Venezuela’s increasing slide into brutal authoritarianism has continued unabated. The country’s recently elected constituent assembly, boycotted by the opposition, has now taken over the powers of the country’s opposition-controlled Congress. With an estimated 124 deaths in opposition protests, international pressure against the regime has intensified. Much of that pressure has come from the U.S. In addition to U.S. imposed sanctions on some two dozen former and current Venezuelan officials, President Trump has declared that he will not rule out “a military option.” The Trump government is also contemplating the banning of oil shipments, a measure that would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy. All of this has supposedly come about in an effort to support the cause of Venezuelan democracy. Trump has characterized the country’s opposition anti-government protesters as engaging in a struggle ”for democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” and has declared that their just demands “continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator” (a reference to current President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro). The pot, I fear, is calling the kettle.
Democracy under Threat
Admittedly, while the political turmoil in the United States is certainly worrisome, the Venezuelan situation is many times worse. There can be no question about that. However, democracy is under serious threat in the United States. Arguably the U.S. situation is “under control” in a way that the Venezuelan situation is not. This is so because (mercifully), the United States has a long history of strong institutions (Congress, and the judiciary) and these are in a position to constrain recalcitrant presidential power. Without these checks on power, the Donald would be doing considerably more damage than he currently is. Unhappily, neither he nor his core of followers are constrained by the norms (willingness to compromise, respect for political opponents, etc.) that are also at the root of the operation of liberal democracy.
This U.S. institutional strength is in sharp contrast to the Venezuelan case where democratic institutions (or institutions that purported to be democratic) have been historically much weaker and have had a much spottier history. Throughout the twentieth century, their manipulation by selfish political and economic elites, involvement of the military in overthrowing regimes not to the liking of powerful interests, and elite pacts that excluded some groups from political participation, all contributed to the de-legititimization of the electoral process and electoral institutions. These circumstances made it much easier and feasible for a leader to re-write the rules of the game, concentrate power, and run amuck.
While contexts are certainly distinct, both cases are characterized by two leaders obsessed with maintaining their own power, and singularly unconcerned with the harm (even devastation) that they are bringing to their own countries. Both are uncompromising in their attitudes towards opponents and both have exacerbated the searing divisions within their respective countries. Trump has done this through his public statements and attempted policies on immigration, women, gender, and race/regional issues—all of which have emboldened the alt-right and generated counter-protests. Maduro has railed against the opposition accusing it of treason due to its pursuit of foreign support for their cause. Both leaders have maintained a core of fanatical supporters, who appear to forgive (or even support) their leaders’ glaring transgressions. Trump’s base is larger (at 34 percent approval rating) while Maduro’s lags at around 21 percent (according to an opposition poll), but could be as high as 32 percent. Both leaders are able to publicly mobilize their base. Trump’s most recent rally occurred in Phoenix where he ranted against the fake media and his political opponents. Maduro’s supporters have regularly mobilized on his behalf, most recently in support of the newly elected constituent assembly. Maduro’s endurance in power owes a great deal to the country’s military, stacked with Chavistas during Hugo Chavez’s tenure in power (1999-2013). The Venezuelan military has steadfastly refused to intervene on behalf of the opposition—very much unlike its past behaviour in the twentieth century. Disturbingly, Donald Trump is courting the U.S. military—seen most recently in his decision to up troop levels in Afghanistan, something the previous administration resisted but a decision the military has been lobbying heavily for. The power of the U.S. military has increased enormously since Trump took office.
Despite his clear megalomaniac tendencies, of course no international powers are demanding that Donald Trump be removed from power. He, arguably, is a much clearer threat to world peace and stability than Maduro could ever be. However, what is even more interesting to consider is that of the mindsets of the core supporters in each case—important to understand since without this core support base, these leaders’ respective holds on power would be considerably more tenuous than currently is the case. Maduro’s core supporters are concentrated among the poorest Venezuelans. This makes sense since under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, government policy made great strides in improving the lot of the poor. It is entirely understandable that this recent memory of a substantial improvement in material conditions would encourage poorer citizens to support Chavez successor in hard times. The attempt by the opposition to overthrow Chavez by military coup in 2002 would certainly reinforce Maduro’s claim that the opposition aims to take power at any cost, thereby entrenching a hardline among government supporters. In other words, there is a fairly concrete political context within which we can understand (not justify) the position taken by the Venezuelan government and its supporters.
The current U.S. case is harder to grasp. While Trump drew his support from a fairly wide cross section of the American public, the conventional wisdom is that he has a strong base of support among citizens (particularly white less educated males) who have lost out in the last two decades, particularly those in the regions of the country that have experienced de-industrialization. The Trump administration has promised to block/alter trade deals to stem the flow of jobs out of the U.S. It is far from clear that any alteration in trade agreements will bring back any jobs. Meanwhile, his promise to stimulate employment through infrastructural expenditure has not materialized. Instead, Trump has cozied up to Goldman-Sachs and the military industrial complex. Either core supporters believe that somehow Trump will eventually deliver on these promises or (and what is more likely) his appeal stems from other aspects of his agenda, particularly his national security concerns involving measures against immigration and stepped-up military adventures in small countries. Trump’s appeal, unlike Maduro’s, does not stem from a misguided attempt to stand up to the economically powerful in the interests of the dispossessed. It has now become something else—perhaps an attack on liberal values that will effectively mute (and redirect) popular angst against the country’s ever increasing concentrated economic wealth and privilege.