He was a one-man media hurricane dominating the news with insults and provocations, promises and policy pronouncements. He would tweet at all hours, phone TV chat shows, stage rollicking rallies.
He hired and fired people live on air. Humiliated and taunted foes and bragged about winning. He could be funny and coarse and buffoonish and broke all the rules about presidential conduct.
Over time, it became clear there was genius to it. He sucked up all the oxygen, leaving allies as well as rivals gasping for air. Even if you were sick of him you paid attention.
Some called him a clown. They were wrong. Chávez was a shrewd strategist and masterful communicator. He outfoxed elites and channeled frustration into a potent political force.
There are profound differences between the socialist strongman, who died in 2013, and the Manhattan billionaire. If Chávez were alive today he would surely lock horns with the GOP candidate, an ideological opposite. But having reported on both – I was the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent from 2006 to 2012 before moving to Los Angeles to cover the western US – I am struck by the similarities in character and style.
In the extemporized mix of bombast, menace and bawdy humor, the symbiotic relationship with crowds, the articulation of long-repressed grievances, Trump echoes the comandante.
The US is not Venezuela, which today reels from power cuts, food riots and hyperinflation. That is hardly likely here even under President Trump. But with polls giving Trump a chance against Hillary Clinton in November’s election, it is instructive to revisit Venezuela’s fate under a media-savvy populist.
Language is key
I first encountered Trump in July 2015 addressing a rapturous audience in Phoenix, Arizona. It was an unscripted grab-bag of jokes, boasts and tirades against illegal immigrants, Mexico, terrorists, Democrats and fellow Republicans. “Let’s say Jeb Bush is president: ay, ay, ay,” he groaned. “How can I be tied with this guy? He’s terrible.” He bashed other foes and talked up his talents. “I went to the Wharton School of Business. I’m, like, a really smart person.” In cold print that sounds asinine. Verbalized, it was actually funny, and meant to be. The press, Trump continued, jabbing at the media pen, were liars. “They’re terrible people. Terrible. Not all of them, but many of them.”
The crowd booed; one guy gave us the finger and I felt transported back to Valle Seco, a Caribbean hamlet which in August 2007 hosted an episode of Chávez’s weekly TV show, Aló Presidente. From a desk on the blazing beach the soldier-turned-revolutionary bantered with the audience and joked, among other things, about his anatomy. “I’ve a very big size, look.” He bared a foot. “I take 44.” About an hour in (shows tended to last seven hours) I was handed the microphone and asked him if a plan to abolish term limits augured authoritarianism. Chávez scowled, then launched a harangue about media hypocrisy which unspooled into denunciations of capitalism and racism. “Never has a European journalist asked our opinion about the arrival of Christopher Columbus.” As he thundered the red-shirts seated beside me inched away to avoid guilt by association with the terrible media person.
Trump works the same pitch as Chávez – the avenging outsider who will overturn a rotten system – and uses similar methods to show he is that savior.
Language is key, notably humor, insults and vulgarity to rupture protocol and connect with supporters on a gut level. Trump brands opponents “pussies”, “idiots” and “disgusting”. Chávez branded his opponents “assholes”, “squealing pigs”, “vampires” and, in the case of George W Bush, “more dangerous than a monkey with a razor blade”. Trump brags about penis size. Chávez leered at a camera to tell his then wife, “Marisabel, you’re going to get yours tonight”.
Coarseness reinforces the message that the candidate is different.
“He’s unorthodox, sure, but at this point we need a complete change,” Garry Pollard, 35, a navy veteran-turned-Disneyland cleaner, told me at a recent Trump rally in Anaheim. “Oof, the comandante can make me blush but we need someone who will shake things up,” Alba López, a teacher, told me at a ruling party rally in Caracas in 2010.
Trump’s appeal is not just what he says, it’s how he says it. He shuns teleprompters and makes freewheeling discourses, one moment plugging his books, the next vowing to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State. Over the course of 20 minutes I clocked him riffing on Caterpillar trucks, golf balls, trade deals, phone calls from Paris, Humvees, conversations with his wife, Sino-Russian relations, sanctuary cities, Hillary Clinton and his desire to send “traitor” Sgt Bowe Bergdahl (the freed US army hostage) back to Afghanistan.
Chávez also improvised and zigzagged from the personal to the political, whimsical to the serious. It injected energy and tension into speeches because anything could happen. He would discuss his favourite book, then veer to trade deals, housing construction, baseball, phone calls from Havana, conversations with his daughters, Latin American solidarity, socialist cities, Barack Obama, alleged coup attempts and his desire to jail opponents and “traitors”, who in many cases were subsequently jailed .(Recognising his gift of the gab, the army trained Chávez in communications, and as a young officer he once hosted a local beauty pageant.)
Trump revels in his persona from The Apprentice: a boss unafraid to usher his signature catchphrase “you’re fired”. Chávez gloried in such power. In 2002 he went on TV to dispatch executives of the national oil company, PDVSA, naming and shaming with gusto. “Eddy Ramírez, general director, until today, of the Palmaven division. You’re out!” He grinned and blew a whistle with each firing.
Trump, like Chávez, baits opponents and exults when they bite. “Thank you!” the real estate businessman yelled at a protester who infiltrated a recent rally in San Diego, as the man was bundled out. Such scenes bolster his stagecraft. When a protester was escorted out of another rally, he said: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” The audiences crackle with glee and sometimes violence. Protesters who burn flags and clash with police, as happened in Albuquerque and San Jose, play into his hands. “Did you see them?” he demands. Supporters howl.
Chávez, in fact, perfected this tactic. He played opponents like a harp, plucking strings so they overreacted in ways which, he noted happily, “drove them crazy”. It helped that some were discredited, racist elites. They called him a monkey and enlisted the Bush administration’s tacit backing for a 2002 coup which briefly ousted Chávez. Then they staged a ruinous national strike. Forced to choose, most Venezuelans backed the president.
When opponents moderated and played by the democratic rules Chávez did not ease up. He calculated that Venezuela’s electoral arithmetic made polarisation a winning strategy. So he denounced opponents as worms, fascists and CIA saboteurs and blacklisted millions who signed a petition against him.
Presidential patronage enlisted enablers to stoke division. Chávez appointed judges who enforced executive decisions. Electoral authorities hobbled his opponents. State media pumped propaganda, led by Mario Silva, a TV host who used leaked wiretaps to assail opposition politicians as “scum”, “faggots” and “limp dicks”. Chávez declared it his favourite show and phoned in to banter with Silva. “Did you see The Razorblade last night?” he would ask supporters at a rally. “Magnificent.” If you think Trump’s bromance with Fox’s Sean Hannity cannot get ickier, think again.
Chávez differed from Trump in important ways. He never bashed immigrants nor denied climate change. He spoke of tackling social injustice. He wanted to rein in US excesses in a region all too familiar with yankee imperialism. He could be specific about how he would achieve goals, to the point of numbing his audience with maps, charts, diagrams and statistics.
From 2003 to 2009 the comandante could claim success. Poverty tumbled and Venezuela led a leftist alliance against the gringos. It was, however, a house of cards. Record oil revenues and borrowing from China flooded the country with cash and imports but masked decay. Agriculture and industry hollowed and crime soared.
As failures mounted, Chávez created distractions, a continuous parade of stunts and diversions which turned Venezuela, in effect, into the Hugo Chávez show. In addition to his weekly show and press conferences, he appeared on TV almost daily, often marathon broadcasts. He sang, danced, rapped. Rode a horse, a bicycle, a helicopter. Exhumed Simón Bolívar’s remains. Hosted Naomi Campbell and other celebrities. Mobilised troops. Changed Venezuela’s flag and currency. Moved the clocks forward. Picked fights with foes real and imagined.
He also promoted conspiracy theories: the CIA gave leftist leaders cancer, Nasa faked the moon landings and assassins, not tuberculosis, killed Bolívar. Trump, meanwhile, grabs headlines by suggesting New Jersey Muslims cheered 9/11, assassins killed Vince Foster and Justice Antonin Scalia, and Ted Cruz’s father aided Lee Harvey Oswald.
As president, Trump is hardly likely to seize farms, nationalise industries and impose exchange rate controls. But he has already shown a Chávez-like knack for distraction. If cornered on tax returns, policy flip-flops or awkward revelations, he says or tweets something provocative or outlandish, picks a fight, and at a stroke, attention shifts. Like Chávez, he knows when and how to manipulate a news cycle which churns forever forward, in thrall to novelty and outrage.
Chávez as a warning
It often takes outsiders to identify overlooked grievances. Trump has performed a democratic service by identifying a constituency which feels marooned by economic stagnation and cultural shifts, and abandoned by traditional elites. His remedies may be opportunistic demagoguery but his supporters now feel heard. Chávez did the same for Venezuela’s poor, who suffered historic neglect.
They came up different ways. As a lieutenant colonel Chávez led a 1992 coup attempt. It flopped militarily – and dozens died – but made him a media star, paving his political rise. He kept his eyes on the prize: the presidential palace, Miraflores. Trump reportedly mulled a White House bid for decades. Now, three years after Chávez died, the casino owner campaigns as if channeling his ghost. Thunder and dazzle. Insult and provoke. Suck up oxygen. Dominate.
If Trump wins he will not have petro-state dollars to splurge on subsidies and giveaways. Or (one hopes) find judges, congress and state agencies so ready to bow to presidential whim. But Chávez’s rule serves as a warning: the longer he was in office the more intolerant he became, suborning state institutions to his will. Power amplified his faults.
The same would surely hold true for Trump, if elected. With reality miring plans in quicksand he would ratchet up polarisation and distraction. As commander-in-chief, all the easier to conjure. Dispatch a battleship to the Yangtze delta, say, or appoint Arizona’s notorious anti-immigration sheriff, Joe Arpaio, FBI director.
Even if forced to retreat the brouhaha would benefit Trump by spewing a radioactive climate.
Early skirmishes give a taste of what may come. “She took my flag and stomped all over it, some Mexican chick,” Irene Rodriguez, 42, a Trump-supporting optician, told me amid a raucous confrontation with anti-Trump protestors in Anaheim, California. “I told her, ‘you can do what you want to me, but not the flag. Show some respect’.” Richard Hernandez, 44, a Trump-supporting army veteran, scorned the protesters. “If you’re here illegally, I’m sorry, you shouldn’t be here. They’ve been paid to cause trouble. I’ve seen it on Pinterest.”
Two final predictions, should Trump win.
Opportunists and true believers will jostle for nourishing rays from the sun king – jobs, influence, favours. The louder opponents shout, the tighter they will bind to the administration. In Venezuela we called the greediest ones “boligarchs”. They enable and entrench despotism.
And if the Republican reaches the White House, government through television will turn the US into the Donald Trump show. He will play different parts – the sober statesman, the Rottweiler partisan, the glossy celebrity, blurring the personal and political, the trivial and grave. There will be many crises, real and confected. If Trump is as smart as Chávez – a big if – he will turn each one to his advantage, shoring up his power even as the country unravels into tragicomedy.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010