Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Pitiful Subjects

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 29, 2016 --  

A Trump presidency will give Americans an unpleasant taste of populist rule.

When Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela, his left-wing populist regime started a trend.  Fiery rhetoric in defense of the poor, those left behind by a decade of economic liberalization, resonated with the masses. 

Populist politicians in a similar vein soon were elected all over Latin America. Bolivia elected its first indigenous president Evo Morales. Ecuador elected Raphael Correa. Brazil (Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva), Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega) and Argentina (Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) soon followed.

A similar trend is now sweeping the northern hemisphere, but this time it's right-wing populists taking the helm. Donald Trump's election in the United States has grabbed all of the attention. But Trump follows earlier right-wing populist victories by Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and more recently Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the Brexit movement in Britain.

While ideologically opposite to their Latin American populist brethren, these right-wing populists tap the very same anger of the masses at being left behind by globalization. The sense of betrayal by politicians supporting the "Washington Consensus" of free trade, free markets and open borders found its home on the left in Latin America, but on the right almost everywhere else.

Many of those who are opposed to Trump paint him in extreme terms. His nationalistic and anti-immigrant stances make him an easy target for comparisons to Nazi politicians. But more apt comparisons exist with the populist leaders who have been running the show in many countries of Latin America.

The country where modern populism first took root, Venezuela, paints the worst-case scenario. Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have bankrupted the country, giving away vast sums of oil wealth as unsustainable gifts to their supporters. They have suppressed dissent and largely gutted the democratic system in a quest to neutralize their opposition. Today, its pitiful citizens line up to buy food at stores with empty shelves.

Fortunately, it is extremely unlikely that a similar fate will befall America under a Trump regime. America is lucky enough to have much stronger institutions and a much more solid culture of democracy. A more apt comparison would be to the situation in Argentina or Brazil, the most sophisticated Latin American nations to have elected populists. In both cases, populist regimes were eventually ended through constitutional means, in Argentina through an election and in Brazil via impeachment of the president.

Of course, plenty of damage was done in the meantime. Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner defaulted on the national debt, plunged the nation into severe inflation, denied that it existed, then prosecuted people reporting independent inflation statistics.

This kind of scenario seems quite in keeping with Trump's character. Fortunately, America has a much stronger separation of powers than Argentina, allowing congress and the judiciary to keep a president Trump from similar excesses.

This doesn't mean Trump can't do plenty of damage. His power to harshly enforce immigration laws as chief executive will put a chill on the America's ability to attract the best and brightest to its shores. His oversight of America's diplomats and control of the armed forces could spark a trade war or even an armed one. Perhaps most troublingly, his seizure of the bully pulpit offers ample opportunity for Trump to tarnish the image of America. Given his reputation of making outrageous off-the-cuff statements in debates, on the campaign trail and in late night Tweets, this damage is probably unavoidable.

But it is important to remember that the ability for Trump to do damage, even after all of the checks on his power, is limited by time. Within four years, he will have to face the American people in another election. And if his supporters have not come to their senses by then, the constitution will have him our in eight. That's a long time to suffer a boorish and destructive populist. If you think that's bad, then pity the subjects of Venezuela's regime — they are still suffering 17 years on.

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