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Why some see Latin America's populists in Donald Trump

Why some in Latin America look at their own history of populism and draw conclusions about Donald Trump.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump walks with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto at Los Pinos, the presidential official residence, in Mexico City in August 2016. President Pena Nieto said Oct. 23, that he could have done a better job handling the controversial meeting with the Republican candidate.

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File

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Donald Trump might not be terribly well regarded in Latin America. Still, to understand el pelo de elote, some say, one should look south.

As the US election season has unfolded, a mounting number of academics, commentators, and assorted Latin Americanists have reflected upon what they see as uncanny parallels between Mr. Trump and the continent's long line of caudillos and populist leaders.

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It’s generally not meant as flattery.

“For the first time, this feels like an election in a populist Latin American country,” lamented the Miami Herald’s Andrés Oppenheimer in a column last week. “Until now, political civility was a distinctive American trait.... I have seen too many of these improvised ‘saviors of the fatherland’ in Latin America, and they always end up destroying their countries.”

A notoriously slippery category, the term “populism” suffers from the same problem as “fascism”: as the Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau wrote in his seminal 2005 book “On Populist Reason,” it’s rarely given precise meaning, often deployed as a pejorative, and at best, reduced to a series of general traits that can sometimes grow to include just about any politician or associated movement. And groundswells of anti-elite movements from both the left and right of the American political scene largely lead back to the problem of deepening inequality – a problem that can’t be airbrushed over, whatever the flaws of any single candidate.

“Populism tends to be prevalent in very unequal societies,” Tufts University political economist Katrina Burgess told Politico in March. “Latin America is one of the most unequal regions in the world – we’re no longer so far behind, if you look at our Gini coefficient,” referring to a common measure of income inequality.

Still, many of the voices likening Mr. Trump to figures such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, or historical leaders like Venezuela's Simón Bolívar and the Perons of Argentina consistently point to a clear set of common trademarks in political style. There’s the use of television spectacle to gain and rouse followers; invocations of humiliation at the hand of foreign powers; exaggerated gestures of machismo; violence at rallies; and perhaps most importantly, the claim to holding the secret to lifting the country from its malaise.

“A crucial component of this tradition is the assertion that role of ‘the people’ is less to delegate power to representatives than to give it away to a patrimonial center – king, viceroy, dictator, or president – who organizes social energy through corporatist arrangements and his own charisma,” Mexican historian Enrique Krauze wrote in Slate in September. “The leader promises, in effect, that ‘I alone can fix it’.”

Nor has yawning inequality alone determined the rise of this brand of populists. In a 1991 study, political scientists Robert Kaufman and Barbara Stallings proposed another explanation for populism in the 1930s and 1940s: with regional governments unable to levy taxes on the wealthy, politicians found it easier to mobilize the working classes around policies that sought to replace foreign imports with domestic production.

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That policy sounds a lot like Trump’s creed of “America First.” And as much of the Republican Party has grown more deeply opposed to redistribution, this history may suggest that conservatism in a time of such inequality may hinge its viability on similar claims.