What Hugo Chávez Tells Us About Donald Trump


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Nicolas Ortega

MEXICO CITY — Long before becoming president, when he was a soldier, Hugo Chávez organized cultural activities, most notably beauty pageants. On a stage, microphone in hand, Mr. Chávez served as host, pumping up the audience and announcing the winner. The showman in him already struggled to emerge from under the uniform. Mr. Chávez said he imitated the proceedings he had seen on television in these improvised contests. This is how he learned to play to an audience.

When he tried to seize power through a coup d’état years later, in 1992, the resulting media frenzy sent him another sign. His military failure turned into a political victory: When Mr. Chávez appeared on TV to call for his colleagues to give up, he won over the audience. One minute on the screen was more effective than tanks, machine guns and bullets.

That was the start of his political career. He didn’t rise to power through social struggles. He became president without ever holding public office or a representative position that would have required him to negotiate or compromise. From his first election as president, in 1998, to his last one, in 2012 — shortly before his death at age 58 in March 2013 — Mr. Chávez became an expert in using television as a form of government.

Now Donald J. Trump is proposing the same thing to the United States.

Beyond their ideological differences, Mr. Trump, a populist right-winger, and Mr. Chávez, a leftist strongman, share the same telegenic vocation. They both built a career via television spectacle. Every Sunday, Mr. Chávez appeared on a program called “Aló Presidente, in which he would sing, talk about current events or appoint and dismiss ministers — reminiscent of Mr. Trump’s television catchphrase “You’re fired!” There was no time limit for “Aló Presidente.” The longest episode lasted eight hours and seven minutes.

Not only that, Mr. Chávez could decide to appear at any time through mandatory broadcasts transmitted over all the country’s airwaves. By 2012, he had appeared in 2,377 of them, adding up to 1,642 hours. Every day, Mr. Chávez was featured for an average of 54 minutes as the main character of some kind of television broadcast. His true utopia appeared to be the consolidation of a telegovernment.

Mr. Trump’s campaign wouldn’t be possible without television. Not only because of the coverage, worth hundreds of millions of dollars he has enjoyed, but also because of the reality show “The Apprentice,” on which he was host, judge and prize. From there, he began associating his image with the idea that financial problems could be resolved easily, authoritatively, in one hour of television. His campaign is also like that. To him, democracy is a reality show contest.

Mr. Chávez and Mr. Trump are expert provocateurs. Their narratives are closer to audiovisual fiction than to political debate.

An eloquent example is Mr. Trump’s visit with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. Mr. Trump appeared conciliatory and diplomatic in Mexico City. Hours later, in Phoenix, not only did he say that Mexico would pay 100 percent of the cost of a border wall, but he also unleashed another ferocious attack against immigrants. His coherence depends on the audience. The only thing that matters to him is the emotional effect he has on the people listening and the impact it has in the media.

Even when it comes to reporting on his health, Mr. Trump goes into showman mode. Why does he need to release his medical records if everyone can see him admitting he is overweight on “The Dr. Oz Show”? There is no problem too big to be tackled on TV.

Mr. Chávez also used controversy as bait. He was able to invent or magnify a conflict to keep his audience hanging. He knew perfectly well the power of language. In 2011 he said: “Obama, you are a fraud, a total fraud. If I could be a candidate in the United States, I would sweep the floor with you.” These are words that are reminiscent of a TV reality show. Mr. Trump also knows these tricks well and, like Mr. Chávez, has no scruples when it comes to using them. He said of President Obama: “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.”

There is no substance behind these words, just a media fire. Their narrative is also very similar. They both denounce an unfair present and invoke a glorious destiny that has been taken from us by an enemy force.

It’s a flattering fantasy, but it’s also a dangerous story: It legitimizes violence.

Mr. Chávez’s and Mr. Trump’s speeches raise the possibility that violence may be the best solution. Mr. Chávez routinely made threats. He always reminded others that his revolution was “peaceful but armed.”

Charisma like that of Mr. Chávez or Mr. Trump is also a symptom. It reflects what exists in their own societies. Mr. Chávez emerged in a country that had nurtured the certainty of being rich, although it lived in poverty. Mr. Trump speaks to Americans who are suffering the consequences of an economic crisis and globalization, who see their country as being contaminated by Latin Americans and Muslims.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Chávez spread the idea that social problems have easy and quick resolutions. They represent the mirage of magical solutions and the triumph of television over politics.

In Venezuela, the consequences of having opted for a media demagogue are evident in Mr. Chávez’s legacy: Inflation forecasts for 2016 exceed 700 percent. Almost two million Venezuelans have been forced to migrate. The country is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Voting for Chávez meant voting for the destruction of the country.

Like Mr. Chávez, Donald Trump used to organize beauty pageants. Like him, he may get a chance to remake a country.

The complexity of United States politics would make Mr. Trump’s journey to destruction more difficult. But Mr. Chávez’s parable is also a cautionary tale about voters’ vulnerability to the spell of charisma and media banality.

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