Most of America, even some Republicans, were stunned this week by President Trump’s letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That is, the raging, six-page tirade at the articles of impeachment against him — you don’t often see “you have found NOTHING!” typed on Oval Office stationery — which the U.S. House of Representatives approved Wednesday night.
But in South Florida, people probably weren’t all that shocked.
So many of us here are from Latin America or do business with the region — so we’re more accustomed to unhinged rants by heads of state, right-wing and left-wing. On my first assignment in Cuba in 1990, under a boiling July sun, I almost fainted during one of Fidel Castro’s three-hour-long harangues. Today, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro makes Trump sound like a shy altar boy. In Doral, I can hear Venezuelan exiles saying: “The gringos think Trump’s letter was bad? They never had to sit through an episode of ‘Aló Presidente.’”
From 1999 to 2012, before he died in 2013, “Aló Presidente” (Hello, Mr. President) was left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s weekly talk show. Each installment, lasting hours on end, was a televised precursor to Trump’s streams of Twitter tantrums. Just as rambling. Just as sophomoric. Just as hateful.
And just as politically effective.
Which is what Chávez’s opponents never understood — and Trump’s opponents still don’t really appreciate.
Demagogues like Chávez and Trump don’t get elected unless a large enough chunk of their country’s voters are really mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. In Chávez’s case the “it” was a kleptocracy that had left half of Venezuela’s population in poverty despite the country’s prodigious oil reserves. Trump was swept in by white Americans who feel screwed by globalization and/or threatened by the U.S.’s changing demographics.
More important, folks don’t vote firebrands like Chávez and Trump into presidential palaces hoping they’ll be dignified. Dignified was the b.s. façade of the oily establishments they voted out — los escuálidos or “pathetic ones” in Venezuela, the Deep State in the U.S.
To make their contempt for those smug elites as emphatic as possible, they want their demigods to stand before the world not as large meditative figures but as large middle fingers. To offend effete political correctness. To flout rules. To hammer lies into facts. To impose “vulgarity as a right,” as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset wrote about the rise of Europe’s fascist and communist bullies in the 20th century, whom he saw proclaiming “the right of unreason” and governing “in the form of insult.”
It’s uncanny how Ortega y Gasset presaged the bullying rise of Chávez and Trump in the 21st century. Which makes it all the more unbelievable that democrats from Caracas to Washington D.C. — from the late Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez (who survived a 1992 military coup led by Chávez) to former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (who didn’t survive Trump’s onslaught) — couldn’t see them coming too. And just as unbelievable that they couldn’t see how the vulgarity, the unreason, the insults didn’t diminish but amplified their populist popularity.
Even when Chávez was battling cancer in late 2012, he won a landslide re-election largely because, not despite, he stooped to calling his centrist opponent, Henrique Capriles, a “low-life pig” — and exploited Venezuela’s entrenched homophobia by insinuating Capriles was gay because he wasn’t married. That was the sort of base rhetoric that filled hours and hours of “Aló Presidente.”
SALEM WITCH TRIALS
Trump seems to have refined (if that’s the right word) Chávez’s schoolyard cruelty — whether it’s aimed at immigrants, journalists with disabilities, women who’ve accused him of harassment, a tortured war hero senator or a 16-year-old environmental activist who had the effrontery to knock him off Time’s Person of the Year cover.
But perhaps the most important rhetorical flourish Chávez purveyed and Trump has perfected isn't nastiness but victimhood — which is spread all across the letter to Pelosi.
In Chávez’s case, his supporters’ underdog grievances were admittedly more legitimate. In Trump’s much less so. Nonetheless, every white evangelical who feels under siege by secularism, every white merchant who resents hearing Spanish spoken in her shop or every white male who seethes at #MeToo can only feel politically energized by the wild, self-pitying claims Trump’s letter makes against his impeachment, such as:
“More due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials.”
Translate that into Spanish, imagine it scrolling down the teleprompter of “Aló Presidente” — and then imagine Trump himself winning re-election next year.