Column: Trump saw himself as a strongman leader. He ended up a one-term president with a legacy of failure
From the smoldering, embarrassing chaos that emerged from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday came a repeated mantra: What happened was straight out of a banana republic.
Media, Democrats, even Republicans uttered the term, used to describe Latin American countries where coups are as regular as the tides, to explain what had unfolded on a day that will live in both infamy and stupidity.
It makes sense to fall back on that cliche, because President Trump thinks of himself as a modern-day caudillo. That’s the stock strongman of Latin American politics with a personality cult that follows his every saber thrust toward violence in the name of the fatherland.
True to form, Trump embodied dictators of decades past just before the clown coup at the Capitol with a whiny, rambling speech.
The part that historians will cite forever is when he promised thousands of his supporters that he “would never concede” and “we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. … You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
Soon after, Trump retired to the White House and watched the unfolding chaos on television. Early the following day, he conceded. So much for the strongman.
At the core of his chickpea-sized heart, Donnie’s weaker than a napkin trying to hold back the Potomac.
Trump is such a charade of masculinity that he can’t even register in Latin America’s roster of dictators. In nearly every factor that characterizes this sorry lot of leaders — factors Trump has long cultivated and boasted about — he fails and fails again.
His obsession with branding — the bottled water, the hotels and private clubs, the MAGA hats and failed universities and steaks and so much more — doesn’t compare to Rafael Trujillo, who renamed cities and mountains in the Dominican Republic after himself (although there was the time Trump openly wondered about having his mug carved on Mt. Rushmore).
The Trump family will be out of political office after one term.
They couldn’t follow in the footsteps of the Somozas of Nicaragua, who held power for two generations, or the Batlles of Uruguay, five of whom served as president of the South American country. After Inauguration Day, Eric and Don Jr. will be lucky to head their local Proud Boys chapters.
A classical caudillo projects himself as the epitome of virility, usually by riding on horseback toward glory. Trump? His mighty thoroughbred is a golf cart; his feats of physical strength, a badly wielded putter. Trump dreamed of being etched into granite, but he projects more Pillsbury Doughboy — no matter how much his meme-crazy followers like to portray him as Rambo or project his smirking face and head onto the bodies of action-movie stars.
The classical caudillo wins and loses his wars on the battlefield. Even Mexico’s Gen. Santa Anna — widely seen as the most inept warlord in Latin American history (that is, before Trump) — fought alongside his troops to the tune of a lost leg and imprisonment by the Texans. Trump? Twitter blocked him for 12 hours, and wouldn’t let the 45th president of the United States back in until he deleted two tweets — which he did.
The longest-lasting strongmen surrounded themselves with people smarter than they to ensure their rule — think of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, Augusto Pinochet in Chile — and claim some sort of progress to the world. Those loyalists, in turn, stick with their boss until the end. Trump instead surrounded himself with sycophants to a level that would’ve made Fidel Castro gag. And even they have left the Trump regime faster than the Dodger Stadium crowd after the seventh inning.
The closest Latin American corollary to Trump would be the Perons of Argentina — Trumpism is as noxious, pompous and overblown as Peronismo. But Juan and Evita created a political movement that still holds sway and even spawned ideological branches in the form of the Kirchner dynasty. Trump, meanwhile, blew up the GOP and has too few followers to start a successful third party, the way Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has successfully done.
Trump’s bombastic speeches are nowhere near as entertaining as what Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales offered; his economic policies, touted as populist correctives against the socialist Democrats, instead plunged us into a deficit straight out of Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. There is one accomplishment, however, where Trump can brag that he vies with many of his fellow autocrats:
By the time Trump leaves office, there will have been nearly 400,000 dead Americans in less than a year from the coronavirus. That’s twice as many people estimated to have been killed in Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.
That’s a larger trail of bodies than the dictators cast as bloodthirsty ghouls in the annals of Latin America — Pinochet, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, the generals who headed Argentina during its Dirty War, the Duvaliers of Haiti — left behind.
The loss of life that Trump allowed to happen in the country he and his followers proclaim to love so much is on a scale with the War of the Triple Alliance of the 1860s, where Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil teamed up to invade Paraguay. When the smoke cleared, a country was reduced to rubble and at least 400,000 people were dead.
Paraguay’s leader at the time was Francisco Solano López. He is now remembered as a national hero who gave his life to defend his country from actual foreign invaders. Trump? He’ll be lucky to get a plaque at a White House restroom stall.
He’s ultimately a tin-pot tyrant who tapped into the darkest ids of the American mind and let them loose in his name.
Trump promised he’d be a macho man that would restore America; instead, we got a sorcerer for the credulous, conspiracy theory-devouring set, for the racists and insecure, mean-spirited people who want to feel as large and powerful as their Dear Leader imagines he is in his fever dreams.
That’s a Latin American stock character, too: the pendejo.
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