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Trump-Chávez Comparisons Are Fashionable. They're Also Flawed.

AP (left) and Ariana Cubillos (right)
AP via Miami Herald
DIFFERENT DEMAGOGUES? The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.


Donald Trump haters are fist-bumping in South Florida this week after the PGA hauled a major pro golf tournament out of the Trump National resort here in Doral. They're moving it to Mexico – the country that’s had more rhetorical sand kicked in its face by presidential candidate Trump than any other.

Sure, Donald’s golf grief feels like poetic justice. But if you’re betting it’ll put a dent in his hardy poll numbers, think again. If anything, it’ll rally his rabid fans. It’ll confirm their conspiracy theories about foreign evil and the effete U.S. establishment they want Trump to blow up.

Trump’s Teflon, in fact, seems reminiscent of another iconoclastic demagogue, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose poll numbers shot up like Maracaibo oil gushers whenever imperialista Washington gave him a shove.

That’s one reason it’s become quite media-fashionable lately to liken The Donald’s rise to Hurricane Hugo’s.

RELATED: Venezuela Is a Caribbean North Korea - But the Revolution Won't Exit Soon

But the comparisons are a little too fashionable, actually – and facile if not flawed.
Admittedly, Trump and Chávez are/were crude firebrands and egomaniacal bullies. Still, the pundits fail to point out that their scripts are/were very different. And that matters a lot when we consider how to fix the circumstances that catapulted them.

The grievances that ushered Chávez and his socialist revolution to Caracas’ Miraflores Palace were frankly more legitimate than the resentments that might propel Trump to the White House.

The grievances that ushered Chavez and his socialist revolution to Caracas' Miraflores Palace were frankly more legitimate than the resentments that might escort Trump to the White House.

That’s not to excuse the caudillo catastrophe Chávez’s revolution became – and which has now brought Venezuela to social and economic collapse.

But consider that even though Venezuela is the Western Hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation, half its population lived in poverty when Chávez led a failed military coup there in 1992. That was largely due to the sociopathic corruption of Venezuela’s kleptocracy.

It was genuine, abject poverty. I know because in those days I spent a lot of time in some of Caracas’ worst slums. Many if not most had no potable water, clinics, public schools, bodegas – basics that the petro-wealth could have provided were it not being used to buy beachfront homes in Miami for Venezuela’s larcenous elite.

Which is why millions of Venezuelans cheered the ’92 coup attempt. (The national joke was that Chávez deserved 30 years behind bars – one for the coup and 29 for failing.) That forced the government to release him from prison just two years later. He went on to win the presidency in 1998 and ruled until his death three years ago.

Trump’s political rocket fuel, on the other hand, isn’t dark poverty so much as white panic.

Yes, many of his supporters belong to a working- and middle-class cohort that rightly feels it’s been screwed out of the American dream. Or has seen the dream slip into financial purgatory. And I certainly don’t want to downplay that economic anger.


But polls (and exit polls) suggest that just as many Trumpites are doing pretty darn well – like the folks in Hamilton County, Indiana, the affluent turf where I grew up, who turned out in droves for Trump in the state’s Republican primary last month.

The common bond between Trump’s trailer park and garden park constituencies is that they’re not a racial minority – but they’re scared as hell by the prospect of soon becoming one. So they ache for 20th-century America, when whites enjoyed hegemony. When we didn’t lose jobs (and PGA tournaments) to countries like Mexico. When Muslims stayed where Muslims come from.

Credit Fernando Llano / AP via El Nuevo Herald
AP via El Nuevo Herald
CHAVEZ LEGACY: A Venezuelan anti-government protester in Caracas throws a teargas cannister back at police.

So what bothers me most about the Trump-Chávez comparisons is that they give both the U.S. and Venezuela a false sense of what underlies each man’s ascent.

In Chávez’s case it implies that he satisfied a craving for the kind of nationalist strongman Trump symbolizes – when in fact most Venezuelans just wanted Chávez to steer the fossil fuel fortune their way for a change.

In Trump’s case it implies economic anxiety is the sole reason he’ll be the GOP’s candidate for November – when in fact racial and nationalist angst seems as big if not a bigger driver.

If we disregard those different realities, it reduces the likelihood that Venezuela will ever repair the wealth gap that brought Chávez to power – or that the U.S. will ever address the tolerance gap that may carry Trump to the most powerful place on earth.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.