The conventional wisdom is that Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is a populist clown who won’t be able to set the Republican agenda, nor capture the Republican nomination, nor — much less — win the 2016 presidential election. But the conventional wisdom has often been wrong.
Trump’s rise from a real estate mogul and reality show performer to the No. 1 Republican hopeful in the latest polls — he’s leading with 24 percent of the vote, followed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 13 percent and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with 12 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll — reminds me of the rise of the late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez.
Like Trump, Venezuela’s anti-American demagogue was not taken seriously by many when he started his campaign in the late 1990s.
Granted, Trump and Chavez come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Trump is the epitome of capitalism, a billionaire who says “I’m rich,” claims to be worth $10 billion — although independent reports put his wealth at much less — and openly calls for a more capitalist world. Chavez was an army officer who called for socialism.
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But both Trump and Chavez have a lot in common: They share the three key characteristics of populism.
First, populists need to create an enemy, so that they can become leaders of a national cause. And if the enemy is foreign, so much the better.
Trump has chosen Mexicans as the enemy, claiming that the United States is being invaded by a flood of undocumented Mexicans, which Mexico is allegedly exporting on purpose. Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime,” Trump said.
Never mind that such claims are wrong. In fact, not only are the vast majority of Mexican immigrants good, hard-working people, but illegal immigration from Mexico has fallen to record lows: from about 400,000 per year about a decade ago to 125,000 nowadays, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
But Mexico-bashing has become a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign. Nationalist populism seems to be working for him.
Second, populists constantly play the victimization game, claiming that they are about to be killed by the enemy at any time.
As ridiculous as it sounds, Trump said Thursday during a visit to Laredo, Texas, that he was putting himself in “great danger” by traveling to that border city. But “I have to do it, I love this country” he added, with a touch of drama. Before his visit, he had told Fox News that “I may never see you again.”
Never mind that Laredo is one of the safest cities in Texas, nor that Laredo’s murder, robbery and assault rates are lower than those of Trump’s hometown of New York, according to statistics collected from police departments by the FBI, and cited July 23 by The Washington Post’s The Fix column.
Third, most populists are ego-maniacs. I used to describe Chavez in this column as a “narcissist-Leninist” president, because his favorite word was “I.” In a speech on Jan. 15, 2011, Chavez used the word “I” 489 times.
Trump doesn’t make five-hour-long speeches, like Chavez, but he managed to utter the word “I” 220 times during his 42-minute announcement speech on June 16.
There is another thing that Trump and Chavez have in common: Both used the same campaign strategy of making outrageous statements on a daily basis to capture the headlines and place themselves at the center of the political stage.
Since he announced his run for the Republican nomination, Trump has made one headline after another, whether it was his first incendiary comments about Mexicans, or his claim that decorated Sen. John McCain “is not a war hero,” or his giving out rival Republican hopeful Sen. Lindsay Graham’s cellphone number during a campaign rally.
After each of his tirades, Trump blasts the media for allegedly distorting his comments, which again generates a new round of headlines. That’s exactly how Chavez — without money or a political machine — won his first election in 1998.
My opinion: In an ideal world, the media should ignore Trump, or put him in the entertainment section, as The Huffington Post has decided to do. But Trump is news, whether we like it or not, if anything else because he has already climbed to the No. 1 spot among Republican hopefuls.
He may not win the Republican nomination, but he is likely to set the GOP agenda, or — as Ross Perot did before — run as an independent and siphon away Republican votes in 2016. It’s time to take Trump seriously for what he is: a nationalist populist demagogue. Just like Chavez.