How does a populist leader become a dictator?
That is the question Venezuelans are now grappling with, one that should serve as a warning to the United States. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro turned away from the legacy of his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez, eschewing authoritarian democracy for straight-up dictatorship. For Latin Americans, the implications for the similarly elected and populist government of Donald Trump are too obvious to ignore.
The situation in Venezuela has drawn criticism from governments for whom it hits a little too close to home. Anti-populist governments like the one in Mexico, no strangers to repression and even disappearances in their own countries, have criticized Maduro without acknowledging the implications for themselves.
Likewise, the regime in Venezuela has been sharply criticized by the American right and the populist Trump administration, whose disregard for legality and basic democratic procedures have more in common with Maduro’s cavalier disregard for basic democratic features than they’d ever admit. In July, President Trump, the American caudillo, described Maduro as a “bad leader” and an aspiring “dictator.” By August, Trump had threatened war against Venezuela, and the White House explicitly said Maduro’s government was a dictatorship.
Some have even wondered if Trump was trying to encourage a coup. It wouldn’t be the first time an American administration did so. After all, many figures in the opposition as well as the United States supported a failed anti-Chávez coup in 2002, when the former president was legitimately elected. And perhaps the Trump administration would like to see a more successful effort to unseat Maduro. But ultimately the American government is betting on domestic polarization to do the work of removing Maduro.
Vice President Pence provided an ideological framework for Trump’s comments, saying, “The birthright of the Venezuelan people has always been and will always be libertad.” The administration’s notion of freedom, however, is not necessarily tied to a defense of constitutional democracy, given that the White House is populated by leaders who find good people among neo-Nazis and KKK demonstrators, who embolden racist views by practicing religious discrimination and racial profiling of immigrants and who came to power as the result of the most racist campaign in recent history. Rather, “freedom” for Trumpism is the ability to decide in the name of the people what is best for the president.
This is populism in a nutshell, and helps us better understand its connection to authoritarianism.
The tensions that define authoritarian populism run through the history of populist politics, from Argentine Peronism to Trumpism. Populism is, in fact, a form of authoritarianism that distorts and narrows democracy without destroying it. In most populist regimes democracies become illiberal, with populists defining their leader and followers as the entire people and all those who disagree as enemies of the people.
And yet this demonization of the opposition and the independent press, as well as the executive’s increasing colonization of the other branches of government, are not accompanied by the elimination of these democratic fixtures from the political system. In the history of most populist regimes there was no significant move from rhetorical demonization to actual persecution. And unlike the fascists (who are their predecessors, their ideological cousins and their eventual allies), populists find in electoral victories a key source of their legitimacy. Populists, in short, do not completely ignore the most basic tenets of democratic constitutions.
But when populism does not follow the most basic democratic procedures, when it goes against constitutional mandates, when it dissolves congress and exiles dissenting members of the judiciary, when it engages in high levels of repression and ignores the most elementary electoral norms, it ceases to be “populist” and becomes something else: dictatorship. This is what is happening in Venezuela today.
Maduro is reaching this unusual moment in the transformation from populism to dictatorship. He has banned and imprisoned members of the opposition. His government is responsible for the street killings of more than a hundred citizens, establishing a constitutional assembly with a dubious single-party vote that has practically voided his country’s separation of powers. His regime also occupied congress and declared itself above all other powers.
Some pundits dismiss this as a typical Latin American situation. Recent history shows it is not. Contrary to stereotypes about the region, the current situation in Venezuela is quite uncommon. And it has been overwhelmingly denounced by most Latin American countries (including governments on the non-populist left such as Uruguay and Chile). The new assembly has been equally criticized by intellectuals on the Latin American left, former members of the left-wing social movement Chavismo like Maduro’s former minister of the interior, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, or the now-exiled attorney general, Luisa Ortega, as well as, in a very timid manner, Pope Francis.
Generally without the racism of American populists, populists in Latin American history have combined intolerant and absolutist understandings of their exclusive representation of the people as a whole with electoral wins — a history with echoes in Trump administration as much as the origins of the Maduro regime.
Historically, Latin American populists polarized their societies, but they did not engage in high levels of repression and political violence. Over the past two decades, Latin American populism married electoral democracy with authoritarian leadership.
This was the case of Venezuela under Chávez. His populist regime was almost always supported by electoral majorities. But he also severely downplayed the separation of powers and strengthened the army and popular militarism, even occasionally engaging in anti-Semitism and demonizing the press and more generally dissent. Although Comandante Chávez had once participated in a coup (as Argentine populist leader Juan Perón had done in 1930 and 1943), he was later fully committed to democratic elections while limiting other democratic traditions. Thus, generally Latin American populism embraced the authoritarian forms of democracy that defined it so well.
It is unclear whether European or American forms of right-wing populism, including Trumpism, are equally committed to some basic democratic values. Fascism is always looming above populism, especially in Europe and the United States where neo-fascist and “alt-right” movements have grown in strength and numbers.
It is odd that in this sense, Venezuela’s dictatorial measures are closer to the United States than to Latin America. In sharp contrast with most Latin American versions of populism, which after reformulating and leaving behind fascism after 1945 became firmly rooted in formal democracy, American populism combines racism and discrimination, the demonization of dissenters and the independent media with what is so far a dubious authoritarian position toward the working of the judicial system, including the Russian investigation.
Trumpism is authoritarian and populist but not yet dictatorial. And yet, at the present moment, the country where modern liberal democracy was born runs the risk of returning the populist phenomenon to its dictatorial foundations.
This is already happening today in Venezuela. The dictatorial detour of the Venezuelan ruling class — from a messianic, corrupt but elected leadership to its present debacle — sends a warning sign to the north rather than the south of the Rio Grande. No democratic Latin American country today has authoritarian presidents like Trump and Maduro. Perhaps the United States could learn something from Latin American history. Its populist neighbors to the south were never as extreme as the present Venezuelan and American strongmen.