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The real Latin American invasion


Paul Krugman points out some similarities between Donald Trump and various despots from Central Asian spinoffs of the Soviet system.   His points are all valid, but the column is an indirect reminder to me of a question I’ve been mulling over for awhile now: why has so comparatively little attention been given to the remarkable extent to which the Trump phenomenon appears to represent the development of a Norteamericano version of a classic Latin American caudillo?

It’s not as if this has escaped notice altogether:  This Foreign Affairs article from May does a nice job of locating Trump within a historical arc that features such figures as Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna,  Rafael Trujillo, Juan Peron, and, more recently, Carlos Menem, Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chavez, and Rafael Correa, among many others.  Mexico’s greatest living essayist, Enrique Krauze, published this cautionary piece in Slate a few weeks before the election.

Nevertheless for every article pointing out the many ways in which Trump and Trumpism signal the emergence of a northern version of the classic caudillo, there must be dozens of pieces invoking various transatlantic figures and their associated political movements, from Mussolini and Berlusconi in Italy, to Putin and other post-Soviet figures, to You Know Who himself.

This, I think, is a reflection of the lamentable extent to which both elite and mainstream political discourse in the United States continues to basically ignore Latin America, even in situations in which the salience of Latin American history to the contemporary North American situation should be overwhelmingly obvious.

The classic Caudillo is a charismatic populist, who attacks the existing political and economic establishment with what might be called trans-ideological enthusiasm.  He claims that he and he alone has the ability to solve the nation’s problems, and to be the voice of the dispossessed.  He bullies his opponents, he persecutes any media who do not grovel before him, he boasts of his supposed sexual prowess, he has a narcissistic and therefore unquenchable thirst for public adulation, he is openly contemptuous of formal legal restraints, and he talks constantly of restoring the nation to its former grandeur.  To bolster his political base he uses the latest social media to speak as directly as possible to his followers, cutting out traditional forms of governmental and journalistic intermediation.  And he loves to make lots of absurd and expensive promises, often in the form of spectacularly ridiculous government projects, many of which are designed to keep out or expel contaminating and subversive foreign influences.

All of this raises the question of how Trump has managed to smuggle (unconsciously, no doubt, as the odds Trump knows what the word caudillo means are about as good as the chances of the Raiders winning the Super Bowl next month) this formerly Spanish-speaking strain of authoritarianism across the nation’s apparently poorly guarded ideological border.

I suspect the answer has to much to do with the extent that the United States economy is coming to resemble many a Latin American breeding ground for narcissistic despots.  In terms of relative levels of economic inequality, the U.S. now looks much more like Latin America than Europe, and the trend is only getting stronger.  As Omar Encarnacion notes:

In classic caudillista fashion, Trump has been quick to exploit the anger of those whose economic livelihoods have been upended by declining incomes, especially the white working class. He has bashed “the establishment” for neglecting “the little guy” and promised to bring back jobs outsourced to China and Mexico by forcing American companies such as Apple to produce their goods at home and by renegotiating international trade agreements. Trump has also displayed a penchant for demagoguery that few caudillos, past and present, could match. Central to Trump’s plan to “make America great again” is to build a wall from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico that would keep “rapists, drug dealers, and criminals” from entering the United States; to impose a moratorium on Muslims entering the United States; to allow torture as a weapon in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS); and to “open up” libel laws that would allow for the prosecution of journalists who criticize public figures such as himself. In pushing for these policies, Trump, like many caudillos, has capitalized upon his status as a political outsider. This status, Trump argues, best allows him to blow up the current political system and to replace it with something that would work for everyone, but especially for those feeling left behind.

Of course there are vast differences between the United States and the Latin American countries in which caudillismo has flourished, but if there’s anything the last year should have taught us is that banking on the supposed health and resilience of American political and cultural institutions is looking like an increasingly shaky bet.

All of which is to say that, especially now, it would benefit us all to pay much more attention to both the history and the present circumstances of our various southern neighbors.


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  • I would say the good news is that Trump’s cognitive and emotional disabilities will prevent him from entrenching power. The analogy won’t hold up much past Jan. 20. However, the chaos will likely be very ugly.

    • Steve LaBonne

      People like Bannon have no such disabilities. I wouldn’t be so confident. Trump is only needed as a figurehead.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Bannon, his daughter, and his son in law all seem pretty smart. And even if he’s dumb he’s cunning. Like that country boy used car salesman who flunked 8th grade but just sold you a lemon. Again.

  • SIS1

    Well, Charles Pierce nicknamed Trump “El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago” back during the primaries.

    • Judas Peckerwood

      And continues to refer to him that way in every post.

    • mjosa

      Yes, see Charlie Pierce. Although personally, I like “El Caudillito del Mar a Lago” because I think the diminutive is so . . . fitting . . . .

      Charlie’s other names for the guy: the Vulgar Talking Yam, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian (unless that’s courtesy of Spy?).

      Soon, it may be necessary to resurrect an old nickname: The Current Occupant.

      • XTPD

        “Short-fingered vulgarian” was coined by Graydon Carter while at Spy (although I find it odd that AFAIK so far no one’s changed the sobriquet to “short-eyed vulgarian.”)

  • rm

    Some parts of the Right have had long, close association with the death-squad despots of Latin America. Jesse Helms and all the people that went from his staff to the State Department. Reagan and the Contras. All our disastrous interventions and support for genocide. There was some R congressman awhile back who married into the family of Rios Montt, who as an evangelical convert is especially popular in parts of the Right.

    Helms in particular always gave me the impression he wanted to make the US more like Guatemala. So even if our press and public aren’t noticing, I think we have a faction whose long efforts are finally bearing fruit.

  • Bloix

    It’s not Trump alone, it’s the Republican party. I have been saying for a decade that the Republican’s goal is to turn the US into a one-party state on the Latin American model. It gives me no pleasure to find that others are coming around to agree with me.

    A lot of my comments seem to have vanished. But here’s what I said 18 months ago, in June 2015:

    The Republicans under Gingrich decided that they were not a participant in two-party democratic system, and instead were a radical political movement with the goal of establishing a one-party state…

    Many nominally democratic countries have had such systems – Mexico and Japan, for example. They work through a combination of undemocratic voting systems, corruption and cronyism, use of the criminal law to subvert the opposition, and control of the judiciary.

    The Republican Party is not insane. It has a perfectly plausible goal and a perfectly reasonable way to reach it.


    And a year before that:

    “The United States as a third-world one-party state, that’s the goal. Think of the PRI in Mexico from 1929-2000 as the model.”


    And in 2009:

    Texas is a close as the US comes to a third-world nation: a thin layer of the super-rich, a small middle class, masses of poor people without education or social services (most of them ethnically distinct from the dominant classes) desperate to work as servants and unskilled laborers, an economy based on agriculture and resource exploitation, and one-party government.

    This is what the Republicans want for all of us.


    • The Lorax

      This is insightful. I fear you’re right about their intentions and they will have succeeded in 8 years.

  • NewishLawyer

    LGM seems to follow a when it rains, it pours posting philosophy.

    Trump’s on record for having his favorite musical be Evita so I suspect he at least knows who the Perons are:


    I suspect Trump has a problem that I’ve noticed in a lot in a lot of guys. Specifically it seems to be a straight dude problem and largely white, straight dudes. The problem is willfully misinterpreting a work of art. The classic examples of dude-bros doing this is with the Al Pacino version of Scarface where guys seem incapable of seeing the dark undercurrents against the American Dream (and they ignore that Al Pacino’s Tony gets shot up in the end). Nope all they notice is hot women, lots of cash, cocaine, and a gaudy mansion and think “Al’s Living It Large!!!!” The other classic misinterpretation is about the “Greed is good” speech from Wallstreet. The speech was meant to be a critique on Wall Street attitudes and short-term thinking and a gross parody of Adam Smith but many guys heard it as a siren call instead of a warning.

    Seriously, I don’t know what it is about my gender that makes so many guys dumb in this way. I suppose there could be a female equivalent but I am not privy to those conversations. On JDUnderground, there is a thread about janitors and garbage men who make six-figure salaries and all the guys (presumably) are talking about how they would like to get these plum positions. When you point out that the BART guy who made a lot of money did so by working every overtime shift possible (one estimate says he worked around 4000 hours, McKinsley employees would blush at that amount) and that is job literally involves cleaning up excrement, piss, and other human waste products, it just goes over their head. As does the fact that there are real benefits to working in a climate controlled office.

    I don’t know what makes many guys so dumb in this particular way.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Specifically it seems to be a straight dude problem and largely white, straight dudes. The problem is willfully misinterpreting a work of art. The classic examples of dude-bros doing this is with the Al Pacino version of Scarface where guys seem incapable of seeing the dark undercurrents against the American Dream (and they ignore that Al Pacino’s Tony gets shot up in the end). Nope all they notice is hot women, lots of cash, cocaine, and a gaudy mansion and think “Al’s Living It Large!!!!”

      You specifically identify a problem as being associated “largely [with] white, straight dudes,” and then your first example is Scarface? You may want to familiarize yourself with the cultural role of that film: http://thegrio.com/2011/08/26/why-the-hip-hop-community-still-worships-scarface/

      See also: https://books.google.com/books?id=B7UQJAyrmLQC&pg=PT116&dq=scarface+hip+hop&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi5wcSPo6TRAhXJ1IMKHTI4CoYQ6AEIJzAC#v=onepage&q=scarface%20hip%20hop&f=false

      • NewishLawyer

        The character is Hispanic but all the guys I see who willfully misinterpret movies this way are straight white dudes.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          I’m guessing you didn’t read the links? Because I can’t otherwise understand why you’re bothering to mention the character being Hispanic.

    • Phil Perspective

      The problem is willfully misinterpreting a work of art. The classic examples of dude-bros doing this is with the Al Pacino version of Scarface where guys seem incapable of seeing the dark undercurrents against the American Dream (and they ignore that Al Pacino’s Tony gets shot up in the end). Nope all they notice is hot women, lots of cash, cocaine, and a gaudy mansion and think “Al’s Living It Large!!!!” The other classic misinterpretation is about the “Greed is good” speech from Wall Street. The speech was meant to be a critique on Wall Street attitudes and short-term thinking and a gross parody of Adam Smith but many guys heard it as a siren call instead of a warning.

      Don’t forget Ray-gun, and many others, not getting Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

      • LeeEsq

        Most Americans did not get “Born in the U.S.A.”, so its really hard for me to get angry at Reagan seeing it as a patriotic song. Springsteen forgot some of the golden rules of protest songs like don’t make the beat and catchy too catchy because than people will ignore the lyrics and just chant along with the chorus. “Electric Avenue” had a similar problem. Its a protest song about poverty in the Afro-Carribbean community in the United Kingdom but the beat is so damn catchy and danceable to that it began a party song.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          don’t make the beat and [chorus] too catchy because than people will ignore the lyrics and just chant along with the chorus

          Except is that a mistake or a subversive means of spreading the song in hopes that some part of the audience will recognize the message? I mean, the actual verses of Don Henley’s “All She Wants to do is Dance” are clearly intended as a critique of US foreign policy in Latin America, but, based on the music video, Henley must have been aware that it was going to get treated for mass media purposes as a dance song.

          • LeeEsq

            Considering that the success rate of getting enough people to change their opinions via catchy and singable protest songs to actual effectuate change seems to be a number much closer to zero percent than one hundred percent, I’d say that it is a mistake. Knowing the actual meaning of the song just becomes a sort of useless trivia that will make you look cool or annoying at parties.

        • And those Americans helped make Bruce Springsteen a rich man. If you think they totally misunderstood the Boss’s ideologically consistent intention, maybe he should be the next Dem candidate for president. He’ll appeal to the WWC and to all on the left who understand his music’s true meaning.

          And everybody knows people who write protest songs with catchy beats totally hate when people dance to them.

          • LeeEsq

            He violates my “No more Baby Boomer” rule for Democratic political candidates. The Democratic Party desperately needs a deeper and younger bench. Republican voters might be old but a lot of their politicians and judges are Generation X.

    • LeeEsq

      I think this is more of a universal problem than a straight, white guy problem. JK Rowling did not intend Draco Malfoy to be a bad boy adolescent sex symbol. Most of the writing doesn’t indicate that she envisioned him as particularly good looking. The same goes with Snape but enough fans saw him as a bad boy adolescent sex symbol that TvTropes named the phenomenon of turning a villainous character your supposed to hate into a sex symbol “Draco in Leather Pants.” People have been misinterpreting fiction for as long as there was fiction.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        On a related subject, if you don’t want the audience to like a character, don’t give him/her a lot of the best lines in your work of fiction. (See, e.g., Alan Moore, who expresses dismay about Rohrschach’s popularity among readers of Watchmen.)

        • LeeEsq

          Draco didn’t have any particular good lines in the books or movies and came across as a nitwit bully. It didn’t work.

      • JL

        I always wondered how much of the issue there was that in the movies, Draco was played by a pretty good-looking kid (not my type looks-wise, but I could see how he would be a lot of people’s), and Snape by, well, Alan Rickman.

        Certainly, the “Draco in Leather Pants” phenomenon goes beyond Harry Potter (and I recently saw one commentator connect the recent spate of articles on spiffily-dressed Nazis to it, and to general cultural fascination with suave evil), but I do suspect that the movie casting played a role.

        • LeeEsq

          The movie casting didn’t hurt. When people sat down to write their fan fiction, they probably had visions of movie Draco in their head. That doesn’t explain Snape though. Book Snape is the same age has Harry’s parents but unattractive, ill-tempered, and strict. That means he is in his thirties since Harry’s parents had him young. Movie Snape is played by a charismatic actor but Alan Rickman looks nowhere near his thirties unless you were heavily exposed to the elements and work related stress. Fan fiction Snape is young and handsome, a romantic goth.

        • LeeEsq

          Mel Brooks is well aware of the general cultural fascination with suave evil and I think stated once that he made all his villainous characters stupid, buffoonish, and pathetic because he did not want anybody thinking they were admirable.

    • rm

      There are straight white dudes who think Nabokov’s Lolita is a romantic story of forbidden passion rather than a terrifying ride inside the self-justifying mind of a murdering, kidnapping, torturing child rapist.

      • LeeEsq

        The ability to misinterpret Lolita is outstanding considering that Nabokov himself that Humbert Humbert’s fate is to face eternal rot in Hell. Readers are not supposed to like the man, they are supposed to hate him.

    • Nick never Nick

      Eh, art tends to break out of boundaries — let people interpret it as they want, it gets boring otherwise. I watched Modern Times with my son tonight, and realized that you could enjoy it as either a tragedy or a comedy, whichever happens to be your cup of tea.

  • n00chness

    It’s definitely worth reading up on the last 100 years or so’s worth of Argentinian history (which Krugman also referenced recently). The short of it is that there is a cosmopolitan liberal faction in that country which is constantly locked in conflict with the rural conservative faction, with the military occasionally intervening on the side of the ruralists when the liberals seemed to be too ascendant. Demographic change has me hopeful about the long-term prospects of this country, but there is always a chance that democracy could recede. That chance was unthinkable just a year ago.

    • DAS

      I am not so sure if it’s that simple: Peron rode to power on a wave of military ascendency, but, AFAIK, he hated the rural elites (and Eva hated them even more). OTOH, he was hardly an urbane, liberal cosmopolitan.

      • rm

        I’m pretty sure everyone in Trump’s circle has contempt, if not hatred, for the rural people who voted for them.

  • DAS

    I certainly agree with this post in general. I’ve been thinking for a while that the GOP wants to turn us into a third world country, and given which hemisphere we’re on, the caudillo model makes sense for them. But I don’t think Trump really is like Peron: Peron hated the elites and did everything in his power to thumb his nose at them. Unless you agree with the GOP that “elites”=”bourgeois liberal hippies” and Garrison Keillor’s Upper East Side refined, upper-class Jews, Trump supports and is supported by the elites.

    Another point of comparison for the GOP is the Iranian revolution: while the Iranian revolution also included an urbane, bourgeois liberal revolution (which the Frenchified, educated Khomeini was poised to capture), ultimately the same religious reactionaries and rural elites that are the GOP’s base here were the key base of support for the government that took shape in Iran. Indeed, the form of theocracy (not an established religion so much as an inchoate, “Christian” morality being enforced by moral guardians) adopted by Iran is very much the model for what much of the GOP wants here. Their opposition to Iran, especially considering that (I suspect) some GOoPs still have connections to Iran (that started in the days of Iran/Contra) and constantly do Iranian hardliners’ bidding (invading Iraq, opposing the nuclear deal that empowered Iranian moderates), is protesting too much.

  • LeeEsq

    I still maintain that the nearest and closest historical match to Trump is Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. Both believed in a sort of exclusionary patriotism. Both really like to be adored and seen as the savior hero of their country. Ceausescu turned Romania into an elaborate stage production where everybody had to participate. Based on his campaign and past as a reality TV star and self promoter, Trump might want the same.

    • DAS

      I have a coworker from Romania. She said Trump reminded her of Ceaușescu.

      • Sev

        And the anti-abortion/ain’t gonna pay for her sexy birth control pills agenda has echos of his pro-natalism. Can under-funded orphanages be far behind?

    • Nick never Nick

      I don’t think any ideologically-committed Communist is a good analogy for Trump — he’s in it for himself, he doesn’t care what anyone else gets out of the deal. Sure, there’s going to be some narcissism and cult-of-personality involved, but you don’t need Ceausescu for that.

  • Jameson Quinn
  • JCougar

    Don’t blame me, I’ve been calling him the right-wing version of Hugo Chavez for weeks now.

    With that said, I think many on the left should read the NYT article The Right Way to Resist Trump, which I won’t link to here because this site hides your comments for posting links. If the next four years are filled with celebrities throwing angry temper tantrums at every little annoying personality thing Trump does, it’s just going to validate his anti-elitist, anti-establishment creds.

    I think our best bet is to treat him like a normal politician, and just focus on the various policy failures and out-of-control corruption that are sure to come. As for his personality, just give him enough rope to hang himself with. His schtick will get really old really fast if it fails to provoke the reaction from the left that it’s intended to incite. I think a lot of people that don’t like Trump still root for him for the sole sake that he annoys the left. Sounds petty, but I know about a half dozen people personally that do so.

    • LeeEsq

      I’ve referred to this editorial in the past and agree wholeheartedly with you.

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  • Tracy Lightcap

    Nah. The analogies don’t hold. The main thing = the LA regimes in question are more democratic then the US and we’re wealthier.

    Sooooo … what do I mean by that? Let’s take Chavez as an example. The main reason why he was able to established the Bolivarian Republic is that it was so easy to change the constitution in Venzuela. all it took under the republic Chavez inherited was the decision of the national legislature to do it and a positive vote in a referendum. It’s sort of like what happened in the GDR; nobody in the elite thought that the democratic parts of the constitution would ever be used. Oops.

    There is also the basic differences in wealth. Yes, the US has become more unequal and that causes problems. But the mass of the population is much better off then in LA and that creates, along with the vast and largely untouchable institutional net in the US a barrier to change that is increasingly difficult to change over time. Reference Ronald Reagan.

    I think these two factors make the analogies to European populists – especially Berlesconi – much more relevant going forward. But … this is a rebuttable presumption; we’ll need to keep a close watch on developments.

    • mojrim

      Well… sorta. The thing about wealth is that’s it’s completely relative. The average denizen of the Chavez regime is far wealthier than, say, a New Guinea highlander, but the former is the one voting for a strongman. Meanwhile, the US is suffering from a growing and visible gap in wealth while many are actually getting poorer, both individually and generationally. Diminished expectations hurt far more than no expectations.

      • So take me to the station and put me on a train,
        I’ve got diminished expectations I’ll pass this way again.

      • Tracy Lightcap

        Well … sorta. The difference in levels of income in LA and the US creates a gulf between the cultures, imho. There’s a point where the differences make a difference.

        But like I say, this is a rebuttable presumption. I think a comparison to contemporary European populists is closer, given the long term political stability of the US, it’s advanced industrial economy, and its functioning Madisonian presidential system. We’ll see.

        • mojrim

          I’ll give you the proven political stability angle, but I’m not convinced that relative industrialization matters. I’ve said before that Trump is an ordinary crook, while the republic has survived a civil war and Richard Nixon. Trump’s style and needs resemble a caudillo; whether he takes us there is a far more open question.

    • Bloix

      “it was so easy to change the constitution in Venzuela”

      This is why I referenced Mexico and the PRI, above. Mexico has a perfectly good constitution with a six-year presidential term and a one-term limit, so no one can ever become a dictator. And yet it had one-party rule for 70 years, with each president anointing his successor and a permanent majority in the legislature. A perfectly fine paper constitution can co-exist with institutional corruption that ensures permanent oligarchic one-party rule for generations.

  • heckblazer

    I was in Ashgabat earlier this year and my reaction to the whole damn city is that it was like Trump had tried building Washington, DC. All of the buildings were built out of white marble with gold trim and were lit up with neon at night.

    • LF

      Cool; That’s one city I haven’t made it to yet. Did you see the giant, solid gold statue of the Turkmenbashi? I guess we should look forward to Trump re-naming the months after himself and his mother.

  • AMK

    In terms of relative levels of economic inequality, the U.S. now looks much more like Latin America than Europe, and the trend is only getting stronger.

    I suppose there are counterexamples to the more inequality=less democracy trend (India has much stronger democratic traditions than Latin America despite being hugely poor and unequal; Germany was rich with strong social welfare systems long before the Nazis). But generally I think you’re right. What’s especially notable is the extent to which Trump gained currency with low-info voters by projecting himself as a force against more genteel corruption of the Citizens United variety.

  • Gwen

    I wonder if I can make my character in Tropico 5 look like Donald Trump.

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