Since Donald Trump’s victory, a series of articles have appeared in the U.S. media comparing Trump to Latin American populist leaders, in particular Argentinian President, Juan Domingo Perón. For instance, on January 26, 2017 the Washington Post published an article titled “Trump is the U.S. first Latin American President” and on February 16, 2018, The Economist published the article “A Peronist in the Potomac.”
While the comparison is valid, and there is a lot we can learn from it, it is necessary to highlight the fundamental differences between Trump and Latin America’s populist leaders. More important, we should not fall into the trap, as these articles may suggest, that Trump is a populist exception to U.S. politics, a bump in the road to the promise land of liberal democracy, closer to a Latin American style of politics than to the United States. President Trump is a product of U.S.’s version of democracy, he is a product of the U.S. political tradition, and is the result of the Republican Party’s right-wing, conservative turn, which began in the late 1960s and peaked with Ronald Reagan; as well as the result of the neoliberal turn promoted by both parties since Reagan up to President Obama.
While the nationalist, almost chauvinistic, rhetoric of Perón may be similar to Trump’s discourse, Trump is much nearer neoliberalism than he is from Perón’s political and economic program.
Juan Domingo Perón, a philo-Nazi, philo-fascist, military caudillo, believed that the industrial working class could be mobilized and serve as the basis to build a corporatist state, which, together with the national bourgeoisie, would promote a nationalist agenda and would eliminate or at least manage social conflict. While the nationalist, almost chauvinistic, rhetoric of Perón may be similar to Trump’s discourse, Trump is much nearer neoliberalism than he is from Perón’s political and economic program.
More important, there are two crucial differences between Perón and Trump that we cannot ignore. During Perón’s presidency the franchise was expanded, encouraging full voting rights for women for instance. In contrast, the GOP for the last half century, and Trump nowadays, have taken unsurmountable efforts to suppress voting as much as possible. Despite the fraudulent elections, the persecution of the opposition, and the limits to electoral democracy during Perón and Getulio Vargas years, voting rights became stronger through time, and in Argentina and Brazil voting is compulsory.
Furthermore, during Perón’s years in power, a series of redistributive policies were developed, albeit in a clear clientelistic way. Labor benefits and rights were expanded, working hours were regulated, and Peronist unions were recognized. Trump’s administration, following the GOP agenda, have been crushing labor rights and the only redistribution that has taken place has benefited the economic elite. In this sense, Trump is closer to Reagan, Clinton and even Obama than he is from Perón. Trump’s protectionist steps do not amount yet to a rejection of neoliberal principles.
Trump’s use of a chauvinistic and xenophobic rhetoric, his pleads to “protect” parts of the white working class, his calls to “Make America Great Again” or “America First,” may make him a populist, but do not make him a Latin American populist. And while other populist and authoritarian experiences can assist us in identifying the dangers of Trump’s presidency, it does not transform him into Perón o Vargas.
The attempts to portray Trump as a Latin American populist run the risk of making us believe that Trump is not part of the U.S. political tradition, and that his election was an exception to U.S. democracy. Trump is as “American as apple pie,” he is the result of the U.S. economic, social, and racial structures. He is the result of the GOP’s political agenda, of Reaganism, and the racism that fueled and fuels GOP’s economic, social and electoral policies. He is part of both the political and the Wall Street establishment. Do not try to transform him into a Latin American, it is wrong and dangerous.
Sebastián Sclofsky is an Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at California State University, Stanislaus. He was born and raised in Montevideo, Uruguay. His research interests are on policing, police violence, its effects on nonwhite residents of low-income communities both in the U.S. and Brazil, as well as Latin American politics. You can follow him on Tweeter @sebasclofsky.