On Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump
On Thursday night, Chris Arnade, a man who spent 2016 and much of 2015 on the road writing about and speaking with Trump supporters, gave a keynote at Skidmore College. Arnade emphasized the shrinking middle class, growing income divisions, and a gap in values as the prime drivers of the pro-Trump movement. He explained Hugo Chávez’s election as Venezuela’s president in 1998 as a way to understand Trump’s election.
Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, sits in a valley, but unlike most cities, the rich live in the lowest part of the city, not in the hills. Traditionally, candidates would initially visit the lowest point of Caracas in order to cement institutional support. In 1998 though, Hugo Chávez took to the hills instead. Chávez carried a message of aggressive change. The Carter Foundation wrote that Chávez ran on a promise of “punishing those elites who had 'ruined the country' and calling for a constituent assembly to thoroughly reform the political institutions of Venezuela’s democracy.” Chávez split the country along class lines, promising revenge on those down in the valley.
Similarly, Arnade explained that when Mike Pence flew into New York on Jul. 17, just one day after being named Donald Trump’s running mate, the first thing he did was have dinner at Chili’s. Many news sites speculated why, in one of the food capitals of the world, Pence chose to eat at Chili’s. Why eat somewhere where only low-income people go? Pence understood he was running an anti-elitist and anti-establishment platform. New York does not have the topography of Caracas, but metaphorically, the potential Vice President headed for the hills. Unlike common belief, Pence did not eat at Chili’s in spite of its impoverished reputation, he ate there because of its reputation.
The similarities between the Trump campaign’s populist appeal and Chávez’s go beyond a mere emphasis on class. The two men appealed to the lower class through their frustration with a technocracy that had failed them. In the 1980s and 1990s, Venezuela underwent two decades of economic turmoil and the political elites tried everything to fix it. Venezuela employed every market strategy imaginable to stabilize its tumultuous economy, but nothing worked. The same parties stayed in power, the poor only got poorer, and the people began to blame their hardships on the idea of a centralized fiscal policy. Chávez was not sent to Caracas to implement yet another strategy; he was sent to destroy all those policy-makers who came before him.
Trump ran on the same platform of abject frustration. Even as American GDP continued to climb during the 2000s, partially as a result of NAFTA and other trade deals, the wealth gap became more and more pronounced. Obama’s bank bailout, the ARRA, stabilized the economy and allowed it to continue its upward growth trend, further exacerbating the wealth gap. It is no wonder that when Trump campaigned against Obama-era economic policy, many voters felt vindicated. Just like Hugo Chávez, Donald Trump appealed to a group that had been left behind by the broad, technocratic policies of the ruling class.
So when Mike Pence was lambasted for eating at Chili’s, the implication was clear -- the only reason anyone should be eating at Chili’s is if they cannot go anywhere else. Pence showed the lower classes that the Trump campaign not only empathized with them, it respected them. When Hugo Chávez went into the hills around Caracas to campaign, he carried the same message: I will fight for you because you are worth it. Until the traditional political parties reflect on their own disdain for poverty and correct it, this election will not be an isolated phenomenon.