Detractors of Donald Trump, alarmed by his demagogic tendencies, have likened him to a rogue’s gallery of authoritarian figures. None of these have hit the mark and, by wrongly identifying him with a cast of historical strongmen, they’ve made it easy for his supporters to debunk such aspersions as the hyperbole of the defeated and the demoralized. Albeit a media celebrity with an outsized personality, Trump, whatever his Alpha-male womanizing, is no Silvio Berlusconi. Despite his penchant for bombast and posturing, neither is he Mussolini who achieved power through violence and, in fascism, projected a distinct, albeit perverse, ideology. Nor is Trump a harbinger of the fuhrer, certainly not in substance, although perhaps in style, since both were great actors, consummate performers who knew how to work a crowd. But Trump shares none of the imperialist, expansionist zealotry of such dictators. As for contemporaries like Russia’s Putin or Turkey’s Erdogan, while effective strongmen, they lack the panache that makes Trump such a wonder of electoral politics.
There is, however, one political leader of the recent past with whom Trump may bear comparison: Juan Perón, the strongman of Argentina, who was three times elected as his country’s president and was genuinely adored by the masses who worshipped him as intensely as he was reviled by an elite that he suppressed.
Perón was a populist who managed to enthrall a working-class base, a rural peasantry, an array of nationalists, middle-class students, right-wing officers, and a sufficient number of key industrialists who profited from his policies. And while this agglomeration may appear paradoxical, the glue that held it together was Perón himself as each constituency vied with the other to demonstrate who was more Perónist.
Perónism, like Trumpism, was centered on the man. There is no such thing as Berlusconi-ism. Perón managed to be all things to all people, or at least most things to many people who projected their aspirations onto him. He didn’t offer so much an ideology as an aura. He was exceedingly pragmatic, an opportunist who sensed where the wind was blowing and got there ahead of his rivals.
Perón was a statist who used the power of his office to deliver the goods to his followers. Trump may be coming from the other direction but what both men have in common is that they spoke to, and for, a constituency that felt overlooked by the hierarchies of their respective nations. In Perón’s case, he mobilized a base that felt itself economically deprived and politically marginalized; in Trump’s case, he energized a base that believed itself to be culturally disdained and economically threatened. The appeals to each group were raw and emotional, in language they could understand. And their triumph brought with it not only political power but a sense of vindication that they’d turned the tables on the elites who’d long disdained them.
There are, of course, differences. Trump represents a traditional bloc who sought to restore their belief in a glorious past while Perón, elevated to power by a politically involved military, represented a proletariat without a past that looked to a glorious future. But both stirred the faithful by appealing to the grievances of groups who felt their needs had been overlooked, their values disrespected and their interests dismissed by a modernizing elite whose progressive nostrums ignored them.
Neither Trump nor Perón had a formal ideology, which allowed them to transcend the urgings of both liberals and conservatives. They were their own parties and could improvise as needed, ergo the movements in their own names—ones based on the person, not the policies.
Trump’s populism, which speaks to emotions rather than political programs, is much closer to Perón’s charismatic appeal than the American populism with which he has sometimes been identified. That phenomenon was a popular reaction to the Gilded Age ascendancy of robber barons, railroad conglomerates, banking trusts, currency speculation, and government corruption. It had specific goals, a diverse leadership and ideals some of which, over time, became rooted in American politics. Trumpism is about Trump. Similarly, Perónism never outlived him except as a vague longing for a once-and-future strongman.
Perón’s populism turned into a “soft” dictatorship. He vilified the press, shut down many newspapers and forced self-censorship on the remaining ones. He flagellated “the elites” and lashed opponents on both the Left and the Right so that the only “correct” position was Perón’s. He would eventually lock up and torture political opponents. And, like Trump, he kept things in the family, ruling along with his wife Eva, and, after she died, choosing her successor, Isabel, as his vice president, a role from which she would succeed him as president. For all this, he won what were generally considered to be fair elections three times, governing on and off over almost 30 years from the postwar era until his death in 1974.
To be sure, the U.S. is not Argentina which was too often ruled by caudillos and suffered from coups and internecine strife. America has a tradition of democracy: the rule of law, Constitutional guarantees of civil rights, and institutions that uphold those rights. Trump was formed by these institutions and, presumably, will respect them to some extent.
One would hope that the grave responsibility of the office and the virtues of forbearance, wisdom, and decency it requires, might have a tonic effect on Trump. But his first 24 hours in the job—marked by his bellicose attacks on the Washington establishment, his subsequent vilification of the press and his preening performance before the CIA—did little to assure us he is capable of those virtues.
What Trump and Perón have in common is that they are two charismatic politicians who rode to power on the backs of an angry and aggrieved following. One became a near-dictator. The other is our next president. Let us hope that the responsibility of this task, and the virtues of forbearance, wisdom, and decency it requires, will have a tonic effect on America’s 45th president.
Jack Schwartz was a former book editor of Newsday and is the author of The Fine Print My Life as a Deskman.