By Henry Reichard
The portrait was almost believable. Projected onto a screen at the front of an over-crowded white seminar room — inspired, no doubt, by its subject’s recent call for the first U.S. military parade since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 — it portrayed Trump the Caudillo: Trump the military leader, appropriately attired in military regalia. Perhaps, if the commander-in-chief could see the jewel-studded cross fixed at the portrait’s neck, he would agree that it was too overt; that the many medals were too ostentatious; that the twin epaulettes were outdated. But the gleaming gold hair, the intimidating frame, the regal brow, the Ozymandian sneer of cold command — those things, he would surely say, were just right. It was a portrait that evoked Juan Perón, the still-controversial 29th president of Argentina, who took his oath of office in uniform. It was the perfect icon for visiting Associate Professor Diego von Vacano, an expert in political theory, to choose for his Wednesday lecture on “El Presidente Trump: Understanding Populism in the Americas through Latin American Thought.”
There were about twenty-five people gathered in the room, and nearly all of them were grave. A young woman, whom I overheard talking with a friend before the lecture, was there because her parents were immigrants: she felt a need to learn as much as she could about the president who planned to deport them. An old man, whose weathered eyes never left Diego throughout the talk, was there because he had never imagined anyone like Trump could rise to power in the United States: he wanted to know what strange chord the president had struck with the younger generation. Many of those seated around the oval table shared Diego’s Spanish accent — a subtle mark of his Bolivian childhood that came out in the lilting way he said “Evita Perón;” in his pronunciation of “Argentina” with the native speaker’s “h” rather than the American’s “g;” in the rapid cadence of his speech, a step too fast for the English ear. “I am here today,” Diego said, leaning heavily on his lectern, “to talk about why a highly qualified candidate was beaten by a TV personality.”
The victory, Diego postulated, had as much to do with Obama and Hillary as it did with Trump. Trump was a white man, preceded by an African American, running against a woman. For some of his supporters, that was probably enough. But he was also a radical with no ties to Washington, and his opponent reeked of the establishment. There were many Americans who, when they thought of Hillary, thought of a woman whose eyes were fixed on the cosmopolitan cities of the Northeast: who had never seen, and who did not care to see, the emaciated small towns of the South and the Midwest, towns that had never recovered from the collapse of coal or the departure of industry and that saw in Trump — wrongly, perhaps, but no less fervently for that — a savior who would bring back the old jobs, the old factories, the old America.
That was how it was in 1946, when Juan D. Perón was elected president of Argentina despite fervent opposition from the political establishment. Perón was, in many ways, unlike our current president: he pushed for genuinely progressive pro-labor reforms and supported his wife Eva, who was an ardent feminist. But Perón also had a pervasive cult of personality strikingly similar to Trump’s, used his close association with the military to quell dissent, and relied heavily on rhetoric and demagoguery to sustain his popularity despite ineffective policies. Trump’s military ties are not nearly as strong as Perón’s were, but otherwise the two leaders share many of the hallmarks of a populist leader.
In Perón’s Argentina, there was always an us and a them: the masses and the oppressive elites; the simple workers and the deceptive intellectuals; the single Argentine pueblo, or people, and the exploitative foreigners. These were useful dichotomies. They allowed Perón, acting in the name of the pueblo, to censor the academics who criticized him, or the newspapers who treasonously questioned his policies. Invariably, the us was allied with the state, the them with the state’s detractors — in many ways, Perón himself was the us. Some academics, such as Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira, argue that populism is defined by its reliance on such a constructed conflict. For Diego, this definition understates the importance of rhetoric: in his opinion, populism is chiefly characterized by a “fundamental reliance on the spectacle and rhetorical demagoguery of a princely personage.” The theory’s semantics, however, are perhaps not important in America today. Trump qualifies under either definition.
It was late. Diego had talked rapidly for nearly an hour, and yet there was still more to cover. He flipped to the presentation’s final slide. “It’s important,” Diego reiterated, “to emphasize that there is not one pueblo, but many pueblos. I don’t think immigrants should assimilate to American culture, especially American political culture.” He added the last clause with a rare smile.
The slide listed some of the uses vs. thems Trump has utilized: whites vs. non-whites; men vs. women; native citizens vs. immigrants. In the center of the slide, there was a picture of a man running in the midst of an anti-Trump protest. He had an enigmatic expression that seemed to lie somewhere between anger and joy. In his left hand, he waved an American flag. In his right, trailing behind him, he carried a Mexican banner.
Henry Reichard is a Junior in Silliman college. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.