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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-06-2023 06:58

Prospects for demagogues look bright

When people come to the conclusion that they simply cannot trust run-of-the-mill democratic politicians to do anything that might make their lives easier because they are in cahoots with the rich, they will turn to populists who at least appear to share their way of thinking.

For well over a decade, Argentine politics revolved around the hugely divisive figure of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In the United States, Donald Trump continues to play a similar role. Like Cristina, he is supported by a large number of people who are willing to give him the benefit of every conceivable doubt and attribute the many criminal charges that are being levelled against him to the malevolence of his political enemies. While the charges may be less serious than the ones troubling Cristina – who, were it not for the deficiencies of a legal system which is as slow-moving as Italy’s, would already be in jail for enriching herself and her cronies at the tax-payers’ expense – even some of Trump’s former associates think they are weighty enough to put him behind bars for many years to come.

Both former presidents are doing their best to take advantage of the situation they find themselves in by making out they are targets of a “witch hunt” or “lawfare.” They seem genuinely convinced that they are targets of an onslaught organised by a deeply entrenched establishment which wants to drive them out of public life because they dared to defend the victims of an unjust economic order. In the light of their ostentatious passion for expensive consumer items, many find this pretension ridiculous, but it is undeniable that they have managed to win the fervent backing of millions of men and women who, rightly or wrongly, feel the world has given them a raw deal and believe they are on their side.

Cristina is on the way out. She decided it would not be in her interest to run for high office again because she knows that, with well over half of those who are qualified to vote giving her the thumbs down, she would be almost certain to get roundly defeated. Even her nemesis, Mauricio Macri, would in all likelihood beat her in a presidential race. Though she has yet to quit the stage, her refusal to compete in the upcoming elections has left her adherents running around like headless chickens.

For now at any rate, Trump’s position is very different. According to the opinion polls, he is on course to romp to an easy victory in the Republican primaries and, even if he were reduced to campaigning from a jail cell, he would be well placed to defeat Joe Biden or, should he be unable to run, either the laughably uninspiring Kamala Harris or any likely substitute, in next year’s presidential elections. Had it not been for the widespread feeling that just about anyone would make a better president than Trump, Biden would never have become what his compatriots like to say is the most powerful man in the world.

Were the United States a smallish country notorious for its political eccentricities, Trump’s reluctance to spend all his time playing golf or collecting garish hotels instead of engaging in high-level politics would not matter overmuch in the grand scheme of things, but, for good or ill, it remains by far the most important member of the Western alliance, the sovereign nation with the biggest and, presumably, most effective armed forces and an enormous economy whose vicissitudes affect all the others. The US also disposes of so much “soft power” that it is able to export its cultural trends, some of which are obnoxious, to the rest of the world. Its leaders are also much given to preaching; despite their own evident failings, they enjoy chiding their counterparts in foreign countries for their political and moral shortcomings though, thanks largely not only to Trump’s misdemeanours but also to the suspicions of wrongdoing hanging over the head of his successor, Biden, who has been accused of profiting from the dodgy activities of his son, Hunter Biden, they no longer have the moral authority they once had.

For over a century, politicians and others in the United States have been prone to sneer at the willingness of Latin Americans to let themselves be ruled by demagogic caudillos such as Juan Domingo Perón or bemedalled generals who had never fought a battle, but their belief in their own superiority is now far weaker than it used to be. If nothing else, Trump has taught them that the US is not entirely immune to the ills that have beset the southern parts of the Western hemisphere. As tends to happen elsewhere, when people in wealthy countries come to the conclusion that they simply cannot trust run-of-the-mill democratic politicians to do anything that might make their lives easier because they are in cahoots with the rich, they will turn to populists who at least appear to share their way of thinking.

The ability of Trump and Cristina to dominate their respective political landscapes has less to do with what they promise, or promised, to do when on the campaign trail than with their choice of enemies. The Kirchnerites made no bones about this; from the very beginning, their leaders understood that it would pay them to mobilise the hostility of the have-nots towards the haves. As for Trump, he ruthlessly exploited similar feelings to win the allegiance of enough North Americans to get him into the White House and then, after a rambunctious four-year term in office, make a strong showing in elections which were overshadowed by the Covid pandemic, an event that probably harmed him more than anything he actually did or said.

In Argentina, there are many people who want to stick it to the relatively well-off, and in the United States resentment among those who have seen their prospects ruined by what has happened in recent decades, with good jobs getting exported to China and immigrants, whether legal or not, from less developed countries pouring in and undercutting wages, seems to have become equally virulent.

None of this is likely to change in the foreseeable future. North American companies may be withdrawing from China and other East Asian countries, but instead of hiring more people in the US to do the routine work, those that can are automating production. As for preventing low-skilled immigrants from crossing the southern border, the chances of this happening any time soon are not exactly promising. What is more, in the United States, and also in Western Europe, technological progress, spurred by the well publicised arrival of Artificial Intelligence, is rapidly making the outlook for most people even bleaker than it was a few years ago and, by so doing, will make it easier for politicians such as Trump and his many equivalents to rise to the top in countries where, not that long ago, most voters would have been treated them with contempt.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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