I thought “Trump is a populist/caudillo (because that’s the same thing)” would be the dumbest historical/political analogy I would read yesterday. Sadly, I was wrong:
Better than most, the people of Latin America know how to spot a caudillo, or populist strongman—Pinochet. Noriega. Castro. Chávez. Perón.
After yesterday’s post, it shouldn’t need saying, but apparently, it does: Latin American Populism means something – namely, a personalist, non-ideological, corporatist driven vision of society with one as the charismatic, paternalist leader appealing to the masses to strengthen popular support. Suffice to say, Pinochet – an uncharismatic, privatizing, neoliberal, anti-communist, right-wing ideologue who launched a coup and led a regime that worsened the lives of the masses after it overthrew a government that sought to improve the lives of the masses – is not a populist. Yet that din’t stop Ben Wofford from citing Pinochet as his first example of a “populist,” alongside “Noriega. Castro. Chávez. Perón.”(!)
If all of those men are populist, the word truly has no meaning. There are exactly three things that those men all shared in common: 1) they were men; 2) they were from the part of the world known as “Latin America”; 3) they served as the heads of government at some point. That’s it – that’s the list. At least three of them weren’t “populist,” for reasons I outlined yesterday. The only way that “Pinochet” and “populist” belong in the same sentence is exactly as follows: “Pinochet was anything but a populist.” If the Wall Street Journal’s attempt to paint Trump as a caudillo like Perón was misguided and inaccurate, saying Pinochet was a populist is downright Wrong. [And that’s to say nothing of the equation of Pinochet – a right-wing, privatizing, authoritarian dictator who came to power through a coup and whose regime deployed widespread torture and murder – with Chávez – a leftist, nationalizing, corporatist president who came to power through democratic elections whose regime did not rely upon widespread torture and murder.]
I said it yesterday, and I’ll repeat it now: The US in 2016 is not Latin America in the twentieth century, and clearly, analysts should either A) stay away from looking to a Latin American history they fundamentally don’t understand as they try to understand Trump, or B) there is no B.