By Guilherme Baldresca ’19
What could Donald Trump possibly have in common with a Brazilian dictator from the previous century? As it turns out, ideologically, a lot. And the fact that American politics have half abandoned the expert-driven, enshrined in liberal values policies of other election cycles in favor of Trump’s populism, demagoguery, nationalism, xenophobia and isolationism makes this campaign look a lot like the political climate in Brazil in the 1930s and 40s.
In 1930, after losing the election, presidential candidate Getúlio Vargas initiated a revolution that broke with the political establishment in Brazil and installed a dictatorship that would last 15 years. His claim to the presidency? A grassroots movement that rejected the alternation of power between two elite political parties, and allegations of election fraud. Trump’s ascension to leader of the Republican Party has been quite similar to Vargas’, as he rejected the traditional party elites and tapped into popular frustration with the status quo. Like Vargas, he disrupted the political process and unsettled the establishment in quite an unexpected fashion. Trump has also signaled he might not concede defeat in case of a loss, indicating the possibility of a move that would be unprecedented in American presidential elections. Given this, both Trump and Vargas seem to believe that they are entitled to the presidency, which became quite evident when Trump declared this August that “The only way we can lose, in my opinion…is if cheating goes on.”
Not only in the way they ascended to and treat power are Trump and Vargas similar: populism is the thread with which both of these men weaved their political personas. Just as Trump seems to have assumed the mantle of defender of the working-class, Vargas was known as “father of the poor”, and fully exploited this moniker. He increased welfare programs significantly and enacted labor legislation that strongly favored workers, while at the same time maintaining policies that subsidized agricultural production for the elites.
Trump, even though he is running as the candidate for the party traditionally associated with laissez-faire economics, has promised not to cut entitlements like social security or Medicaid, while at the same time promising to cut taxes for all income brackets. This sort of pandering to multiple interest groups is characteristic of populism, and can generate abysmal long-term economic consequences when contradictory policies, like lowering taxes and increasing spending, are concomitantly enacted.
Also part of the populist rhetoric of both Trump and Vargas is a protectionist trade policy deeply rooted in nationalism. Upon rising to power, Vargas imposed severe tariffs and currency controls to foster the national industry through protectionism, a policy also known as Import-Substitution Industrialization. In what is one of the most prominent issues of Trump’s platform, he has criticized trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, arguing that American workers are suffering because of trade with other countries, particularly China and Mexico, and promised to revoke or renegotiate those deals if elected. Trump has relentlessly exploited the general population’s ignorance of macroeconomic axioms by propping up their nationalistic sentiment and manipulating their primal emotions: in declaring that the loss of industrial jobs “is the consequence of a leadership class that worships globalism over Americanism …”, he is pitting the interests of America and those of the rest of the world against one another, demonizing globalization in a nationalistic, protectionist and isolationist rhetorical effort.
The most controversial aspect of Vargas’ presidency is most likely the strong racial overtones of his immigration policy, which blatantly excluded people who were not of European descent. A presidential degree from 1945 reads, in an unofficial translation, “It shall be observed, in the admission of immigrants, the need to preserve and develop, in the ethnic composition of the population, the characteristics of its European heritage, as well as the defense of the national worker”. This was done in particular to stem the flood of immigrants from Japan who were fleeing their war-torn country post-WWII: Vargas turned people who were simply seeking a better life into objects of fear and distrust.
Fast-forward to the next century and Donald Trump’s stances on immigration similarly carry racial insinuations, albeit with a (slightly) more veiled approach. On his announcement speech, which would lay out the ideological foundation of his campaign, he famously stated:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
The implications are clear: It is not “you” that Mexico is sending. It’s Mexicans, and they’re rapists and drug dealers. This junction of nationalism with xenophobia is characteristic of the flavor of populism practiced by Vargas, and history seems to once again be repeating itself.
Trump supporter and professional controversy stirrer Ann Coulter recently released a new anti-immigration book called “Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole”. Never mind the charming title, it is ironic that American politics are becoming more Latin American not because of “the left”, but because of Trump himself. Due to his rhetoric, this election cycle has approximated Latin American politics, particularly from the 20th Century, more than any other.
Yes, America is still America: if Trump loses, he is not going to march down Pennsylvania Av. to depose Hillary Clinton; the institutions that maintain stability in the United States are still strong and functioning. However, the way American politics are conducted is undergoing significant changes, and this new direction, if further pursued by the American people come this November, might ultimately compromise some of those very ideals America was founded upon; a Trump presidency could mean the beginning of a transition to a new America, populism-inclined and unconcerned with classical liberal values.