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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Michael Rowan: Upending Populism
"There are similarities to the two populist movements," writes political genius and Latin American expert Michael Rowan about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Donald Trump. "Both nations suffered from an unaddressed popular grievance, a populist communicator of simplistic solutions to complex problems, a paucity of facts discarded in favor of popular myths, a belief that the nation is being victimized by the world, and a narcissistic leader on steroids."

By Michael Rowan

As the world learned from Venezuela, populism can destroy a country. The destruction comes from the inside while being blamed on the outside, a pernicious lie that sustains the looting of the country to the bitter end. Could it happen in the U.S.A.?

There are similarities to the two populist movements. Both nations suffered from an unaddressed popular grievance, a populist communicator of simplistic solutions to complex problems, a paucity of facts discarded in favor of popular myths, a belief that the nation is being victimized by the world, and a narcissistic leader on steroids.

After his populist 1998 campaign, Hugo Chavez dismantled the constitution, the legislature, the judiciary, the media, the private sector, transparent elections and any chance of a peaceful transition of power. Anyone whose mind was independent was cajoled, threatened and often imprisoned, including a justice of the supreme court, an opposition candidate for president and over one hundred other innocents who spoke truth to power.

Chavez died several years ago, but his successor, a former bus driver, is still holding on to dictatorial powers – the terror has been going on for almost 20 years now -- backed by military force, corruption, cocaine trade (the only trade they like) and foreign help from Iran, Russia and China. There is hardly anything left to loot in Venezuela – people are literally starving; the horror stories are beyond belief – but the looters are not through. More rape and pillage awaits the population, twenty years and counting.

Ironically, the world appears to have learned nothing from Venezuela except that populism is a very useful tool to ransack a rich country with its compliance. In this regard, I have written about the Patty Hearst kidnapping – she joined the terrorists who kidnapped her; and about the mass suicide in Jonestown Guyana, where a thousand followers of Jim Jones poisoned themselves rather than be questioned by a U.S. Congressman from California who was also killed.

The populist trashing of trade and immigration in Europe and the U.S.A. recall events leading up to the world wars started in Europe in the 20th century, and the anti-immigrant "Know Nothing" movement of 19th century America. British voters narrowly chose to exit the European Union, forgetting how the world progressed with trade and immigration under Britain’s leadership; and U.S. voters elected Hillary Clinton by a margin of 3 million only to be reversed by the Electoral College, where 77,000 voters in three Midwest states statistically elected Trump.

In only a few weeks as president, Trump and his Keystone Kops have declared a revolution in America where he’s the new George Washington; routed Republicans who are scared to oppose a tweet coming from his cell phone; turned the Congress into a rubber stamp; vilified judges personally who disagreed with him on legal matters; hindered trade and immigration with ill-prepared executive orders; announced enemies of a handful of countries who thought they were allies; attacked the media – liars, nasty people -- as the true opposition (while the Democrats did little to disabuse the notion); and prayed at the National Prayer Breakfast for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rating on The Apprentice to rise.

This ironic prayer was a narcissistic self-compliment because Trump imagines The Apprentice had top ratings when he was its host (it did not) and that Arnold – a two-time governor of California – had blown it. Trump’s start as president has already eclipsed all other presidents in pugnaciousness, absurdity, prevarication, fearmongering, self-righteousness and self-congratulation. The only competition Trump has in this Academy Awards category come from Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, and two dead entries, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

The question facing the US and the world is whether America’s checks-and-balances system can stand up to Trump rather than collapse as Venezuela’s did before Chavez. No question, America’s respect for its democracy and law is more ingrained than Venezuela’s which emerged only in 1958. America’s democracy has survived a Civil War over slavery, a World War over Nazism, a Cold War over Communism, Watergate, Vietnam and the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Venezuela’s democracy collapsed at the first crisis.

But here is the question that faces both Venezuela and the U.S. which in the swirl of daily crises has been lost in each country:

Does the nation have the knowledge and courage to face the original public grievance that gave rise to populism with a recognizably workable solution?

Venezuela needs a sustainable economy that is not dependent on oil while creating a wall between politics and bottom-up economic development policy.

And the U.S. needs a sustainable methodology to protect the population from the impact of globalization, automation and the knowledge society.

The U.S. is not suffering from carnage and does not need a revolution, as Trump trumps. The U.S. comprises only 4% of the planet’s people but 25% of world GDP and over 50% of global strategic military power. The US population does not understand those facts or the critical role free trade and immigration play in producing them. Trump took advantage of that ignorance.

But Venezuela is suffering from carnage because of a revolution that Chavez heralded. In 1960, Venezuela was among the top ten richest countries on earth and now it is among the poorest – and it still has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.

These are facts. But facts are garbage when power is given to populists. We know what happened when a populist took over Venezuela two decades ago.

But we don’t know what will happen now that America is run by one.

Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.


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