Debate on the Hugo Chávez / Donald Trump Comparison

David Smilde

A couple of weeks ago, Tim Gill’s publication of a piece on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog criticizing comparisons between Donald Trump and Hugo Chávez generated an interesting discussion on my Facebook wall. Below I provide an edited version, starting with my original post.

David Smilde: Tim Gill courageously wades against the current: “The difference between Trump and Chávez mirrors the difference between what scholars call exclusionary and inclusionary populism. That is, while some populists — like Trump — have drawn lines between native-born citizens and immigrants, other populist leaders have sought to include and empower marginalized or vulnerable populations.”

Javier Corrales: There is a bit too much idolatry and idealization of Chávez here. There was a lot of belligerent, exclusionary politics in Chavismo, from the beginning, starting with the Constituent Assembly.

Tim Gill: Thanks for your comment, Javier. In some ways, I could agree with a comparison between Trump and Maduro (i.e. policy on Colombian immigrants). But since Trump has made racism a center-piece of his platform, I cannot see the utility of drawing a comparison with Chávez, given how Chávez approached issues of race/ethnicity. I would agree that both used populist, and divisive, language, which I acknowledge in the piece, but the usefulness of the comparison doesn’t go much farther than that.

Javier Corrales: Hi Tim, I see your point. I too have written about comparisons and about not getting carried away with them. There are enormous differences, like you say. But if you focus on their approach to their opponents, to institutions of check and balance, and to the organizations that Chávez created and that Trump wants to create (all devoid of pluralism, all vertical, all intolerant of dissent), the similarities are very strong. Trump is not a perfect replica, I agree, but I would not say he is the exact opposite. In many areas, they are both very exclusionary of opponents, and you cannot have a democracy where the state has that attitude toward opponents, even if you are mobilizing new voters.

Tim Gill: I agree with you on the issue of checks and balances and the legacy of Chavismo with regard to some political institutions (e.g. the Supreme Court (TSJ)). However, I can’t agree on the issue of the organizations that Chávez helped to create, including the communal councils and communes, and the organizations that he promoted, such as cooperatives. It appears that many in the opposition have also recognized the importance that communal councils have served for the population, as well as some of the social programs put in place by Chávez. At the international level, I’d also say there is an important and useful legacy that Chávez left – e.g. UNASUR, CELAC. Last, I wouldn’t lay all the blame on Chávez for the polarization in Venezuela; the opposition hasn’t exactly made dialogue easy. At times, they’ve even excluded themselves from the political process (e.g. 2005).

Javier Corrales: Based on my reading of Hawkins, Albertus, Penfold, Myers, López-Maya, Maingón, Fernandes, Carroll, and a few others, all of whom have studied NGOs under Chávez, my sense is that sooner or later, NGOs became GONGOs (Government-organized NGOs) with little internal pluralism, and pretty much holding monopolies on access to welfare and to influential politicians. Political organizations controlled by the opposition (mayors, governors, municipal councils), even before Maduro, were severely stripped of authority and resources.

I am not disputing the rise of social spending under Chávez. I’m pretty sure that Trump, if facing a boom, will spend like crazy as well. That won’t make him inclusive necessarily. I am simply saying that spending in Venezuela and social policy especially were used with a systematic bias in favor or rewarding followers and punishing dissenters. Information to the contrary was suppressed (attacks on the media). Notice also the importance of what you are saying: taking over the Court alone grants the president so much discretionary power that it alone should signal to everyone that this was not inclusionary governance: dissenters in Venezuela had no way of challenging the state in court. After 2001, no case was ever ruled against the president. The president always won; challengers never won. Is that inclusive populism?

And I would go further. There was far more cronyism under Chávez than ever in Venezuela (remember the boliburgueses; the boom in Hummer sales, especially among Chavista military officers?). The topic of international organizations is different and does not seem that relevant to the question of whether these types of leaders are inclusionary or exclusionary populists, so let’s leave it there. And yes, the opposition made many mistakes, and the 2005 boycott was probably the worst.

Dimitris Pantoulas: There are three different periods in the Chávez era 1999-04, 05-10, 10-13 with different political, institutional and symbolic characteristics (and also with different opposition strategies). It is most interesting and methodologically sound to compare Chávez to Trump before and after the 1998 elections. Tim Gill is touching it a bit when he mentions about the origins of both. The Consejos Comunales, the TSJ and the authoritarianism belong to the second and third period (together with Unasur etc). What surprises me is that no one has mentioned that Chávez did not have a party while Trump is the Republican candidate.

Alejandro Velasco: “After 2001, no case was ever ruled against the president. The president always won; challengers never won.” That seems inexact, Javier. Or rather, I would want to know what you mean by “the president always won.” Certainly, the ruling that dismissed the 2002 coup as a coup cannot be considered a victory for Chávez. Then there are the rulings of Blanca Marmol, and Afiuni. Of course, the outcome of each of these was to further consolidate control over the judiciary through a variety of means – packing, dismissing, jailing – which goes to your point but in a less overdetermined way. To suggest that judicial control was already cemented in 2001 is to set aside the various conjunctures that resulted in greater and greater intensification of institutional control, some seized by Chávez, others granted to him by opposition mistakes. It suggests a kind of ineluctable telos about Chavismo that dismisses how context, conjuncture and intense fighting between anti-democratic currents in both the government and the opposition created more and more conditions for what we’re seeing now.

Javier Corrales:  You are right, Alejandro, there were exceptions, but to my mind, they were too few to count for much.  My main point is that judged in terms of attitudes toward pluralism and checks and balance, Chávez was systematically intolerant.  There was also significant cronyism under Chávez, meaning, systematic channeling of public funds to the already well-off (how else to explain the byzantine exchange rate and the lack of transparency in the budget, both of which became hallmarks of chavenomics). It’s hard to use Chávez as an example of inclusionary politics, unless one only looks at discourse.    ,

Nick Casey: Tim makes some great points here – for all the parallels between Chávez and Trump (the use of TV and Twitter, the improvised speechmaking and policymaking, the macho persona and the strange beauty queen obsession), the two men stand for very different things. But it seems unfair to call the comparisons just “fashionable.” The two men have risen to power in uncannily similar ways, speaking to groups who feel they are marginalized. The difference is that in Venezuela that marginalized group wanted to hear inclusion and in the US it was drawn to exclusion. Trump and Chávez came from different backgrounds, but what’s interesting is that they represent the “hero” in both of their settings: the successful businessman archetype fits in America just about where the strong military man goes in Latin America, I would say. Both men were fueled by anger. What’s fascinating in the Trump-Chávez parallel is how the right and left can converge at populism. Pointing out the differences between these men is important, but I think we have just as much – maybe more – to learn from their similarities. Those are just my thoughts – it was great to read a different perspective on the comparison.

Tim Gill: I appreciate your thoughts on the article, Nick. I think you’re right that there is something to learn by looking at the style of both Trump and Chávez. Some of the focus, in my opinion, though, can be a bit superficial – for instance, the TV shows, and the macho persona. I don’t think it adds up to very much. Chávez used his television program to connect with Venezuelan citizens, discuss government missions, etc. Can we seriously draw a parallel with The Apprentice, that is, a show where individuals would compete for a corporate position? 

There is something interesting there about how each have become a hero of sorts. In Venezuela, it makes a bit more sense to me how that occurred, as Chávez’s rhetoric on inequality actually fit quite closely with the reality of many Venezuelans’ lived experience. Chávez himself had also lived a modest life. Trump, on the other hand, has clearly sought to scapegoat racial and ethnic minorities, which, needless to say, doesn’t fit with the facts. It’s strange to me how he’s become a hero. He didn’t really pull himself up by his bootstraps, he’s failed in not a few endeavors, and he’s an incredibly obnoxious braggart. So, I wonder why he’s the hero. Is it really because of his alleged business acumen, or is it because he’s saying what many bigoted U.S. citizens say behind closed doors? Definitely something interesting to consider.

Nick Casey: Great comment. And I agree. I also wonder about how a figure so distant and condescending of the rest like Trump becomes a hero. It shows how difficult the US is to understand at this moment.

Orlando Perez: The problem here is assuming that populism is defined mostly by the substance of policies rather than by the strategies (and tactics) of governing, and more importantly, gaining power. Of course, Chávez and Trump are different; different contexts, history, background, but as Javier has indicated both use exclusionary tactics (different targets, but exclusionary nonetheless) and both practice personalism and define their politics in contradistinction to prevailing institutions.

David Smilde: Thanks everyone for a stimulating conversation. I think the issue of form versus substance gets to the heart of the debate. If you look at the form or strategies of populism, I think there is little difference between Trump and Chávez. Both use exclusionary and incendiary discourses. Chávez seriously undermined checks and balances and constructed institutional means of exclusion against his political opponents. Trumps clearly proposes to do the same and the US runs all of the same risks of what happened in Venezuela if Trump were to become president. The difference is in the substance. Trump has openly racist, misogynist and xenophobic goals. Chávez, in contrast, engaged in populist tactics on behalf of overturning racial, gender, and class inequalities.

And herein lies a disciplinary difference. For political scientists who tend to focus on the formal elements of democracy, there is no difference whatsoever between Trump and Chávez. For sociologists who tend to focus on the substantive elements of democracy, i.e. the social, cultural, racial, gender and class inequalities, there is all the difference in the world. Fortunately, there is a way we can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. From a neoweberian perspective, the exclusionary political tactics of populism will eventually undermine whatever progress was made in terms of the “other” inequalities. That is exactly what we have seen with the trajectory of Chavismo. The lack of checks and balances, transparency and openness to internal and external debate and dissent has led a governing project that during a number of years had considerable success in redressing the “other” inequalities to collapse into decadence rather than grow, transform and change with the context (see Chapter 3 of Joel Migdal’s State in Society for a good description of this process).

Dimitris Pantoulas: What do you mean that political scientists do not focus on ideas and substantive values? In ideational institutionalism, ideas, discourse and substance are everywhere, linked to institutional structures and power!

David Smilde: I didn’t actually mention ideas and substantive values. Political scientists tend to focus on political and sometimes civil inequalities with measures of the “quality of democracy” and other analyses. Sociologists tend to focus on economic, social and cultural inequalities. I am suggesting that all of these can and should be focused on at the same time. (Actually, I did use the distinction between form and substance. I actually think political liberty should be considered as a substantive value and not just a form.)

Gabe Hetland: I agree with Nick that there’s something similar, and important, about Chávez and Trump and other so-called populist figures far beyond superficial similarities such as both were on TV, etc. I think the key similarity is that there’s inclusionary and exclusionary elements within both Chavismo and Trumpism (and other cases of populism). Pro-Chavistas would tend to play up the inclusionary aspects (which over last 17 years have certainly been immensely important, politically and socioeconomically) and downplay the exclusionary aspects. But there’s obviously and unfortunately exclusion that’s happened under Chavismo and not only of elites (e.g. anyone opposing the government runs risk of being called escualido/enemy of the revolution, etc.).

For Trump it’s the opposition: there’s obviously massive exclusion going on, and it’s horrendous. But I think we ignore the inclusionary element of Trumpism (which is admittedly very contradictory and weak) at our peril: he’s not the ‘candidate of the white working class’ he’s made out to be, but Trump has directly spoken to certain valid working class grievances related to those who have lost out vis-a-vis trade, etc.

I think Tim’s piece is really solid and makes great points. But I also think that a defining characteristic of populism, in essentially all variants, is the existence of quite contradictory elements of both inclusion and exclusion and popular empowerment and elite control. I’d add that the way these elements get expressed clearly differs in different populist cases: so Bernie Sander’s populism is a lot of more inclusionary and empowering than Trump’s, and in my view Chavismo particularly from 2002-2013 scored quite high on the ’empowerment’ dimension, and had mixed inclusion/exclusion score. All in all, while the Trump/Chávez comparison can be done in fairly useless ways, it can be generative and interesting to think through too.

Alejandro Velasco: If we’re thinking about comparisons, how should we connect Trump’s (to my mind, far more dangerous to liberal democracy) full throated and fact-free claims of a rigged election to the Venezuelan opposition’s political strategy from 2004 on. If there’s indeed a comparison to be made, it would seem to reveal a more generalized paranoid style of politics not limited to this individual or that individual, and which in turn suggests the comparison to make isn’t between Chávez/Trump but between the societies from which each spring, and which each sow.

David Smilde: The comparison between Trump and the Venezuelan opposition is ever more interesting (speaking now the day after the Trump-Clinton debate). In both the contemporary US and Venezuela from 1998-2013 or so, you have formerly-dominant classes losing their grips on power and unwilling to accept that fact. The numbers do not add up and that does not make sense to them since they still feel they are the majority. As a result they deduce that the system must be rigged. Of course this is now a moot point with the opposition because now they clearly are the majority. But the comparison is an interesting one.

Javier Corrales is the Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College

Dimitris Pantoulas is a political analysis and research associate at the Instituto de Educación Superior en Educación.

Alejandro Velasco is Associate Professor of History at New York University

Nick Casey is the Andean Bureau Chief of the New York Times.

Orlando Pérez is Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean. College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at Millersville University

Gabe Hetland is Assistant Professor Latin American Studies at the University of Albany