Venezuela showed how not to fight a pop­ulist pres­i­dent

The op­po­si­tion got in its own way, writes An­drés Miguel Rondón

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twitter: @am­ron­don An­drés Miguel Rondón is an econ­o­mist liv­ing in Madrid. He was raised in Venezuela and is a Venezue­lan ci­ti­zen.

Don­ald Trump is an avowed cap­i­tal­ist; Hugo Chávez was a so­cial­ist with com­mu­nist dreams. One builds skyscrap­ers, the other ex­pro­pri­ated them. But pol­i­tics is only one-half pol­icy: The other, darker half is rhetoric. Some­times the rhetoric takes over. Such has been our lot in Venezuela for the past two decades — and such is yours now, Amer­i­cans. Be­cause in one re­gard, Trump and Chávez are iden­ti­cal. They are both mas­ters of pop­ulism.

The recipe for pop­ulism is univer­sal. Find a wound com­mon to many, find some­one to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all to­gether. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. La­bel them: the mi­nori­ties, the politi­cians, the busi­ness­men. Car­i­ca­ture them. As ver­min, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint your­self as the sav­ior. Cap­ture the peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion. For­get about poli­cies and plans, just en­rap­ture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can par­tic­i­pate in.

That’s how it be­comes a move­ment. There’s some­thing sooth­ing in all that anger. Pop­ulism is built on the ir­re­sistible al­lure of sim­plic­ity. The nar­cotic of the sim­ple an­swer to an in­tractable ques­tion. The prob­lem is now made sim­ple.

The prob­lem is you.

How do I know? Be­cause I grew up as the “you” Trump is about to turn you into. In Venezuela, the ur­ban mid­dle class I come from was cast as the en­emy in the po­lit­i­cal strug­gle that fol­lowed Chávez’s ar­rival. For years, I watched in frus­tra­tion as the op­po­si­tion failed to do any­thing about the catas­tro­phe over­tak­ing our na­tion. Only later did I re­al­ize that this fail­ure was self-in­flicted. So now, to my Amer­i­can friends, here is some ad­vice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mis­takes.

Don’t for­get who the en­emy is.

Pop­ulism can sur­vive only amid po­lar­iza­tion. It works through the un­end­ing vil­i­fi­ca­tion of a car­toon­ish en­emy. Never for­get that you’re that en­emy. Trump needs you to be the en­emy, just like all re­li­gions need a de­mon. A scape­goat. “But facts!” you’ll say, miss­ing the point en­tirely.

What makes you the en­emy? It’s very sim­ple to a pop­ulist: If you’re not a vic­tim, you’re a cul­prit.

Dur­ing the 2007 stu­dent-led protests against the govern­ment’s clo­sure of RCTV, then the sec­ond-big­gest TV chan­nel in Venezuela, Chávez con­tin­u­ally went on air to frame us stu­dents as “pups of the Amer­i­can Em­pire” and “sup­port­ers of the en­emy of the coun­try” — spoiled, un­pa­tri­otic ba­bies who only wanted to watch soap op­eras. Us­ing our so­cioe­co­nomic back­ground as his main ac­cu­sa­tion, he sought to frame us as the di­rect in­her­i­tors of the mostly imag­ined “oli­garchs” of our fathers’ gen­er­a­tion. The stu­dents who sup­ported Chav­ismo were “chil­dren of the home­land,” “sons of the peo­ple,” “the fu­ture of the coun­try.” Not for one mo­ment did the govern­ment’s anal­y­sis go be­yond such car­toons.

The prob­lem is not the mes­sage but the mes­sen­ger, and if you don’t re­al­ize this, you will be wast­ing your time.

Show no con­tempt.

Don’t feed po­lar­iza­tion, dis­arm it. This means leav­ing the theater of in­jured decency be­hind. Hugo Chávez in Cara­cas in 1998, the year he was elected pres­i­dent of Venezuela. The pop­ulist leader cast the ur­ban mid­dle class as the en­emy in his po­lit­i­cal strug­gle, and his op­po­nents’ re­ac­tions played into his at­tempts to di­vide the coun­try.

That in­cludes re­bukes such as the one the “Hamil­ton” cast gave Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence shortly af­ter the elec­tion. While sin­cere, it only an­tag­o­nized Trump; it surely did not con­vince a sin­gle Trump sup­porter to change his or her mind. Sham­ing has never been an ef­fec­tive method of per­sua­sion.

The Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion strug­gled for years to get this. We wouldn’t stop pon­tif­i­cat­ing about how stupid Chav­ismo was, not only to in­ter­na­tional friends but also to Chávez’s elec­toral base. “Re­ally, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts,” we’d say.

The sub­text was clear: Look, id­iots — he will de­stroy the coun­try. He’s bla­tantly sid­ing with the bad guys: Fidel Cas­tro, Vladimir Putin, the white su­prem­a­cists or the guer­ril­las. He’s not that smart. He’s threat­en­ing to de­stroy the econ­omy. He has no re­spect for democ­racy or for the ex­perts who work hard and know how to do busi­ness.

I heard so many vari­a­tions on these com­ments grow­ing up that my po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing was set off by the tec­tonic re­al­iza­tion that Chávez, how­ever evil, was not ac­tu­ally stupid.

Nei­ther is Trump: Get­ting to the high­est of­fice in the world re­quires not only sheer force of will but also great, cal­cu­lated rhetor­i­cal pre­ci­sion. The kind only a few po­lit­i­cal ge­niuses are born with and one he flam­boy­antly bran­dishes.

“We are in a rigged sys­tem, and a big part of the rig­ging are these dis­hon­est peo­ple in the me­dia,” Trump said late in the cam­paign, when he was sound­ing the most like Chávez. “Isn’t it amaz­ing? They don’t even want to look at you folks.” The nat­u­ral con­clu­sion is all too clear: Turn off the TV, just lis­ten to me. The con­stant boos at his ral­lies only con­firmed as much. By look­ing down on Trump’s sup­port­ers, you’ve lost the first bat­tle. In­stead of fight­ing po­lar­iza­tion, you’ve played into it.

The worst you can do is bun­dle moder­ates and ex­trem­ists to­gether and think that Amer­ica is di­vided be­tween racists and lib­er­als. That’s the text­book def­i­ni­tion of po­lar­iza­tion. We thought our coun­try was split be­tween treach­er­ous oli­garchs and Chávez’s un­e­d­u­cated, gullible base. The only one who ben­e­fited was Chávez.

Don’t try to force him out.

Our op­po­si­tion tried ev­ery sin­gle trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ru­inous oil strike? Check. Boy­cotting elec­tions in hopes that in­ter­na­tional ob­servers would in­ter­vene? You guessed it.

Look, Chávez’s op­po­nents were des­per­ate. We were right to be. But a hissy fit is not a strat­egy.

The peo­ple on the other side — and cru­cially, in­de­pen­dents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re los­ing your mind. You will have proved your­self to be the very thing you’re claim­ing to be fight­ing against: an en­emy of democ­racy. And all the while you’re giv­ing the pop­ulist and his fol­low­ers enough rhetor­i­cal fuel to rightly call you a sabo­teur, an un­pa­tri­otic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the pop­u­la­tion, the Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion is still that spoiled, un­pa­tri­otic schemer. Their fu­tile ef­forts sapped the op­po­si­tion’s ef­fec­tive­ness for the years when we’d need it most.

Clearly, the United States has much stronger in­sti­tu­tions and a fairer bal­ance of pow­ers than Venezuela. Even out of power, Democrats have no ap­par­ent de­sire to try any­thing like a coup. Which is good. At­tempt­ing to force Trump out, rather than dig­ging in to fight his agenda, would just dis­tract the pub­lic from what­ever failed poli­cies the ad­min­is­tra­tion is mak­ing. In Venezuela, the op­po­si­tion fo­cused on try­ing to re­ject the dic­ta­tor by any means pos­si­ble — when we should have just kept point­ing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very peo­ple he claimed to be serv­ing.

Find a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. (No, not the one you think.)

Don’t waste your time try­ing to prove that this grand idea is bet­ter than that one. Ditch all the big words. The prob­lem, re­mem­ber, is not the mes­sage but the mes­sen­ger. It’s not that Trump sup­port­ers are too stupid to see right from wrong, it’s that you’re more valu­able to them as an en­emy than as a com­pa­triot. Your chal­lenge is to prove that you be­long in the same tribe as them — that you are Amer­i­can in ex­actly the same way they are.

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about prin­ci­ples, about sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, civil lib­er­ties, the role of the mil­i­tary in pol­i­tics, cor­rup­tion and eco­nomic pol­icy. But it took op­po­si­tion lead­ers 10 years to fig­ure out that they needed to ac­tu­ally go to the slums and the coun­try­side. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of domi­noes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezue­lans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds but could hit a base­ball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal di­vide, come down off the bill­boards and show that they were real. And no, this is not pop­ulism by other means. It is the only way of es­tab­lish­ing your stand­ing. It’s de­cid­ing not to live in an echo cham­ber. To press pause on the siren song of po­lar­iza­tion.

Be­cause if the mu­sic keeps go­ing, yes — you will see neigh­bors de­ported and friends of dif­fer­ent creeds and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions liv­ing in fear and anx­i­ety, your coun­try’s eco­nomic in­equal­ity deep­en­ing along the way. But some­thing worse could hap­pen. In Venezuela, whole gen­er­a­tions were split in two. A sense of shared cul­ture was wiped out. Rhetoric took over our his­tory books, our fu­ture, our own sense of self. We lost the free­dom to be any­thing larger than car­toons.

This does not have to be your fate. You can be dif­fer­ent. Rec­og­nize that you’re the en­emy Trump re­quires. Show con­cern, not con­tempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power. By all means, be pa­tient with democ­racy and strug­gle re­lent­lessly to free your­self from the shack­les of the car­i­ca­ture the pop­ulists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the al­ter­na­tive is worse. Trust me.


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