Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Historical Precedents

“He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin and picks fights with our friends—including the British prime minister, the mayor of London, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Pope.”
—Hillary Clinton, criticizing Donald Trump in a speech on June 2

“Do I have a problem when a sitting secretary of State and a foundation run by her husband collects many, many dollars from foreign governments—governments which are dictatorships? Yeah, I do have a problem with that. Yeah, I do.”
—Bernie Sanders, criticizing Hillary Clinton on CNN’s State of the Union on June 5
You cannot really call the current U.S. election campaign fun, but I do my best to find interesting or amusing bits where I can. Some things I enjoy are the various historical analogies people try to impose on the candidates.

Donald Trump in particular has been fertile ground for people reaching for historical comparisons. From the beginning a lot of people have likened him to the fascist leaders who rose in Europe in the 1930s, like Mussolini or, most provocatively, Hitler. I dealt with the Trump-as-fascist thing in this space seven months ago and do not have much reason to revise what I said then. He and his followers do not really fit the pattern of previous major fascist movements, which were characterized by heavy emphasis on detailed theory and ideology. Trump fits more in the populist mode which, to my mind anyway, usually involves an opportunist spotting a mob and running to get in front of it. Some people like to conflate fascism and populism, but populism is hard to pin to any particular ideology since it always focuses on whatever a large group of people are feeling disenfranchised about at a particular time. It often tends to be anti-globalist and anti-immigration but more out of an isolationist sentiment. That is different than the racism of Hitler, who used protection of ethnic Germans as a pretext for dominating the countries around him. Scottish historian/pundit Niall Ferguson made a very good case a few weeks ago for how populism and fascism are different in a UK Times piece (sorry, behind a paywall). While fascism led to World War II, Ferguson notes that the isolationist mindset of populists means that they are extremely adverse to getting into wars. Given Clinton’s record, which has always tilted toward the hawkish, that puts pacifist voters in the interesting position of considering a Republican who may well be less likely than the Democrat to use the military.

Having dismissed the fascist comparison, what other Trump comparisons can we find out there? An interesting one lately comes from conservative columnist (and recently resigned Republican) George Will, who compares to Trump to Charles Lindbergh of all people. In his analogy Vladimir Putin is Hitler, and Trump is the American celebrity who admires him and invokes the same slogan as Lindbergh, “America First.” Again, this comparison makes Trump the choice of those who are anti-war.

The comparison that really piques my interest has shown up here and there in publications like The Atlantic and Politico, where some writers have called him an American Peronist. This is a reference to Juan Domingo Perón, who was president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1973 to 1974. An admirer of Mussolini, Perón best fits as a variant of the fascists. Presumably he gets brought up as a possible precursor to Trump because of his ability to whip up a crowd and tendencies that many see as dictatorial. Personally, though, I do not know if I would bring up Perón if I were a Clinton supporter.

For one thing he was known for using no-holds-barred tactics against his political opponents. Anyone paying attention to John Podesta’s recently released emails (courtesy of Wikileaks) or the recently released Veritas video in which a Clinton ally is heard to discuss hiring people to incite violence at Trump rallies? Perón and his second wife, Eva Duarte, also promoted their political fortunes through a charitable foundation that was not above strong-arming the well-heeled for generous donations.

The most interesting Perón/Clinton comparison is that, as with his latter-day successors Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Perón’s wife succeeded him in the presidency. It was not Eva, though she was extremely popular and would likely have succeeded him if she had not died of cancer at the age of 33. Instead her consolation was to become the subject of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, of which one of the musical numbers is “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out).” It was Perón’s third wife, Isabel Martínez, who ended up succeeding him on his death in 1974. Her brief term was a disaster. Plagued by poor health, she eroded Argentines’ constitutional rights in a fight to eradicate leftist terrorism, presided over record trade and budget deficits, and watched inflation climb from 12 to 80 percent in a year. She was deposed in coup in 1976 and was suceeded by an army general, Jorge Rafael Videla, who proceeded to initiate Argentina’s notorious Dirty War against its own citizens.

These sorts of historical comparisons can be fun, but at the end of the day they are of no real help for figuring out how to vote. Worse, too much studying of history can be so discouraging that it may actually provoke the dangerous decision not to bother voting at all.

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