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Hey Donald Trump, Hugo Chavez Would Be So Proud

A Latin American take on the rise of the Republican frontrunner finds a similar freedom with the facts and exploitation of the dispirited working class as the late Venezuelan strongman.

Donald Trump in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on July 25
Donald Trump in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on July 25


SANTIAGO — The notion of a so-called incursion of Latin migrants "invading" the United States through its southern frontier to steal jobs and undermine security sounds like electoral drama cooked up by a rabble-rousing candidate. Trumped up, you might say, in this case by Donald Trump, the real estate magnate shaking up the polls leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

The more sober reality is that between 2008 and 2012, U.S. Census Bureau data showed that 800,000 Mexicans migrated both legally and illegally to the United States, compared to 1.9 million in the four years before that. That's 57% fewer — and without the giant wall Trump says he must build to seal the 3,200-kilometer U.S. border with Mexico.

Not that Trump cares much for realities. Practically all the economic, financial, demographic and social figures he has bandied about on television since announcing his presidential candidacy in June have been inaccurate. When it comes to citing "facts and figures," denouncing fellow Republicans or belittling public personalities such as Sen. John McCain, he speaks with the nonchalance of an entertainer. He accused one female interviewer of asking him hostile questions because she was having her period, and apparently believes most Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists.

When they ask him about foreign or domestic affairs — from ISIS to the nuclear deal with Iran, to education financing or factory closures — the response is always the same: Things couldn't be worse, and I'm going to fix it all.

Trump doesn't explain why things are so bad or how he will fix them, but when pressured, he responds quickly. He will solve the problem of illegal immigration by building a wall on the U.S. border, paid for by Mexicans. He will change laws, and even the Constitution if necessary, to prevent the children of Mexicans from obtaining citizenship just for being born in the United States.

It's populism, demagoguery and racism delivered through your television screen. Trump speaks without filters and cites statistics and figures with such spontaneity and self-assurance that he seems to be telling the truth. And that's working in his favor, for now.

From Hugo C to Cristina K

Here in Latin America, we know a thing or two about populism. Trump isn't the first politician we've heard spewing a torrent of fiction to win supporters. Venezuela's late leader, Hugo Chávez, used freewheeling and undiplomatic public discourse that his partisans adored. Argentina's Cristina Kirchner also says the first thing that comes to her mind, in a perfect combination of ignorance and aplomb. But these "proto-Trumps" didn't turn out to be good news for their respective countries.

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Late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, Trump isn't good news for the United States. When someone who throws verbal grenades every day is leading the polls, a healthy dose of caution is in order.

The good news is that nobody in their right mind believes he will actually become president. Though he is leading polls now, voters will eventually come to understand that he's too much of a rogue for a mainstream party, that he doesn't understand that governing requires dialogue, negotiation and agreements.

If he ultimately fails to win the Republican nomination, he could run as an independent, effectively splitting the Republican vote and ensuring a win for likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Explaining his success

Media skills have helped Trump, but they alone don't explain his political success to date. The fact that 20% of Republicans see him as a viable option suggests he is a symptom of a deeper unease in U.S. society.

Trump generally attracts those who are distrustful of politicians, especially blue-collar whites who feel threatened by migrants willing to work for less money and by the movement of factories abroad.

The U.S. economy recovered well after the 2008 recession, but this isn't necessary being felt among all workers. The worst-hit group are less educated, white men, and Trump's xenophobia and hardly veiled misogyny speak to them. They are generally simple people with strong opinions despite a serious lack of information.

They believe the United States has taken the wrong path. The departure of U.S. factories abroad and the trend of migrants taking jobs in farming, taxi driving and construction have turned them against foreigners. Their resentment is understandable. There are so many migrants doing manual work that the few white people working alongside them feel out of place and threatened.

For these voters, the two more traditional Republican aspirants, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, are seen as part and parcel of the foreign invasion. Rubio is Cuban American, and Bush speaks Spanish with his Mexican wife.

Class warfare

Another source of resentment is class divisions in the United States. And it's about more than the widening income gap between rich and poor. There is a deep resentment among many ordinary Americans of the liberal elites running politics, media and the Internet.

These elites have money but appear to give it little importance. They are not ostentatious or extravagant in their spending. Trump, who inherited a fortune from his father and could be a member of that elite, has chosen instead to behave like someone who just won the lottery. Everything about him seems to scream tacky, and that's perhaps a style more in keeping with the lower classes who view the decorum of the upper classes as condescending hypocrisy.

Trump has turned the notion of the white, uneducated male as oppressor on its head. Now they are victims. He has dared to voice their complaints. When Trump says everything is going badly in the United States, what he's really saying it's that it's going badly for these guys. And they agree.

He is perhaps symptomatic of the adjustments happening within the U.S. economy and society, as globalization becomes irresistible and countries such as China become more relevant. His racist, anti-Mexican postures, which extend to other Latin Americans, reveal the existence of a disturbing current in the United States — much like the extreme right in Europe. It demonstrates that the United States has yet to adapt to globalization or soften the social divides that it has created.

The full scope and progression of this malaise remains to be seen, but the "monied clown," as novelist Mario Vargas Llosa calls Trump, won't be president. The Republican candidate will most likely be Bush, and the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Not that a third Bush president or a second Clinton president speaks brilliantly about social mobility and opportunities for all in the United States.

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