“And, at this point, would anyone be truly surprised if one day Trump shoots an Apprentice two-hour special from the White House?”
from a draft of this post, before it was known that President Trump will still act as Executive Producer for the upcoming season of the Apprentice.
Post-truth is new up North; for us it’s old hat.
On November 8th, 2016, many intellectuals were swaffeled across the face by the election results of the U.S. presidential election. Today, a still shellshocked world will watch in astonishment as Donald John Trump takes the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States of America. As Venezuelans, we stand today alongside intellectuals in other parts of the world who’ve been here before and warned of the dangers of this kind of leadership; Russian intellectuals such as Gary Kasparov and Masha Gessen, or Italian writers such as Luigi Zingales and Beppi Severgnini. The parallels between Trump’s style and that of Putin and Berlusconi have been drawn. Now, as Venezuelans, we feel in our bones we have something to say to our American friends. But what?
For a decade and a half, we’ve struggled to explain what was going on in Venezuela to our English-speaking interlocutors. Post-truth is new up North; for us it’s old hat. The wall of misunderstanding and suspicion from intellectuals both in Europe and the U.S. regarding our distrust of the Bolivarian Revolution had felt like an indictment, at times: how could we stand in the way of Venezuela’s progress, of its people’s will? How could we be so condescending on the voting public that repeatedly gave Chavez carte blanche to rule the country as he wished?
Today, as Trump is inaugurated, we suppress the urge for an “I told you so,” and pivot instead to a “this is what you have to watch out for going forward.”
Like Chávez, Trump has built his power on a personal ideology of showmanship, where ideas and facts always take a back-seat to feelings, and to the appearance of ideas. Trump did not win the Republican primaries quoting Hayek, nor did he go into the debates channeling the positive moral posturing of a Ronald Reagan or brandishing a CV full of high-level governing experience. The only idea Trump has consistently championed is Trump. Venezuelans see it and can’t help a shudder. Chavez also championed himself above everything else, even above the new constitution that he himself had had tailor-made for his initial years in office.
Chavez and Trump share this obsession for showmanship, spectacle and power —or, more precisely, the arbitrary flaunting of power followed by the equally arbitrary decisions not to follow through their own proposals—, which was at the center of their relationship with their followers. Chavez became a reality television star after becoming President, Trump had been a reality television star before becoming President.
Trump’s reality TV catchphrase —“You’re fired”— coincides almost verbatim with Chávez’s famous, referee-whistling speech on April 7th, 2002 speech purging PDVSA of its top managers.
Firing people on live television, Chavez prefigured the best of Trump’s live-on-TV showmanship, the aspiration of the President-as-CEO for whom intelligence briefings are just a nuisance.
To seek to disarm it with facts is useless. In Venezuela, we’ve witnessed the the way the autocrats’ supporters doggedly dig in in the face of facts. Just recently, in the Washington Post, Paul Waldman shows how unprepared U.S. intellectuals are for this, in a piece titled “How long before the white working class realizes Trump was just scamming them?” Waldman argues that once Trump supporters realize how weaker the U.S. is under Trump they’ll vote him out of office. It’s the type of wishful thinking that Venezuelans will remember well from the early years of our dictatorship.
It’s not results that keep a demagogue’s supporters in thrall, it’s their spell-binding narrative and the self-fulfilling rhetoric of blaming the Other. It is no coincidence that both Chavez and Trump present their great debacles—Chavez’s own military mediocrity demonstrated in the 1992 coup attempt and Trump’s disastrous brushes with bankruptcy— as some of their biggest achievements. It’s no coincidence that they attack their opponents as pathetic and weak, as escualido and apatrida— disqualified not by the strength of their argument, but by their powerlessness.
We in Venezuela know how terrifyingly plausible it is that, in four years, a Trump voter will look around at his declining quality of life and blame not Trump but an “economic war” with China or Mexico, aided by treacherous elites in Washington and left wing intellectuals, always eager to sell out the National Interest.
We know a Trump presidency will not be judged in terms of facts, statistics or results, but on the strength of his emotional connection with his base.
Even if some Trump voters do realize the mistakes and abuses of his government, there is the real possibility, already witnessed by us in Venezuela, that narrative-spurned hate towards the Democrats will make them cross their arms and yell: No volveran!, which is Chavismo all-powerful snake oil, a formula that pimps the fear of change under the appearance of a sound national policy.
Venezuelan have seen it happen. We know a Trump presidency will not be judged in terms of facts, statistics or results, but on the strength of his emotional connection with his base. That his performance will be judged by his performance.
And that once this logic of showmanship colonizes the public sphere, it is remarkably hard to evict. Unwillingly, Venezuelans to this day continue to stand in hour-long lines for a first row seat to the debacle that many did not want to believe could come.
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