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The people have spoken, and while Donald Trump lost the popular vote and only won in the electoral college with tiny margins in a few key states, he did win. He will be president of the United States.
Which has a lot of Americans and leaders and people in other countries very worried. Me, too.
You see, I lived over four years in South America under a technically elected but nonetheless authoritarian leader. Rightwing, leftwing, or nothingwing, Latin American leaders tend to have more in common than not – and not just the nepotism we’re currently seeing with Trump’s family comprising a fourth of his transition team.
I see such authoritarianism in Trump and I’m not alone.
“Don’t put your faith in society. Put your faith in me. I’m a strong leader, and I’m going to make things better all by myself.’” So Sen. Marco Rubio (Republican of Florida, and re-elected) characterized Trump during a TV interview before Trump’s nomination. Rubio, whose in-laws are from the same country where I lived, Colombia, added, “This is very typical in the Third World. You see it a lot in Latin America – for decades. Basically the argument he’s making is that he, single-handedly, is going to turn the country around. We’ve never been that kind of country.”
My last two years in Colombia were close to the Venezuelan border, and I got firsthand refugee accounts of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. The last “Colombian” woman I dated proved to be Venezuelan. She was as disgusted as I was with the mores and self-imposed ignorance of Colombians generally (one of the lowest marriage rates in the world; highest illegitimacy rate in Latin America, and more), but nonetheless found it preferable to her homeland barring governmental change. Today Venezuelan is even worse, with food and electricity shortages, and hyperinflation such that dinner in a restaurant costs a brick-sized stack of the highest-denomination bank notes.
I visited Argentina twice under the waning days of Cristina Kirchner’s presidency to find many of the trains had stopped running, the police had stopped policing, and nobody was accepting credit cards because credit card companies were being clobbered by the inflation between purchases and when payment was due. Argentinians always admitted to me it was their own fault, that the people had voted for her. But there, as throughout most of Latin America, even in free elections voters tend to like strong men. Or women.
SO WHAT’S THE APPEAL?
A March article in the online publication Vox,“The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” makes a compelling case that Donald Trump’s strong man persona may both explain why his “despisal rating” is so high and yet so many other Americans fervently support him. “Trump embodies the classic leadership style,” said the Vox article. “Simple, powerful, and punitive.”
According to the article:
Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians’ fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms.
It added, “A Candidate Like Donald Trump.”
ONE CHEER FOR STRONGMEN
Tough guys. Real tough guys; not draft-dodgers who consider promiscuity without a condom their “personal Vietnam,” can get some things done in places where nobody else previously could. Chile is now Latin America’s most advanced country – edging towards First World. It has great freeways, the capital Santiago has a subway system better than that of all but a few in the U.S., and its buildings are a combination of beautiful steel and glass plus many clearly styled after Germany’s most beautiful large city, Munich. Business there is remarkably efficient.
And it’s all because one strong man, Augusto Pinochet, staged an anti-Marxist coup and brought in University of Chicago economists to build a new economy. But that coup was bloody and he subsequently killed thousands and imprisoned and tortured vastly more before finally allowing free elections and handing Chile back to the people. (Yes, there are some similarities with Franco here.)
Likewise, the previous president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, made serious progress against the Farc guerrillas-turned narcotraffickers who have plagued the country for over half a century. He also struck hard at the drug lords and dramatically lowered the country’s homicide rate. But Uribe was beset by a series of corruption and human rights abuse scandals – although in no wise comparable to Pinochet’s.
So even when you get a strongman with positive accomplishments, to make that omelet they have to break a few eggs. Which brings us back to Trump.
Time and again what Trump promises to do is blatantly unconstitutional or just plain nonsense such as his assertion that Mexico will pay for the wall he claims he’ll build along the U.S. southern border. Or that he’ll kill not just terrorists, but their families. (I’m a veteran paratrooper and stay close to the military and can say with certainty they will not obey a commander-in-chief who orders face-to-face intentional killing of civilians.)
Yet Trump’s biggest offense could merely be the normalization (norming) of that which so recently was utterly unthinkable. That he’s paving the way for a strong man strong enough to overcome those vital Constitutional checks and balances. “Donald Trump could just be the first of many Trumps in American politics,” says Vox. Even before Trump’s candidacy political discourse in the U.S. had become more radicalized than at any point since just before the Civil War.
“All the rules that once governed our discourse have been blown away, and we’re headed in a very dangerous direction,” said Rubio in that interview. “We’re going to lose our republic.”