Cry for Me, America

Cry for Me, America

Two abandoned train stations. Top: Argentina. Bottom: Detroit.

Two abandoned train stations. Top: Argentina. Bottom: Detroit.

Only a hundred years ago, there was a country in the Americas with a burgeoning middle class and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. European immigrants saw this country, blessed with natural resources and land aplenty, as the “Land of Promise.” Many of the newcomers found rapid upward social mobility. Others were left behind—an angry and growing underbelly of a capitalist economy with no voice.

The educated, urban elite were horrified when a charismatic anti-politician arrived on the scene claiming that he alone spoke for the dispossessed. He threatened to upend the social order during a period of economic turmoil. The decent people found him unacceptable. Intellectuals couldn’t understand how millions of the unemployed and uneducated could trust someone with vague promises to make its citizens “proud to live where they live, once again.”

This anti-politician flirted with fascism but didn’t have much use for a set of coherent political positions. He preferred to emote his beliefs, turning his opponents into enemies of the people. He used his gorgeous female partner as a sort of accessory for public events, softening his machismo when he felt like it. Together, they looked like an altogether tacky couple to urban liberal elites.

Juan and Eva Perón, however, are characters who presage the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump by generations. An Argentine friend of mine spotted the similarities in iconography when Trump appeared on the cover of Time as Person of the Year. “Watching this happen,” Luciana said. “It’s like back to the future. I see the train wreck that's coming but I can’t look away.”

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

When I lived in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s, the city already had a musty air of forlornness. Trust in government, trust in business, trust in the very currency—the peso—had fallen to all-time lows. Taxi drivers examined $5 bills for the work of counterfeiters. It was an altogether miserable place if you believed in the commons.

You may remember Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001, but to understand how it went from one of the richest countries in the world to perennial basket case you need to understand Perón. He was the quintessential populist, embracing the working class and pledging loyalty to them—as long as they promised loyalty in return. Perón was fond of the grand gesture, granting Christmas bonuses for workers and sending Evita to the slums to hand out toys to poor children.

He would have loved Twitter.

Perón promised higher wages and a return to domestic manufacturing, even when it made no sense. He chest-thumped his antagonism to other powerful countries, especially the U.S. He curried favor with other strong men like him, including Francisco Franco. Caudillos, they are called in Spanish. They are macho men with a nationalist savior complex and a shoulder full of resentment to the Other. Sometimes they lean left, like Nicolás Maduro, and sometimes they go hard to the right, like Augusto Pinochet. But when it comes to caudillos, ideology matters much less than the pure lust for power—“the ultimate aphrodisiac,” according to Henry Kissinger.

When Perón’s economic plans failed to materialize, he blamed foreigners or intellectuals like Jorge Luis Borges. A favourite phrase of Perón’s was “Boots, yes. Books, no.”

Perón intervened with the politically independent Central Bank, selling off gold reserves to pay for unsustainable infrastructure projects. During the campaign, Trump mused about shaking up the Federal Reserve and renegotiating U.S. debt. “If the economy crashed,” Trump said, “you could make a deal.” If he goes through with it, those deals will undoubtedly enrich him and his family—again, something that echoes a classic caudillo move.

Trump’s cozy relationship with foreign demagogues also has strong parallels with Perón, who played both sides during World War II and later provided a haven for Nazis to launder money. And, of course, he took a cut himself. At one point, an entire shipment of Mercedes sedans went directly to Perón, who rewarded judges, prosecutors, and journalists with German cars for their support.

So what is Trump but the quintessential Latin American caudillo?

Argentina only went further downhill after Perón died in 1974. The country descended into violence. It was hopelessly polarized between those who saw Perón as a saviour and those who saw him as evil incarnate. Right-wing and left-wing Peronists vied for the mantel of Peronismo, leading to gun battles in the street.

Since his death, Argentina has oscillated between Peronist and Anti-Peronist regimes, often violently. Meanwhile, the country has never recovered from the long, slow decline from its once-vaunted status as one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, inequality, and political instability are now intractable problems. Long gone are the days when Argentina had a higher per capita income than Canada.

To intellectual elites, Peronism—like Trumpism—seems so transparent. Why can’t the working class see through the hypocrisy, corruption and self-defeating policies? Part of the answer is a potent mix of clientelism and populism that Trump shares with Perón. Perón and Evita forged emotional bonds with the electorate that went beyond policy or ideology. And they rewarded those close to them with material wealth. When political scientists talk about regimes that adopt the populist-clientelist model, the subject is usually some failing state in the developing world, Venezuela or Pakistan, say. They might want to consider adding the United States to that list.

Russell Cobb is a writer and academic at the University of Alberta, where he is Associate Professor in Modern Languages and Cultural Studies. His work bridges the worlds of creative nonfiction with the digital humanities. His writing has appeared in Slate, NPR, The New York Times, and The Nation, and includes the eBook Heart in Darkness (2013) and The Paradox of Authenticity in a Globalized World (2014). He spends his downtime playing basketball and spinning vinyl.

Canada 150 Links!

Canada 150 Links!

Dispatches From Suburbia: Who Gets to Be in Our Community?

Dispatches From Suburbia: Who Gets to Be in Our Community?