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Of Presidents and Caudillos

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I once worried, with many Democrats I’m afraid, but not only with them for many Republicans shared my view as well, that Donald Trump’s candidacy, his behavior and rhetoric on the campaign trail, and his ultimate presidential victory presaged something very dangerous for this country. The man was and is skillful on the stump at wowing his crowds and he is willful in the way some of the worst populist dictators have been in the past and in other national venues.

Trump’s penchant for bullying, threatening and using his outsized financial clout to bludgeon opponents throughout his career worried me, should it make its way into the White House. And yet recent events have occasioned some rethinking on my part concerning these possibilities. I think it’s now evident that the crucial characteristics caudillo-like leaders depend on to rule like kings in their own countries are not sufficiently a part of Donald Trump’s psychological make-up to enable him to pose that kind of threat to the American system.

There is a crucial difference between our current president and the caudillo role model once personified so dramatically by the late America-hater Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Where Chavez rose to power on a wave of populism in his country (as Donald Trump has now done, as well) only to mismanage Venezuela’s economy by nationalizing its capital assets to bestow them on the Venezuelan people (through the medium of his appointed and generally incompetent political minions) thus appealing to a broad base of Venezuela’s population (directing his, and their, ire towards outsiders like the U.S. government and “the rich”), Donald Trump seems incapable of anything like that — not necessarily because he is a better man (though in fairness, he might be), but because he lacks the ability to expand his own base of support. Because of his harsh ways, clumsy rhetoric and bullying style, he is simply incapable of growing his appeal beyond the portion of the country that put him in power in the first place. And it has never been the case in America that a president, with only minority support (Trump did lose the popular vote, after all), has been able to impose his will on the country, given our strong political institutions. To be a caudillo you have to do more than rabble rouse. You have to be effective in collecting support and using it to suppress your opposition.

But Donald Trump is not. In a nation like ours, where constitutionalism is alive (if perhaps not quite well) any half way decent would-be tyrant needs substantial broad popular support to force his will on the rest of the country. And for that he must build up a fount of goodwill in the populace and among other politicians who must come to see their own success as hitched to his. Yet a man like Trump, who continues to shoot from the rhetorical hip, disregard the conventions of honest talk, double down on mistakes (because he can’t abide the notion that anyone would ever think him wrong) is personally unsuited for that kind of behavior. He’d rather strike out at his adversaries (which he has been doing pretty regularly since being elected to the White House) than corral them into his camp. In so doing he has hardened the national mood against him, turning the media, who still control more of the airwaves than he does, into enemies and driving away those on the fence who might otherwise be seduced into his camp. Donald Trump, whatever else he is, is no seducer. He is a grabber and people instinctively recoil at being grabbed.

Trump may speak and posture like a reincarnation of Benito Mussolini and ape the rhetorical style of Chavez but he remains a minority president with at least half the nation arrayed against him. Even many in his own party cannot accept, let alone support, his frequent rhetorical excesses. His big mouth has alienated more people in this country than it has won over, despite the fact that it still tickles his base when he blasts his opponents with outrageous and unprovable charges. How long that kind of appeal will continue, even with his core fans, is anyone’s guess but, for now, what has become increasingly clear is that President Trump is not consolidating his political power from the Oval Office.

Rather he is continuing to squander the goodwill of many, along with his chance of becoming a truly great president for, as soon as the political worm turns, all his foolish talk will come back to bite him with a vengeance. Those in this country who fret over a possible Trumpian dictatorship need have little fear of that for President Trump is not psychologically suited to do what men like Chavez and Mussolini and hundreds of other “big men” have done in the past. Absent the capacity to impose his will by force (which he truly lacks in our American system, as continued judicial resistance to his executive orders on immigration and apparent rebellion inside executive agencies show) he can, at best, ape those who have ruled with iron fists in other places and times, while his own country waits him out. It’s not a happy turn of events, especially not for Republicans who have so much riding on his being a successful presidency. But perhaps in the interim Republicans around him can still get some important things done — if he doesn’t blow up the party and his own administration before his term is done that is.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Profile photo of Stuart W. Mirsky
Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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