(Jennifer McCoy is Director of the Global Studies Institute and
Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University,
and writes on polarized politics. The opinions expressed are her
By Jennifer McCoy
What do a small-town paratrooper from
Venezuela and a billionaire real estate mogul from New York have
in common? Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump are both outsized
personalities seeing themselves as the sole leaders capable of
restoring their countries to greatness. They eschew political
correctness and routinely speak in an informal, unscripted
style, connecting directly with voters who have felt invisible.
They are both polarizing populists and 17 years of Chavista
government in Venezuela may provide a cautionary tale to the
Political scientists use the term “populist” to refer to
political discourse that emphasizes “us vs. them” in moral terms
of good and evil. Most often it is the “evil” elites conspiring
against the “good” people, a narrative Chávez emphasized in
Venezuela and Bernie Sanders uses in blaming Wall Street. It can
also pit citizens against foreigners, as seen in the resurgent
xenophobic trends of Europe and the giant wall proposed by Trump
to keep Mexicans out of the United States.
The consequences of polarizing populism can be pernicious.
Political polarization often creates government gridlock as
politicians refuse to negotiate and compromise. Societal
polarization tends to make citizens less tolerant, less
empathetic, and less willing to share neighborhoods and
resources with people who think differently.
Populist politicians use polarizing rhetoric as an electoral
strategy — stoking the fears and resentments of anxious voters
to increase turnout in their favor. By labeling adversaries as
enemies to be conquered or eliminated, populists may be
perceived by overzealous supporters to be giving permission to
engage in violence. They justify bypassing other branches of
power by appealing to their popular mandates to rapidly and
efficiently “fix the problems” and counter the elites
threatening their country.
Both Chávez and Trump favor attention-grabbing divisive
rhetoric and an apparent disregard for public institutions and
laws. Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 as the
outsider in the wake of an economic decline. A rising middle
class was sliding backward and poverty rates rose from 25
percent to 65 percent between the 1970s and the 1990s. This
severe social dislocation generated contempt for the traditional
two-party political system that had alternated power since the
Despite having led an abortive coup against the elected
president six years earlier, Chávez campaigned on a platform of
wresting control of Venezuelan democracy from a corrupt elite
and returning it to the people. He promised constitutional
change and a vaguely-defined revolution to restore the
“birthright” of this oil-producing nation’s petro-revenues to
the masses, without specific policy proposals to deal with the
lowest oil prices in two decades and a huge national debt.
Trump burst on the U.S. political scene as a well-known
bombastic billionaire and celebrity at a moment similarly ripe
for outsiders. Eight years after a devastating recession and a
decades-long trend of deepening income inequality and social
immobility, a significant sector of the population remained
resentful and angry at their inability to benefit from the
economic recovery. They were receptive to Trump’s assignation of
blame for the loss of jobs — on the Chinese, the Mexicans, and
immigrants in general. Just as Chávez found an easy scapegoat in
the United States and its Venezuelan “lackeys” for the ills
facing Venezuela, Trump blames the politicians, as he did in his
campaign launch speech: “They will never make America great
again. They don’t even have a chance. They are controlled fully,
they are controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors and by
the special interests.”
Chávez governed Venezuela for 15 years, until his death in
2013, utilizing these populist strategies. He pursued radical
change through confrontation, concentrated power in his persona,
eliminated rivals, and repressed dissent along the way. His
legacy is a country facing paralyzing gridlock between a
fractured governing party and a bickering opposition. Its
oil-dependent economy is in shambles, and the system of checks
and balances has eroded. The economy continues to slide downhill
while the opposition strives to unseat the president.
Hyperinflation has left many with little, and the nation’s
record-breaking homicide rate goes unaddressed.
Trump dismisses national and international law when he
contemplates waterboarding and other forms of torture. He
disparages his opponents as “losers” and “stupid,” inviting his
supporters to similarly eschew civility and respect for others.
He discredits expertise in politics and evidence-based
policymaking when he makes up facts and proclaims himself his
own best advisor.
Political outsiders like Chávez and Trump rise to power when
political insiders are perceived as failing to listen and give
voice to their own constituents. Populists can help spur a
much-needed shake-up of complacent parties, prone to
perpetuating electoral rules such as campaign finance and
gerrymandering to keep themselves in power. But when voters give
such messianic leaders unchecked political power to ride
roughshod over institutional checks and balances and undermine
basic civility and respect for individual rights, they run the
risk of ushering in a dangerous concentration of power subject
to the whims of a single egocentric leader.
The article COLUMN-What Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump have in common was originally published at Reuters - US Energy.