Trump. A name that is synonymous with orange skin, red hats, and many opinions, especially on military parades and immigration. Chávez. A lesser known name when he began, yet became the leader of Venezuela through a socialist party after serving in the military and staging coups. Two different people, two different cultures, two different wings of political opinions, yet one uniting factor- populist rhetoric.
In Mueller’s book, What is Populism?, the topic of populist rhetoric has been brought up numerous times. According to Jennifer McCoy, “Political scientists use the term “populist” to refer to political discourse that emphasizes “us vs. them” in moral terms of good and evil. Most often it is the “evil” elites conspiring against the “good” people.” One example of this was Chavez’s appeal to the citizens of Venezuela by using slogans of “Let’s be like Chavez!” as well as “Chavez is the people!” Chavez was brought up in a middle class family, the son of teachers and then went into the Venezuelan military. Trump, on the other hand, was the son of a real estate tycoon, went to Ivy League schools, and owned real estate firms which then led to the Trump brand through hotels and apartments around the world. Simply put, Donald J. Trump was in the public’s view since the 1980s for his celebrity status, and Chávez since his coup attempts in the 1990s, leading to a speech that broadcast him to the nation. How can these two leaders still rally around the flag of the commoner?
Trump started using his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in his tweets in 2011, though he did not start running until 2016. It provides a rallying cry for those who felt polarized by the Obama Administration, and by the time the 2016 election came about, the slogan was visible in many mediums- tweets, hats, shirts, pins, you name it. Chavez, on the other hand, did not have access to Twitter when he came into power. His primary method of campaigning was on “Chavismo,” a platform based on governmental reformation. Then, when Chavez had the chance to have a radio and then subsequent television show, “Aló Presidente,” he was able to influence the populace by “showing” what the government was doing, from requisitioning private property and businesses to opening factories. It provided a place for those who felt like the two party system of Venezuela had not represented their interests, and showed that Chavez did. Chavez ran with the socialist platform as well, one that could provide services and jobs to people that needed them. Though he and his successor switched to Twitter shortly before Chavez’s death, the radio and television show provided most of his platform and made Chavez the charismatic instead of Chavez the populist. Trump, on the other hand, used Twitter to promote bringing back the jobs “when America was great” though a time period of when that was has never been announced.
Trump’s rhetoric in the State of the Union also reflects the focus on military that Chavez developed over his eleven year presidency. With the announcement that Trump wanted a military parade after visiting France, one can think back to the various displays of military prowess by Venezuela and other populist countries. This showed to the world that Venezuela did have a military and could use it, but also the state of its citizens, and the gap between those who worked for the country and those who did not. With these military parades, one can suddenly see the flip side of Chavez’s politics- one that was for the people turned into an army against the people.
Trump’s name-calling, to an extent, hearkens to Chavez. It falls in line with Mueller’s thoughts on polarization- by using polarizing rhetoric, it makes the issue at hand a moral one, rather than political. Trump’s “shithole country” comment about African nations; his various rants about Mexico, building a wall, and illegal immigrants from there are notorious on the internet; and the leader of North Korea as “Rocket Man” could all be things Chávez would say if he was still alive. Through these names, it diminishes the power these countries have in the opinions of their followers, and makes it seem immoral for those who support these nations. To make many Venezuelans become anti-American, per Mueller, Chavez referred to Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, as the “Lord of War,” and President George W. Bush as “Mr. Danger.” The moralizing of leaders and countries leads to the polarizing of the electorate, and for those in support of said leaders and countries, it leaves them without a voice.
The polarization within the country also stems from name-calling of the opposition. From “Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer and “obstructionist” Democrats, Trump has polarized his opposition party by making it seem like those who believe him are the “real Americans.” Chavez used this as well with the “low life pig” Henrique Capriles, and calling anyone who opposed him a “coup plotter.” Huq and Ginsberg argue that this may lead to a breakdown in opposition party legitimacy and can lead to elimination of political parties.
The appeal to the lower and middle class who felt unrepresented or neglected by the traditional political parties of these nations was one that united the two leaders. Both factions of the USA and Venezuela wanted more jobs, more opportunities, and more services. Both countries wanted more unity, though they took different stances as to how to get there. Though Chavez was the president of Venezuela for eleven years, and Trump was the president of the USA for a little over one, it has been crazy to see the similarities of the two terms thus far. Trump’s actions, coupled with his rhetoric, indicates a strong populist feel for the remainder of his presidency. Though Chavez led with a more socialist platform than Trump, his actions may speak louder than his words.
Photo by Seth Poppel, “Yearbook Library.” Public Domain.