From the start of President Trump’s meteoric rise, a veritable cottage industry of Trump-as-X comparisons has emerged. By one watchdog’s count, the media have compared Trump to Venezuelan leaders at least 30 times, particularly the late President Hugo Chávez.
At first glance, the two leaders appear to have a lot in common: their ascents to power were propped up on populist promises, unscripted communication with the public, and strongman personas. John Patrick Leary, author of A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the US Imagination, says that most of the Trump-Chávez parallels rely more on uncomfortable stereotypes about Latin Americans than helpful political analysis. Bob speaks with Leary about why this brand of comparison might distract us from more salient lessons on the history of American authoritarianism.
The Third Man Theme by Anton Karas
BOB GARFIELD: From the start of Trump's meteoric rise, a veritable cottage industry of Trump-as-X comparisons has emerged. According to Adam Johnson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media have compared Trump to more than 100 someones or somethings since he first embarked on his bid for the presidency.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Those include real-world strongmen.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Comedians, commentators and even some Holocaust survivors have seen scenes like this and have compared Trump’s tone and his actions to that of Hitler and Hitler’s ally, Mussolini.
TREVOR NOAH: When you look at Zuma and Trump, it looks like they’re brothers from another mother.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: - some similarities between Presidents Erdoğan and Trump. Both are populist leaders, both are not particularly known for their thick skins and both have a fairly dubious relationship with press freedom…
BOB GARFIELD: Fictional villains.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He’s Darth Vader, come on, compelling, cold, disciplined, yet tortured by emotions he desperately tries to suppress.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Robert DeNiro turned heads in accepting the lifetime achievement award in Bosnia by comparing his crazy, deranged character from that Taxi Driver movie to Donald Trump.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: She told us candidly why she finds Donald Trump so objectionable.
LACI GREEN: He’s Voldemort.
BOB GARFIELD: And yes, inanimate objects.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: You liken Trump to the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah.
It just struck me as that, that there he was, flaming out in one debate after another, and she’s kind of like the iPhone 7…
BOB GARFIELD: But the media's favorite Trump comparison, by a mile, was to Latin Americans strongmen. By Johnson's count, Trump has been compared to Venezuelan leaders alone at least 30 times, particularly the late Hugo Chávez.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The critics are saying that he, Donald Trump, really reminds folks of Chávez.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He approximates the strongman personality of a Chávez. It’s the idea that people like him because he’s an authoritarian figure.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: One of the things they often do is they conflate political analysis with cultural generalization and cultural stereotypes.
BOB GARFIELD: John Patrick Leary is the author of A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the US Imagination. To him, Trump as Chávez is an example of a comparison that relies on uncomfortable stereotypes.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: You know, they had very different politics. One styled himself an anti-imperialist, one styles himself, frankly, kind of an imperialist, America first, the rest of the world last. One was a socialist. One was an ardent and proud capitalist. I think those political distinctions, however you assess them, are the most important.
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s the comparison made by Jennifer McCoy in a Reuters piece: Chavez and Trump, quote, “eschew political correctness and routinely speak in an informal, unscripted style, connecting directly with voters who have felt invisible.” And I would add to that, vulgarly and crudely, which is sort of outside of the political norm. Not fair?
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Some of his crudeness is certainly outside of the political norm, which is, I think, what drives a lot of the reaching for foreign analogies. But, again, you know, speaking directly to the common person, disavowing elites, these are all part and parcel of the American presidential political vocabulary. After all, “Make America Great Again” was Reagan’s slogan before it was ever Trump’s.
BOB GARFIELD: One thing Trump has done, like many a demagogue before him, is to stoke fear about a sinister “other” that is gonna harm our way of life or our very national security. Chávez also had a sinister other, except it was the right-wing oligarchy that controlled so much of the economy, so many of the institutions and especially the media. Is there a comparison to be made there?
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Well, there’s a comparison but I think there’s also a key contrast. I mean, the “other” that you referred to with Trump is a - an ethnic, a racial, a national other, right? And the internal domestic antagonist that Chávez had was a – you know, essentially a class difference. And so, when you’re making a kind of class critique, that’s very different, I think, than making a ethnic or racial critique.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the things that ticks you off is the thinly-veiled condescension that you say underlies a lot of these comparisons.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: One of the associations that people often make between Chávez and Trump is an impulsiveness, a kind of hotheadedness. Now, of course, we in the United States, Anglo-Americans, in particular, in the United States, like to think of themselves as dispassionate, coolheaded and deliberate, and it's a common and longstanding stereotype of Latin Americans that they’re the opposite, that they’re impulsive and, and passionate and driven by kind of irrational exuberance. That's, I think, at the heart of most of the comparisons with Chávez.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the language that's come up regarding Trump is the notion of running the United States like a banana republic.
ROBBY MOOK ON CBS THIS MORNING: I would say it's chilling that Donald Trump thinks that the presidency is like some banana republic dictatorship where you can lock up your political opponents.
JONATHAN TURLEY ON CNN: If this were some kind of banana republic, President Trump would have no pushback from any institution.
SARA ELLISON, ON CNN: Trump really is talking like a strongman in a, in a kind of banana republic…
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: It’s important to remember where that phrase came from. It referred to Latin American countries, especially in Central America, that were dictatorships and where politics and the economy were subjugated by an imperial power from abroad.
BOB GARFIELD: Local despots underwritten by Standard Oil, United Fruit and the CIA.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Right. To use the phrase “banana republic” suggests a real lack of empathy about those abuses and what that phrase means, and I can’t help but hear a little bit of nostalgia for the time when the United States threw its weight around in that kind of aggressive way and a little bit of nostalgia for the time when the banana republics knew their place and we really knew ours.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, one final point of comparison between Trump and Chávez was their fondness for the TV machine.
Trump, of course, was a reality TV star and Chávez had a regular Sunday TV show where he spoke directly to the public. Is that a legitimate observation?
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Well, I hate to be so stubborn, [LAUGHS] ‘cause it seems strange to me to treat American politicians manipulating the TV as a strange import from Venezuela. [LAUGHS] You know, John F. Kennedy would probably object to not getting any credit for that. Franklin Roosevelt might want to join in, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that no matter which of the possible points of comparison I, I raise, your answer is sort of to cross your arms and –
- set your jaw and say, don't lay your imperialist trip on me.
You just aren’t willing to entertain the comparisons because you think there is a larger ethnocentrism and imperialistic assumption at work here?
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Well, briefly, yes. [LAUGHING] I think one of the things that motivates a lot of the historical analogies is an attempt to make sense of something we can’t explain or that frustrates our expectations. And we’re accustomed, I think, in the United States to thinking about the United States as exceptional, as we often hear, right, as standing apart from the world, as unique. And our politics are supposedly driven by rational argument, by the competition of the best ideas, rather than being driven by a contest of opposing forces and who has more power than the other, who has more money than the other.
One of the things, I think, that the rise of the Trump administration should tell us is that perhaps we in the United States aren’t really so special. Perhaps we’re really not, actually, so different from the rest the world but that is, I think, a difficult and unaccustomed way for Americans to understand the politics of our country. And so, faced with that kind of conundrum, we resort to these old kind of cultural stereotypes, a lot of which are drawn from the Cold War.
And I think that’s, in a way, a kind of dodge because if we want to make sense of where Trump came from, we have to kind of look our own racist authoritarian political traditions squarely in the eye. We have to think about the rampant class inequality that has, in part, set the stage for someone who claims that he alone can fix it to come in and claim to fix it.
BOB GARFIELD: John, thank you.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Oh, thank you, nice talking to you.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: John Patrick Leary is a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and author of A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the U.S. Imagination.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
That’s it for this week show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Kate Bakhtiyarova. And our show was edited by, this week, Executive Producer Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Terence Bernardo. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.