It took forever. But Democrats finally seem to have found an answer to President Trump’s claim – directed for years now at Latino voters in Florida – that the party is a sinister socialist cabal poised to nationalize auto factories, shutter churches and send your abuelita out to cut sugar cane to meet the Politburo’s Five-Year Plan. Like, you know, the way Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez did.
This week Priorities U.S.A., a Democratic super PAC, launched a counterattack with social media ads. They feature Florida Latinos warning other Florida Latinos that it’s Trump who’s the real Castro-Chávez lookalike. The spots assert El Donaldo bears all the scary traits of Latin America’s most notorious caudillos, or dictatorial strongmen, including right-wingers like Augusto Pinochet.
The Priorities U.S.A. campaign – called #CaudilloDay because it debuted on Presidents’ Day – is of course a political stretch, just as Trump’s fire alarms are. But its timing couldn’t be sharper, coming as it does in a week when Trump told Americans that he and not the Attorney General is their country’s “chief law enforcement officer.” That’s a disturbing follow-up to his earlier declaration that “I can do whatever I want as President.” Like, you know, the way Castro and Chávez did.
If the White House hasn’t yet refuted #CaudilloDay, it’s because it really can’t: Trump’s l’etat c’est moi claim essentially affirmed the attack ads a day after they went up on Twitter. Not because Trump (yet) has proved himself as autocratic as Pinochet or Castro. But because his unabashed attempts to undermine America’s democratic institutions have opened the door to real dread that he would be if he could – if those institutions were suddenly squashed as they were in late 20th-century Chile and still are in early 21st-century Cuba.
Yet that open door swings both ways. Which is why the Democrats need to appreciate the reason Trump’s socialismo assaults have gotten traction in Florida.
Meaning: Bernie Sanders. On the one hand, I don’t believe the democratic socialist Vermont Senator, who right now is the leading Democratic presidential candidate, wants the federal government to confiscate your dry-cleaner business or abolish Christmas. I’d like to think he just wants the capitalist profits-cum-socialist protections mix that once made the U.S. a model society to work again for ordinary people, not just the 1 Percent. (I think most Republicans want that, too, when they’re not watching Fox News.)
But if Trump has validated concerns he's a wannabe dictator, Sanders has done his ridiculous best to usher in the socialista bogeyman. Starting with his Medicare-for-all proposal to abolish private health insurance, and now his call to nationalize electricity production. Both are turn-offs to most U.S. voters outside the more liberal Democratic base – especially folks like Cuban and Venezuelan exiles fleeing the authoritarian disasters that so often result from scrapping public-private choice. Yet Democrats are shocked Trump is using them to whip up fear in South Florida?
Then again, Trump doesn’t need Sanders’ actual policies to spook exiles. He can just bring up the senator’s astonishing reluctance to criticize the socialist Cuban and Venezuelan regimes – the latter of which is responsible for the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere today.
Or Trump can point to the pro-Sanders zealots known as Bernie Bros – whose bullying bears a frightening resemblance to Cuba’s and Venezuela’s most ardent pro-regime brutos. This week on social media a Cuban-American friend of mine, whose grandfather died in one of Castro’s political prisons, criticized the pass Sanders gives Havana – and got trolled by Bernie Bros. One, a typical anonymous Twitter coward, wrote: “Ha ha – your grandfather deserved it, gusano (worm),” using the Cuban regime’s epithet for exiles.
That’s not to say the MAGA bullies known as Trump Thugs don’t also mirror the enforcers of Latin America’s authoritarian governments. They do – and that’s one of the central points of the #CaudilloDay campaign. It’s also why Trump’s proclamation this week – that he’s the only sheriff in town who matters – should unsettle Americans and, specifically, the Florida Latinos #CaudilloDay is trying to sway.
It ought to remind Venezuelan exiles of how Chávez (who died in 2013) hijacked their native country’s judicial system – and even jailed judges who angered him the way U.S. judges like Amy Berman Jackson are enraging Trump.
The reality is that neither Trump nor Sanders is the Chávez, Castro or Pinochet he wants Florida Latinos to believe the other is. But both men, and their followers, have crossed lines that open doors to the comparisons. And that reality is just as unnerving.