r those of us who study Latin America, it has been fascinating to watch the gradual but certain Latin-Americanization of U.S. politics. The latest and most compelling sign yet is the rise of Republican presidential contender Donald J. Trump, whose braggadocio, demagoguery, and disdain for the rule of law puts him squarely in the tradition of El Caudillo(loosely translated into English as “the leader” or “the chief”), a mainstay of Latin American politics. Although difficult to define, the phenomenon of caudillismo is easy to trace through Latin American history. During its golden age—the nineteenth century—the typical caudillo was a charismatic man on horseback with a penchant for authoritarianism. Early caudillos such as Argentina’s Juan Manuel de Rosas and Mexico’s Antonio López de Santa Anna ruled their countries by the sheer force of personality as they sought to negotiate the rough-and-tumble world of politics of postcolonial Latin America.
It was the postwar years, however, that produced the most enduring symbols of caudillismo. Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, in office from 1930 until his assassination in 1961, came to embody the caudillo as a racist, narcissistic, virility-obsessed, and self-aggrandizing despot. Indeed, Trujillo’s capacity for glorifying himself might make Trump blush. He renamed the capital city of Santo Domingo to Trujillo City, changed the name of the country’s highest mountain from Pico Duarte to Pico Trujillo, and held parades and celebrations for his own commemoration. January 11, for example, was declared “Day of the Benefactor.” Little wonder that Trujillo’s best-known biography bears the title of Little Caesar of the Caribbean.
Another iconic postwar caudillo was General Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina, who reinvented the type by infusing it with a pronounced nationalist-populist streak. During the apotheosis of Peronism, 1946-1955, Perón harnessed nationalist rhetoric to create an intimate connection with the working class while pursuing an economic program intended to realize Argentina’s potential for grandeza(greatness). He also repressed the press and the opposition whenever they criticized his policies, going so far as to send political enemies to prison and shut down the opposition newspaper La Prensa.
Heirs to Perón’s legacy include Argentina’s Carlos Menem, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro, and Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s current president. Like Perón, all of these leaders struggled to maintain the institutional façade of democracy while dramatically subverting civil and political freedoms. In turn, the latest generation of caudillos has pioneered and mastered the use of social media to bond with the masses and to render conventional means of political organization, especially political parties, almost obsolete. They have stretched executive power well beyond its limits and shown remarkable ideological fluidity in their economic policies. And they have exploited the anger among the poor toward globalization and neoliberalism. In doing so, these caudillos provide a more appropriate point of reference for understanding the causes and consequences of the Trump phenomenon than the overblown comparisons that have been made to European fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, and even the populist former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
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