A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas


A popular figure from television and a neophyte to national politics rides a wave of populist protest against corruption, incompetence and the status quo to the top of the polls. First, he co-opts the nationalist message of conservatives, rattles against the supposed wrongs of neighboring countries and aligns himself with some of the country’s most reactionary forces. He then faces off against a former first lady, whose social democratic credentials are  overshadowed by suspicions and whispers of corruption and foul play. Easily, that man wins the presidency, making easy work of both the country’s conservative movement and the former first lady. guatemala flag icon

Sound familiar?

It’s not the United States and it’s not Donald Trump, now the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.

It’s Jimmy Morales, the populist comedian who won an overwhelming victory in last September’s presidential election in Guatemala.

But you might be excused for confusing the two.

For much of the last 11 months, as Trump has come to dominate American politics, the most immediate comparison in international politics has been former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. It’s true that there are many similarities — both are wealthy, older- than-average figures and both are right-wing populists with a penchant for blunt talk who rose to prominence as political outsiders.

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RELATED: Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

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But unlike Berlusconi, who owns much of the private Italian media, Trump doesn’t actually control any of the American media. What’s more important, though, is that Trump has done so well in presidential politics in spite of his wealth and business prowess. Michael Bloomberg and dozens of other businessmen are far wealthier and far more powerful, but they’re not presumptive nominees of a major U.S. political party.  Trump won the Republican nomination without deploying significant personal wealth and, indeed, he won with just a fraction of the amounts spent by competing Republican campaigns and their various super PACs.

Rather, Trump’s political success is due to his amazing abilities for self-promotion and self-branding, honed after decades of selling the ‘Trump’ brand and after 14 seasons starring in the reality television series The Apprentice. At this point, Trump-as-presidential-nominee owes his success to media personality, not any particular real estate canny.

That’s exactly the same skill set that Morales used in his spectacular run to the presidency in Guatemala last autumn. It’s also nearly the same platform — a lot of populist slogans heavy on identity, nationalism and throw-the-bums-out rhetoric, but light on actual policy details. 

Donald Trump might be the Jimmy Morales of the United States, not Silvio Berlusconi.
Donald Trump might be the Jimmy Morales of the United States, not Silvio Berlusconi.

During the campaign, Morales allied himself with some of the right-wing militarists associated with war crimes during Guatemala’s four-decade civil war, including the killings of indigenous Maya in Guatemala’s highlands in the 1980s. Moreover, he argued on the campaign trail that Belize is a province of Guatemala, not an independent country.  Trump, too, has used incendiary statements to draw support — on Mexican immigration, on Muslim refugees, on the role of violence in US politics, on white supremacy, on international trade and on outsourcing to China and elsewhere. The list goes on.

Of course, what helped Morales most was that he was running in the middle of a scandal that had landed the outgoing president, vice president and much of the cabinet under arrest on corruption charges. He ran on the slogan, ni corrupto ni ladrón — ‘neither corrupt nor a thief.’ Voters looked at his right-wing opponent Manuel Baldizón and former first lady Sandra Torres, and they decided that Morales was the least worst option. It wasn’t unreasonable to conclude that under either Baldizón or Torres, impunity and corruption in politics could continue.

It’s outlandish to believe that, come November, outgoing US president Barack Obama will be in prison on corruption charges. The United States is not Guatemala.

But Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, has made millions of dollars in speech fees since leaving her position as US secretary of state, and reporters have unearthed more than whispers about quid pro quo treatment for donors to the Clinton Foundation. That doesn’t even include the scandal (and potential FBI action) over Clinton’s private e-mail server during her time at State.

Trump’s voters have also watched as Denny Hastert, a former Republican Speaker of the House, was convicted on charges related to incidents of decades-old child molestation. As voters read that Hastert was being blackmailed for millions of dollars, it’s maddening that Hastert made so much money from public service. It’s legal, common and absolutely bipartisan for American officials to cash out after finishing a stint in government — including both Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. The most notorious are the links between the US government and investment bank Goldman Sachs, but the swinging door is hardly confined to Wall Street.

None of that sits well with voters struggling to maintain a middle-class standard of living in rural and suburban America, especially among those voters without college degrees or graduate degrees. If it seems that there’s one set of rules that apply to elected officials like the Clintons, well, there’s some truth to it.

Trump knows it, and it’s why he’s taken to calling his opponent ‘Crooked Hillary.’ He hopes to harness, on a larger stage, the same kind of outrage that led Guatemalans to elect as their president a television comedian with no apparent experience or qualifications for statecraft.

But the flip side of the Trump/Morales comparison is that, once elected, Morales hasn’t been able to do much of anything.

He came into office without a power base in the Guatemalan congress, which is still full of the political elite that have long controlled government. Morales’s bold calls for political and economic reform have gotten about as far as his saber-rattling against Belize.

Not very far.

It’s attorney general Thelma Aldana, both before and after Morales’s inauguration, who has been the force behind holding corrupt officials accountable.

If — and it’s still a big ‘if’ — Trump wins the US presidency in November, he’ll face hostile terrain in the US Congress, both from Democrats and from Republicans as well. Only yesterday, the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and an avatar for the pro-business, pro-immigration wing of the Republican Party, refused to endorse Trump as his party’s nominee, announcing that he’s ‘not there right now.’ (Trump promptly responded that he’s not there right now about Ryan’s legislative agenda).

The Trump-Ryan dust-up shows that, like Morales, Trump would have a very difficult time governing if elected. Outsiders who succeed in upending the political order on election day — such as former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura — often have difficulty implementing their anti-establishment platform into meaningful legislation.

Far from becoming an anti-democratic fascist pushing aside the legislative and judicial branches, there’s a strong chance that a Trump presidency would look a lot like the Morales presidency — a lot of talk and very little action when it becomes clear that neither Republicans nor Democrats are interested in implementing a Trumpista agenda.

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