The Enemy Trump Needs
How to let a populist beat you, over and over again.
By Andrés Miguel Rondón January 27 Andrés Miguel Rondón is an economist living in Madrid. He is a Venezuelan citizen who was born and raised there.
Hugo Chavez was a populist, too. His opponents never figured out how to beat him. (AP Photo/Jorge Santo) Donald Trump is an avowed capitalist; Hugo Chávez was a socialist with communist dreams. One builds skyscrapers, the other expropriated them. But politics is only one-half policy: The other, darker half is rhetoric. Sometimes the rhetoric takes over. Such has been our lot in Venezuela for the past two decades — and such is yours now, Americans. Because in one regard, Trump and Chávez are identical. They are both masters of populism.
The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up 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. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with 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. 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.
Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely.
What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.
Show no contempt.
Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.
Don’t try to force him out.
Attempting to force Trump out, rather than digging in to fight his agenda, would just distract the public from whatever failed policies the administration is making. In Venezuela, the opposition focused on trying to reject the dictator by any means possible — when we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving.
His advice is both hard and somewhat unnatural. For one thing, it says that the mockery of comedians may be profitable for them but it also plays into Trump's hands. I recommend the story, even though I'm not sure that I agree with his prescriptions, I'm sure there is an element of truth in them.