“I’m the only one who matters” – Donald Trump.
“I no longer belong to myself… my master is the Mexican people.” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO)
“I am the people” – Hugo Chavez
Let’s leave aside for a moment analysis of the underlying governing philosophies, motivations, or left-right biases of the three leaders quoted above and focus on the tenor and tone of their public statements. Upon a cursory review, it is clear there exist significant similarities in their use of language, be they well or poorly educated.
The first is the messianic self-referencing. Shunning traditional democratic leaders’ preferences for employment of the royal “we” to give a sense of mandate or a cohesive following, Chavez, Trump and AMLO revel in the personalized “I.” AMLO may well attempt to dissolve himself into the Mexican body politic, while Trump remains holed up in his Mar-a-lago or Bedminister golf resorts most weekends, and Chavez famously held open mike, stream of consciousness ramblefests on his “Alo, Presidente” TV show, but all three profess to perceive themselves as unquestionable change agents of national destiny.
Second is their penchant for offering black and white solutions to highly complex societal problems. In his inaugural address, President Trump spoke of “American Carnage,” a reference to a gutted, industrial America whose stature had slipped on the world stage and made the country a laughingstock. Only he would make the country great again, not our institutions or competitiveness, or intellectual property creativity. Just him - and a big beautiful wall to keep out Mexican and Central American “animals” and “bad hombres,” who apparently have been terrorizing American women. (“ The women really don’t want ‘em here,” he said at a November campaign rally. Jim Crow, call your office.) Throw in a Space Force, Locking Hillary Up, and reviving clean coal and you have a very simple menu for restored American greatness.
Likewise, AMLO painted at his inaugural a picture of dire Mexican dystopia. He blamed the last three Presidents, especially his predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto, who was forced to sit through his successor’s tongue lashing in a painfully awkward exercise of protocol. Referring to “the calamity of neo-liberalism,” AMLO promised to reverse anemic growth rates, curb the violence that afflicts Mexicans from organized and common crime, and fund vast social programs simply by eradicating corruption in Mexico. All three focuses are legitimate and praiseworthy. None will be accomplished without major new government spending. But simple answers to Mexico’s complex challenges are AMLO’s stock in trade.
Thirdly, all three leaders, who are so very dissimilar in the substance of their policy prescriptions, possess a strikingly similar rhetorical requirement to create and then demonize enemies. They all became elected leaders with visions nothing short of transforming their societies and that someone must be responsible for the socio-economic and political disasters they were convinced they inherited. Chavez’ railed against Venezuela’s “squalid ones,” the technocratic petroleum engineers, lawyers, doctors, bankers and well-to-do, who parasitically sucked the life blood of the Venezuelan people. Donald Trump, who is himself allegedly a billionaire (no public tax returns to prove it, notwithstanding), revels in attacking academic, scientific, cultural, financial and governmental elites, lumping despised Democrats and dissenting Republicans into the same bucket, calling them all the party of Davos. The cynicism and irony of rich-on-rich vitriol are apparent to all…but his true believers.
Over three election cycles and 18 years, AMLO perfected the demonization of his enemies, calling them the Mafia of Power. Not surprisingly, these targets turn out to be the same types of citizens as those in Trump’s Party of Davos and Chavez’ squalid ones. They are better educated, more global, and more prosperous than the “real” people these three populists claim to represent.
Now while it’s unlikely the former Venezuelan Army paratrooper, the wealthy real estate magnate and the lifetime politician ever studied the same canon or read the same books, or in Trump’s case read any books at all, their instinctive use of language in acquiring and holding on to power is instructive. All three must engage in a perpetual campaign to keep the emotional anger of their supporters stoked. All three speak the language of the common man. All three dumb down their messages compared to non-demagogic leaders who understand that complex governance problems require dialogue, consensus, and a fact-based understanding of the moving parts.
Chavez is dead. His successor inherited a true dystopia and has made Venezuela only worse. Trump has made clear over the two polarizing years of his term that he only has one mode. He has no guile; and what you see, unfortunately, is what you get. A major selling point for his base, a source of frustration for Americans who hope that our democratic institutions can pass the stress test he will continue to provoke over the next two years.
Only AMLO still has a relatively blank canvas. While he gave investors and Mexico’s private sector nothing to be enthused about in his diatribe against neo-liberalism, it is still possible that his cabinet and the reality of governing vice campaigning may yet bring AMLO to a more unifying and conciliatory presidency. His demonstrated pragmatism as Mexico City’s mayor, his titanic work ethic and unquestioned knowledge of his country are all manifest.
But in politics, as in life, words matter. And from what we heard during AMLO’s inaugural, his enemies in the neo-liberal Mafia of Power are sure to be expecting the worst.