Today in Terrible and Inaccurate Historical Analogies (or, “Trump is not a Caudillo”)

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial by David Lunhow arguing that Donald Trump’s campaign is reminiscent of Latin American caudillos, primarily because he has some superficial similarities with populists.

There’s so much historically wrong in here. First, caudillos were a particular historical phenomenon for the nineteenth century, when Latin American nations, states, and nation-state formation were in the midst of a drawn out, highly-contentious process. Caudillismo itself was varied enough that it’s difficult to pin down an exact definition, but by and large, caudillos tended to emerge in the context of weak institutions (again, due to the uncertainty of the post-independence state in the 1800s); began as military leaders who had support among private militias; enjoyed the support of the elite; and built a base of support on a system of fictive kinship, among other things. The key elements that define the existence and rise of caudillos – the lack of a strong state, local elites’ efforts to prevent state formation, the absence of civic institutions – certainly do not pertain to the US in the 21st century (or to Latin America in the 20th century). Sure there are elements of Trump that parallel that of caudillos – the reliance upon personal authority rather than institutional legitimacy, Trump’s rhetorical reliance on violence, even a sense of macho masculinity, spring to mind – but these are simply a few elements of a long list of characteristics of caudillos. If using violent language and machismo were all required to be a caudillo, well…many politicians globally would look like a caudillo.

Given the above historical understanding of who caudillos were, Lunhow clearly misapplies the term, and not just to Trump. Also not a caudillo? Juan Perón, whom Lunhow points to as the strongest example of how Trump is also a caudillo. Of course, Perón who was involved in Argentine politics from the 1940s through the 1970s (with Peronismo – and not “Perónismo,” as the editorial writes, setting up jokes that Latin American historians can laugh at). By the 1940s, the Argentine state was fairly strong and solidified; an understanding of Argentine-ness as a nation, built on European immigration and a genocidal campaign against Argentine indigenous groups in the nineteenth century, was quite clear. The use of personal militias was absent, replaced by appealing to the masses through political access and social programs rather than charisma or violence. In other words – not the context that gave rise to caudillos. What perhaps most stands out about Perón is his efforts to incorporate the working class masses into the body politic, with Perón as the (none-too-subtle) paternalist figure leading them (and with Evita as his intermediary). Perón was charismatic, as were caudillos, but again – if charisma is all it takes to be a caudillo, then the word has virtually no meaning. So historically, comparisons of Trump to caudillos don’t really hold here in no small part because Lunhow is building his argument of “Trump as Caudillo” by pointing to Perón – a man who wasn’t a caudillo.

And again, as with “caudillo,” Lunhow’s piece strips Latin American populism of any of its historical particularities or significance. Certainly, there are general qualities of populism that endure throughout the twentieth century – emerging mass movements, drawing on leftist tactics of mobilization without drawing on leftist ideologies, deploying a politics that’s more personalist than ideological – but comparing Trump to the populism of people like Perón or even the new phase of populism embodied in figures like Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales does not hold up. Populism first spread throughout places like Brazil with Getúlio Vargas, Argentina with Perón, Peru with Raul de la Haya Torre, and Mexico with Lázaro Cárdenas. What united the phenomena in those countries in the 1930s-1940s was a political program that advocated a stronger state; the direct involvement in aiding the previously marginalized; expanding access to voting and politics; corporatism; and a turn to import-substitution industrialization to build national economies rather than relying on industrial imports from the United States and Europe.

While Trump’s rhetoric makes claims to directly aiding those [white] people who feel marginalized, his actual program, such as it is, shows no evidence of doing that in the way that social welfare programs under populists in the 20th century did. Yes, Trump’s rhetoric is hypernationalist, but it’s not a corporatist vision of society. Even the modern versions of “populists” like Chávez (and whether or not they are populists remains the subject of some substantial debate) aren’t really analogous to Trump. Chávez deployed nationalizations and state-run companies to redistribute wealth away from a perceived oil-aristocracy to create social programs in Venezuela. His programs involved great state intervention and regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth to provide for Venezuela’s masses; something tells me Trump will be less willing to dip into the coffers of the “one percenters.” Yes, Chávez and Trump were/are both “showmen,” but again, as with caudillos, just because some parts of the Trump phenomenon are superficially similar to populism does not make him a populist.

Indeed, in looking again at the historical context, there’s very little analogue. On the one hand, Latin American populists (not inaccurately) pointed to Latin America’s historical exploitation in global markets and to elites’ historical marginalization of the masses; on the other hand, Donald Trump blames immigrants and foreigners. Again, these are two completely incomparable situations. Yes, the US has lost jobs that have been sent overseas, but it’s not because China has exploited the US; it’s because US multinationals have shipped those jobs overseas themselves, primarily because other countries had lower pay and fewer labor laws than the US. To say that this economic situation is exactly the same as Latin American countries in the 1930s-1950s coming out of centuries of colonial extraction, liberal economic exploitation, and then the Great Depression is a highly selective reading of historical realities.

And with the title, and through the substance of the editorial, it seems as though Lunhow is equating caudillismo with populism, without defining either very well. He does suggest that populism involves appeals to the masses, but what politician in the 21st century isn’t doing that? Indeed, Lunhow himself undermines the “Trump as populist/caudillo” [and again, they’re not the same thing] by pointing out that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also deploy similar language to speak to the masses – as has every presidential candidate over the last several decades. As one commenter on Twitter remarked, based on this definition, for Lunhow, a “populist” is anybody who is “not a bespectacled technocrat.”

Again, there are elements of Trump’s campaign that appear similar to caudillos or populists (which – at the risk of repetition, but it cannot be stated enough – aren’t the same thing) – his sense of masculinity, the personalism, the nationalism. But that does not make him either a populist or a caudillo – those were specific historical phenomena at particular moments and in particular contexts. The US in 2016 looks neither like Latin America in the 1820s-1850s, nor like Latin America in the 1930s-1950s, and that is where what really distinguishes caudillos and populists respectively rests. Perhaps finding new ways to understand Trump in his own context would be more fruitful than drawing on selectively-applied and inaccurate historical analogies.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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One Response to Today in Terrible and Inaccurate Historical Analogies (or, “Trump is not a Caudillo”)

  1. Pingback: Today in Even Worse, More Inaccurate Historical Analogies (or, “Pinochet Wasn’t a Populist”) | Americas South and North

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