberty….We used the influence of our Government to advance the interests of and increase the profits of the private American companies, which dominated the island’s economy. At the beginning of 1959 U.S. companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands – almost all the cattle ranches – 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions – 80 percent of the utilities – and practically all the oil industry – and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.”

The first wave of emigrés that fled the new Castro regime to the US in the early ’60s included wealthy property owners who were targeted by the revolutionaries precisely because they had collaborated with or directly participated in the Batista government. Some had seen the writing on the wall, and left Cuba before the fall along with a substantial portion of their wealth. They didn’t leave because they were opposed to dictatorship in principle; after all, they had been quite comfortable with the one under which they had prospered. 

One example of those who did was Rafael Diaz-Balart (the brother of Fidel’s first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart), who had been a deputy in Batista’s Ministry of the Interior which controlled Cuba’s internal security forces. Two of Rafael’s sons (Lincoln and Mario) would later be elected US congressmen from South Florida; a third (Jose) is now a successful anchorman on NBC and Telemundo.

That first wave had both money and influence with the US government, and they set the tone of implacable hostility to the Castro regime which has dominated both US policy and Cuban-American politics to this day. Only a few months after taking office, the same President Kennedy who had lamented US support to Batista approved the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion which was intended to topple Castro and restore the old regime. Sixty years later, almost nothing has changed, and Cuban-Americans who support Trump don’t want it to, because reactions in the community have become so Pavlovian that all they have to do is press the button to get the desired response. They don’t really want to change Cuba; they just want that rush they get from imposing punishment and extracting revenge. 

Trump doesn’t yet have a political police force that kills and jails his opponents, but he has turned the US Department of Justice into his personal law firm and has fostered heavily armed white supremist vigilante militias who turn out to intimidate and occasionally kill peaceful demonstrators. He used the US military against protests on the streets of Washington, DC, and he claims that he has the loyalty of police departments across the country. In the midst of a pandemic that has so far killed 250,000 Americans, his inaction and disinformation campaign have been responsible for tens of thousands of needless fatalities and economic devastation. 

Trump has turned the presidency into a personal cash machine, while delivering lucrative political favors to his supporters who eagerly pay to try to keep him in the White House. He has turned the Republican Party into a cowering cult of personality that openly or silently endorses his every whim, fearful of his wrath if they don’t. He has normalized blatant nepotism, putting unqualified family members–the only people he can really trust–in positions of critical importance, thereby expanding the opportunities for graft, corruption, and incompetence.

And now, having clearly lost an election by any measure, he persists in his preposterous claim that he actually won, while his minions pursue increasing ludicrous, but conceivably successful, stratagems to overturn the vote. Importantly, these efforts are blatantly racist, focusing on urban counties with large black populations, which are being smeared as being inherently suspect.  According to polls, around 70 percent of Republicans believe that the election was not free and fair–a finding that will inevitably feed further attempts to manipulate the election system and disenfranchise selected segments of the population.

Americans used to look with condescending contempt on Latin America with its instability, violence, corruption, and the preening dictators that would come and go, fleecing their countries while in power and then fleeing into exile with their loot when the public (or the military) finally turned on them. Now this is us. We have our own caudillo.

In May 2016, Adam Gopnik wrote a prescient essay in The New Yorker about what electing Trump would mean:

If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.

Maybe we managed to escape the worst this time, but I think he’s right: The damage will never fully heal. After a century and a half, America has never really recovered from its Civil War, and Trumpism is just another outbreak in a somewhat different form of the same national disease. More than 70 million people voted for Trump, which means that almost half the electorate–and a majority of white people, both male and female–were just fine with keeping him in power.

Trump may be evicted from the White House, but he will remain a hugely disruptive force in American politics. Like Perón or Batista, he will be plotting a comeback, and it’s entirely possible that he might succeed.

Welcome to the Third World, America! 


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