Updated 2 months ago

Will Democracy Survive Trump’s Populism? Latin America May Tell Us

Will Donald J. Trump follow the populist script for concentrating power by cracking down on critics? Or are the foundations of American democracy and the institutions of civil society strong enough to resist such an action? For answers, Americans should take a look at Latin America, where, starting in the 1940s, elected populists undermined democracy.

Populism is not an ideology but a strategy to get to power and to govern. Two of Latin America’s most influential populists, Juan Perón of Argentina and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, saw politics as a Manichaean confrontation between two antagonistic camps, just as Mr. Trump does. In their view, they did not face political rivals, but enemies who needed to be destroyed.

Populist leaders tend to present themselves as extraordinary characters whose mission is to liberate the people. To get elected they politicize feelings of fear or resentment. Once in government, they attack the liberal constitutional framework of democracy that they view as constraining the will of the people. Populists are profoundly anti-pluralist, and claim that they embody the people as a whole. Chávez boasted, “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a people.” Similarly, Mr. Trump said at a rally in Florida: “It’s not about me — it’s about all of you. It’s about all of us, together as a country.”

The terms “people” and “elite” are vague. The “people” of Perón and Chávez were the downtrodden, and the nonwhite. Mr. Trump’s “people” are white, mostly Christian citizens who produce wealth and do not live on government handouts. The enemies of Chávez and Perón were corrupt politicians, foreign-oriented economic elites, imperialism and the privately owned news media. In Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, Mexicans were cast as the anti-American other, and Muslims depicted as potential terrorists whose values are contrary to American Christianity. He painted African-Americans as delinquents or as victims living in conditions of alienation and despair. Mr. Trump’s enemies were also the news media, companies and countries that profit from globalization, and liberal elites that defend political correctness.

Populists make their own rules for the political game, and part of their strategy is to manipulate the news media. Chávez and Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s populist president, blurred the lines between entertainment and news, using their own weekly TV shows to announce major policies, attack the opposition, sing popular songs, and, naturally, fire people. They were always on Twitter confronting enemies, and television programs showcased their outrageous words and actions to increase ratings. Mr. Trump might follow these examples and transform debates on issues of national interest into reality TV shows.

Since Latin America’s populists feel threatened by those who question their claim to be the embodiment of their people’s aspirations, they go after the press. Perón and Chávez nationalized news outlets that criticized them; Alberto Fujimori of Peru used tabloids to smear critics; Mr. Correa has used the legal system to impose astronomical fines on journalists and news media owners. Diario Hoy, a center-left newspaper in Ecuador at which I was a columnist, was forced out of business for criticizing the government. Like many journalists and intellectuals in Ecuador, I became a target of the president, who insulted me twice on his national TV show.

Like his Latin American populist cousins, Mr. Trump shows contempt for the news media. He has threatened newspapers and journalists with libel suits. While he has softened his attacks on the news media since the election, a confrontation with watchdog journalists seems inevitable.

Latin American populists also attack civil society. Similarly, Mr. Trump has used harsh language against civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter. Some of his close collaborators are talking about reviving the Committee on Un-American Activities. His support of mass deportations, the use of stop-and-frisk in black and Latino neighborhoods, surveillance of American Muslims, and the rolling back of rights for women and L.G.B.T. people could also lead to confrontations with civil- and human-rights organizations.

Latin American populists do not respect constitutional arrangements like the separation of powers. They attempt to control the judiciary, to take over all watchdog institutions, and to create parties based on the unconditional loyalty to a leader. When leaders come to power amid crises, as when Chávez and Mr. Correa were elected, they can grab power and establish authoritarianism at the expense of democracy. In Argentina, stronger democratic institutions resisted Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s strategy of populist polarization, blocking a change to the Argentine Constitution that would have allowed her to stay in power for another term.

The United States has a tradition of checks and balances to control political power. The Constitution divides power into three branches; elections are spaced; power is split between the states and the federal government; and there are two dominant parties. Under these restraints and until Mr. Trump’s election, populism was confined to the fringes of the political system. Mr. Trump’s populism under this institutional framework would be no more than a passing phase, and the American democracy and civil society would be strong enough to survive populist challenges without major destabilizing consequences.

But, even if the institutional framework of democracy does not collapse under Mr. Trump, he has already damaged the democratic public sphere. Hate speech and the denigration of minorities are replacing the politics of cultural recognition and tolerance built by the struggles of feminists and anti-racist social movements since the 1960s.

Mr. Trump is a type of political animal unknown to Americans, a far-right populist autocrat. Sexism, racism and xenophobia got him elected. As president, he will have the authority to expel the groups that he campaigned against. Once in power he will continue to attack the news media, liberal and cosmopolitan elites, and any other groups that challenge his policies.

Democracy is not immune to populist autocrats. Populist polarization, attacks on civil rights and the confrontation with the press could lead in the United States, as in Venezuela and Ecuador, to authoritarianism. Chávez and Mr. Correa did not eradicate democracy with a coup d’état. Rather, they slowly strangled democracy by attacking civil liberties, regulating the public sphere and using the legal system to silence critics. Americans who value an inclusive, tolerant and pluralist country need to be on guard against Mr. Trump’s following in their footsteps.