“How could you let this happen?” our friends in the United States have asked. “How could you put your country in the hands of an evident huckster? Wasn’t it obvious what would happen since day one?”
You could try to explain it, of course, and I have. But it is hard for people to really understand. Having your democracy commit suicide under the lure of a charismatic demagogue is not the kind of experience you can fully make sense of unless you’ve lived it in your own skin.
Before 2016, no explanation I could give my American friends was enough. Now, every explanation is superfluous. There’s no need to go into involved accounts of the way know-nothing populism and us-vs.-them conspiranoia have destroyed the Venezuelan republic since 1998. Now, my American friends can just turn on CNN and watch it happening live.
If anything, though, I think this approach is too harsh on Venezuela. Hugo Chávez, for all his faults, was a much cannier politician than Donald Trump. Whereas Trump has become notorious for his lack of impulse control, Chávez knew how to bide his time. The work of dismantling the previous regime’s institutions and assuming dictatorial control of society was carried out in a slow, patient, stepwise fashion. It’s hard to imagine Trump having the mastery over his own passions to pull something like that off.
A man who can be provoked by a tweet is not a man with the patience to dismantle the American republic.
For all the obvious similarities, the Trump-Chávez parallel is overplayed. Chávez wove a complicated coalition that brought together civilian leftists, military officers, disenchanted middle-class people and the disenfranchised poor. Trump, by contrast, has taken a complicated, diverse coalition with a record of winning elections … and wrecked it.
And that’s when it hit me: The South American demagogue whom Trump really resembles isn’t Chávez. It’s his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Like Trump, Maduro has taken a winning electoral coalition and splintered it, doubling down on ever more extreme rhetoric that appeals to a dwindling core of supporters. Like Trump, he betrays an alarming inability to understand the basics of constitutional government. Like Trump, he seems unable to grasp what has long since become obvious to everyone around him: that letting the crazy rip is a losing strategy and it’s rendering him electorally uncompetitive.
For all his extremism, Chávez understood that it was important to keep up at least the bare-bones appearance of following constitutional norms to retain legitimacy. Trump seems much closer to Maduro in that neither is remotely able to grasp this.
Again and again, since taking over in 2013, Maduro has run roughshod over the constitution in ways Chávez never dared to. He has even lived the Trumpian dream of jailing his main political opponents.
For all the differences between the American real estate tycoon and the Marxist bus driver, the thing that makes leaders such as Maduro and Trump genuinely dangerous is their obvious contempt for norms, both formal and informal, of constitutional government. Nothing rings more warning bells to this Venezuelan than hearing Trump promise to do things he plainly lacks the constitutional authority to do. Witness his barely concealed attacks on fundamental freedoms, such as the call to “open up” the libel laws — another area that finds Maduro and Trump in close alignment.
For Venezuelans, the past year has been an object lesson in how dangerous this approach can be. At the end of last year, Maduro’s governing Socialist Party got crushed in midterm elections. The opposition won an outsize two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, our congress. You might think that would pose some problems for a president bent on running the country all alone, but things become so much easier when you just pay no attention to the constitution.
First, Maduro used the lame-duck National Assembly to pack the Supreme Court with die-hard supporters. He went to the amazing extreme of appointing to the court some Socialist Party congressmen who had just lost their reelection battles. With a fully subservient majority in the court, the rest is easy.
All this year, this kangaroo court has been handing down rulings that flatly contradict Venezuela’s constitution. I’m not talking about a court that sides with the government on disputed points of constitutional doctrine; the newly stacked court routinely rules that the constitution says the exact opposite of what it says. When the constitution says the National Assembly may approve amnesty laws to free political prisoners, the court says that it means it can’t. When the constitution says the president needs the National Assembly’s support to rule via emergency decree, the court says that means he doesn’t.
Last week, we followed this crazy dynamic off the deep end, when the court overturned 800 years of constitutional practice, dating back to the original Magna Carta, ruling that when the constitution says the legislative branch has to vote on the national budget, it means the president can just approve budgets on his own.
I don’t think the Republican nominee has the discipline or the cunning to debase the United States’ constitutional institutions to this extreme, even if he did manage to get himself elected. But I know precisely how scary it is to have to wonder about a question like that.
And I’m here to tell you: However bad you think things might get if you put the country in the hands of a populist demagogue, they can get worse.