The whole world’s eyes are on Washington today, and not in a good way. As Venezuelans, we’re looking North with more trepidation than most today, even though — in fairness — the panic over Trump-as-northern-Chávez is premature. A politician is to be judged by what it does in office, not by what he says before he gets there. Beating Chávez historic economic demolition of the richest oil country in the world, during the biggest oil bonanza ever, leaving behind an inflation-ridden, bullet-stricken, hungry, ailing country — is quite an ask. But let’s see what happens.
Because in one way, Trump and Chávez are identical: they are masters of Populism.
There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption.
The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and 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. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in 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. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption. Populism can’t cure your suffering, but it can do something almost as good — better in some ways: it can build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It’s been them all along.
For all those who listen, 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. I was cast in the role of the enemy in the political struggle that followed the arrival of Chávez, and watched in frustration year after year as the Opposition tried and failed to do anything about the catastrophe unfolding all around. Only later did I realize this failure was, in a significant way, self-inflicted.