As the United States enters the Trump era University of Chicago economist and writer Emilio Ocampo compares the Trump phenomenon to one that is all too familiar to Latinamericans.
Last week Argentina and Donald Trump, presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party, were strangely linked in the news. First, Trump warned in an interview that if he wasn’t elected president of the United States, the Supreme Court would turn the country into something “totally different” like Venezuela or Argentina. This comment seems ill informed, and at least to Argentine voters also insulting, given that last November they put an end to twelve years of unfettered and destructive populism. It is also ironic because thirty years ago Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s new president, negotiated with Trump the sale of a big chunk of real estate owned by his family in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Trump’s comments passed unnoticed in the US but provoked a brouhaha in Argentina. “Mr. Trump has an opinion from a perspective that isn’t healthy… He ignores what we have been doing for the last five months,” declared Argentina’s foreign minister. The revenge serendipitously came in the form of a cable TV advertisement aired in Argentina that mocked Trump to promote the upcoming Copa America soccer tournament (which will be hosted by the US). The ad, which rapidly became viral, took comments from Trump’s speeches about illegal immigrants from South American as if they referred to the Argentine national soccer team (one of the cup’s favorites) and its fans.
At first sight, one might think this was another of Trump’s insulting foreign policy gaffes. It wasn’t, but for reasons Trump probably ignores. In fact, his comment is a warning about the consequences of adopting any form of populism, including trumpism. So, in essence, Trump was warning his fellow Americans about the dangers of electing him as their president.
Let me explain why. During the 20th century only three countries in the American continent counted themselves among the ten wealthiest on earth: the United States, Argentina and Venezuela. Argentina’s position in global GDP per capita rankings is now around 60 whereas Venezuela is close to 90. Their economic decline was caused by populism.
This is why it is also ironic, or maybe tragic, that right when Argentina decided to shake off populism, the United States seems ready to embrace it (together with some European countries). As The Economist pointed out in a recent article, both Trump and Bernie Sanders represent the rise of populism in American politics. Both candidates share the same diagnosis of what is wrong: the American dream is over. Their popularity should not be a surprise, since a large portion of the American electorate believes this is the case. The difference between the candidates is where they lay the blame for this sad state of affairs. In Sanders’ view, the culprit is Wall Street and the top 1% (interestingly, given the fact that Sanders according to his tax returns is among the top 5% of earners). Whereas according to Trump, Mexico and China are to blame. He claims the former is sending killers and rapists across the border which put the life of ordinary Americans in danger, while the latter is flooding the US economy with unfairly cheap imports that put American workers out of work (interestingly given that Trump is known for having employed illegal immigrants and also outsourced manufacturing to China).
This is not the first time Argentina goes against global political trends. In 1946, after the world leading democracies had defeated nazi-fascism at a very high human and material cost, Argentina embraced its own home-grown version of it thanks to Juan Peron. His most devoted and adroit follower was Hugo Chavez, who managed to ruin Venezuela’s economy.
What happened in Argentina in 1946 and what is happening right now in the United States and some countries in Europe sheds light on the origins of populism. As it is usually the case with complex social phenomena, a widely accepted definition of populism is elusive. Social scientists have debated ad nauseam what are the key defining features of populism. But at a basic level populism is nothing more than a reaction of the majority of the electorate when the dreams and aspirations with which it grew up are no longer valid or viable. This is usually because of structural problems caused by deep economic or social transformations. Populist leaders appeal to this group of voters because they offer a simple diagnosis of a complex situation and an even simpler and costless solution (e.g., let’s build a wall at the border with Mexico and the Mexicans will pay for it). In all cases, the diagnosis involves blaming someone that can be clearly identified as not being part of society’s mainstream (i.e., they are the ones who will pay for the solution). The culprits are foreigners, members of ethnic minorities and the rich (or the “oligarchy” as Latin American populists like to call them). Just hammer this message in all your speeches and make sure everybody understands it. You might think this is too simple, but it worked for Mussolini, Hitler, Perón and many others.
In 1946 the Argentine electorate felt the same way the American electorate feels today. The Argentine dream of everlasting prosperity without effort was over. Following the Great Depression, inequality grew while political freedom was curtailed. Perón claimed that this was due to a conspiracy between the oligarchy and anglo-saxon imperialism to exploit the Argentine people. His cure –a muddled admixture of nationalism, interventionism, clientelism and redistributionism– was much worse than the disease. Thanks to Peronism, the country never managed to adapt to changing circumstances in the global economy. Argentines are still paying the price for this huge mistake.
It would be a mistake to think that populism could never take hold in the United States. Granted, it has cultural and institutional anti-bodies to populism that Argentina never had. However, everything is relative. Each society and each era generate their own form of populism and their own type of populist leader. Peron embodied certain negative traits and paranoid fears that were prevalent in Argentine society in 1945. The same thing can be said today about Trump and the United States.
Let’s also remember that the US was the birthplace of the first populist party of the modern era. In the 1892 presidential election the populist candidate won 8.5% of the popular vote and carried five southwestern states. Finally, let’s not forget that Germany was the most educated and cultured nation in Europe. This didn’t prevent Germans from choosing an uneducated foreigner to lead them. In May 1933, shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, Bertrand Russell wrote:
What has been happening in Germany is a matter of the gravest portent for the whole civilised world. Throughout the last hundred and fifty years, individual Germans have done more to further civilisation than the individuals of any other country; during the latter half of this period, Germans, collectively, have been equally effective in degrading civilisation. At the present day the most distinguished names in the world of learning are still German; the most degraded and brutal government is also German… Given a few years of Nazi rule, Germany will sink to the level of a horde of Goths.
According to Russell, “the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” His warning rings true today.