It is increasingly clear that the forty percent (more or less) of the American electorate who support Donald Trump will do so no matter what scandals may emerge and no matter what policies he may pursue. The implication is that it will be up to the rest of us to defeat him anyway. But what then? The case of Peronism in Argentina may give us some pointers.
Juan Domingo Perón was a Lieutenant Colonel who helped lead the military coup against Argentina’s civilian, quasi-democratic regime in 1943. Assigned to the obscure post of Minister of Labor, he used that position to begin to cultivate the industrial working class. With that popular support, he surged to ever-greater prominence in the military regime, until his conservative rivals had him arrested in 1945.
With leadership from his wife, Evita, popular demonstrations were mobilized that ultimately forced his release. After that, his victory in free elections was a foregone conclusion (even against overt intervention by the US ambassador who cited his flirtations with fascism during the war as the reason not to vote for him). Perón’s bond with los descamisados (the shirtless) let him dominate Argentina over the next decade, including a reelection. The old upper class Conservatives and the middle class Radicals had never seen and never practiced the mass mobilizations that were Perón’s trump card. They could not compete.
Perón was finally overthrown by the military in 1955, forcing him into exile.
But getting rid of Perón didn’t eliminate Peronism. Two successive attempts to reestablish a constitutional, elected government failed, because the only way to succeed was by incorporating Perón’s followers, and that was unacceptable to the generals. The country was ungovernable with the Peronists in the streets insisting on Perón’s return.
What we can learn from the Argentine case is that, having elected Donald Trump and empowered his white working class base, he will remain a force on our political scene for the rest of his life, and likely even after his death.
Finally, in 1973, the military gave in and allowed the Peronists to compete in — and win — a presidential election. The new Peronist president, Héctor Cámara, promptly called new elections in which Perón himself would be a candidate. Of course he won in a landslide and took office without opposition from the military.
Thirty years after the original coup, Perón was now an old man. He installed his third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, as his Vice President and successor. His Peronist movement was unanimous in avowing loyalty to the old man, but sharply fragmented into competing left-wing and labor wings that fought bloody street battles. Perón himself was increasingly aligned with the labor faction and hostile to the leftist Montoneros. This alignment became even clearer after Perón’s death and the assumption of power by Isabel.
Increasingly allied with right-wing elements in the military, Isabel presided over the beginning of the so-called Dirty War against the alleged threat of leftist subversion. Anyone associated with the Montoneros or with other leftist organizations was at risk of being detained, tortured, and “disappeared.” To be disappeared meant simply that you were never heard from again. Your body would be clandestinely buried, or you might be thrown alive from a military plane into the ocean.
Finally, in 1976, the military overthrew Isabel herself and took direct control of the Dirty War. The new military regime would last until 1983, and was responsible for thousands of disappearances. The mainstream (non-leftist) Peronists were remarkably passive under this dictatorship, and it was a Radical, Raúl Alfonsín, who won the free election that was called after the military’s disastrous miscalculation in the Falkland/Malvinas War with the United Kingdom.
But a decade after the death of Perón himself, Peronism was still at the center of Argentine politics. Alfonsín was succeeded by a right-wing, free-market Peronist, Carlos Menem. An abortive Radical presidency was succeeded by a left-wing Peronist, Néstor Kirchner, and then by his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Argentina currently has a conservative, non-Peronist president, but Peronism remains a current that can still mobilize a popular following, 45 years after the death of the old man himself. Perón and Peronism have dominated Argentine politics for three quarters of a century, in and out of power.
Now, Argentina is not the United States. The US has a much more firmly established constitutional democracy. We are not at risk of even one, much less repeated military coups. But what we can learn from the Argentine case is that, having elected Donald Trump and empowered his white working class base, he will remain a force on our political scene for the rest of his life, and likely even after his death. If he is impeached or if he is defeated in 2020, he will go on tweeting and rallying the base, making it hard for his successors, Republican or Democratic, to govern. Once he is, finally, gone, his ghost will continue to haunt the living through a base that will sustain his contempt for everything that isn’t Trump.
The only thing in our history that is remotely parallel to this Trump phenomenon is the stubborn persistence of the cult of the Confederacy, 150 years after the Civil War. The past is never really past.