Today in Even Worse, More Inaccurate Historical Analogies (or, “Pinochet Wasn’t a Populist”)

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.

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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