The latest Democratic attack ad aimed at Donald Trump may have been right about some of his characteristics. But in comparing the Republican presidential candidate to controversial foreign strongmen, the Democrats made one big mistake.
Just a normal attack ad, right?
The advert in question was in Spanish, and its target audience was the growing and increasingly influential Latino community in the US – one that Donald Trump has consistently managed to offend and smear throughout the election campaign.
The Democratic National Committee (not the Clinton campaign) paid for the advert, which selectively edited comments by Trump that Clinton should be jailed and that he would sue media outlets responsible for spreading “purposely negative, horrible and false” articles. The aim was to portray the Republican candidate as an authoritarian figure. And Trump has indeed shown in the last year (through his words, actions, and suggested policies) that he has sexist, racist, and authoritarian tendencies.
But when the advert tried to compare Trump to strong leaders from abroad, it really missed the mark.
Trump? A socialist?
Comparing Trump with fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini may not be far off the mark. Some of his policies have already been likened to Hilter’s, after all, and Slate Magazine’s Jamelle Bouie outlined quite comprehensively in November 2015 why the best political label for him would be “fascist”.
But could we really compare him to a socialist leader, too? The Democratic National Committee clearly thought so.
As the audience for the attack ad was the US Latino community, the video focused on one of the most emblematic Latin American leaders of modern times – deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. (Yes, the man whose achievements included halving Venezuela’s poverty levels, eradicating illiteracy, and creating a national system guaranteeing free healthcare for all citizens. That guy.)
The problem with this comparison was that Chávez’s socialist government was popular in many working-class Latino communities in the US, in part because it gave discounted home heating oil to low-income Americans for years. He even has a mural dedicated to him in the South Bronx in New York. Trump can’t exactly say the same about his own standing with Latinos.
Why Trump is not like Chávez
The attack ad also deliberately failed to mention that Chávez had won over a dozen elections in a system which former Democratic President Jimmy Carter called “the best in the world”. It also failed to mention that even Hillary Clinton’s State Department praised Venezuela’s election results publicly in 2012.
Wayne State University assistant professor John Patrick Leary argues at the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) that the only similarities between Trump and Chávez are superficial. Both were big personalities who used TV to communicate with voters using informal, unscripted speeches. And both “eagerly goaded their enemies”. But that’s where the similarities end, he says:
Chávez was a socialist and a Third-World nationalist, Trump an authoritarian right-winger and proud imperialist. Chávez and Trump are political opposites…
On the one hand, Chávez’s popularity came partly from the fact that he represented the multiethnic heritage of most Venezuelans. Trump, on the other hand, gets his support mostly from white communities, having “gained political prominence by stoking their racial paranoia about a usurping African American president”.
The dangerous game of shifting the blame
Mexican essayist Enrique Krauze compared Trump to several Latin American ‘populists’ in a recent article for Slate. And like the Democratic attack ad, he suggested there was something culturally Latin American about populist authoritarianism, saying:
the United States seems to have contracted a form of this potentially lethal virus.
Leary responds by saying:
Is this not at least as distasteful as Trump, his wall, and his racist caricatures of Mexican migrants? …what wall can you build against the contagion of ideas that Krauze imagines seeping across our southern border?
The massive problem, Leary says, is the idea of seeing Trump and his politics as “something frankly un-American” and exotic. Especially when he easily won the race to become the official Republican presidential candidate. The truth is, Leary insists, that he and his ideas are not “a contagion from abroad”; they’re simply a product of the US political system.
And indeed, what could represent America’s unrepresentative two-party plutocracy better than a racist billionaire tax avoider running for the White House?
Featured image via Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Fund our Investigations Unit
You can help us investigate corruption, expose injustice and uncover the truth.
As one of the only independent investigations units in the country, we work for you – but we need your help to keep going. We need to raise £10,000 to continue our groundbreaking investigations. Can you chip in?