Populist Authoritarianism and the Politics of Untruth: Lessons from Latin America

    The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union have coincided with a growing chorus of concern about “fake news.” It is tempting to lay much of the blame on social media in general and on the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of teenagers in a small Macedonian town, who churned out pro Trump “news” to make money by increasing traffic to their sites. However, politicians and their supporters, particularly of the right centre populist variety, have also gotten into the act. One Donald Trump supporter, for example, claimed that Clinton and her senior staff were involved in underage sex rings while Trump himself made many false statements during his election campaign. He declared that global warming was a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” said that Barak Obama was not born in the U.S. and then lied again, by denying that he had made such a claim. Fake news, some believe, played a role in the American election and in the Brexit vote. There is also a growing consensus that this type of phenomenon is dangerous to liberal democratic institutions and it is on the rise. 

Untruth in Politics is not New

    However, untruth in politics is not new. While blatant untruth in the politics of liberal democracies has been fairly muted (until now), untruth has been an integral component of politics throughout history, including in liberal democracies. The mainstream media in liberal democracies has always been untruthful insofar as its reporting downplays, if it does not entirely omit, the perceptions and experiences of the losers in the economic game. The mainstream media has been instrumental in maintaining the now increasingly frayed myth of opportunity and justice for all. It is only since the election of Donald Trump that the media, in a desperate attempt to grapple with that unfortunate outcome, has reported on the economic hardships faced by people in those regions of the country where Trump drew his strongest support. The inability of mainstream media to continue to persuade everyone of the liberal democratic myth and its free market addendum has implications for the stability and smooth operation of liberal democratic institutions. This operation depends mightily on the public’s belief that the system operates fairly and is meeting popular aspirations. However, many in America and Europe appear to believe that this is no longer the case because these institutions are controlled in the interests of greedy elites. The reaction is an emotional one (anger) and it has bred blatant untruth in politics.  

The Appeal of Untruths and Populist Politics

    Even in the best of times (and these are not the best of times), however, people are probably much more susceptible to emotional political appeals than they are to rational ones. A recent opinion piece argues that fake news will not be stemmed by changes that impede its flow through social media because humans prefer fanciful stories to ones based on solidly researched fact. Stories that are realistic usually do not excite the imagination. People everywhere devour science fiction, horror flicks, action movies, and maudlin romance stories with happy and wholly unrealistic endings. More often than not, these tales involve the triumph of an underdog against difficult odds. The stories that are most appealing are the ones that offer happy endings (hope for a better life) and reinforce pre-existing attitudinal predispositions about what is wrong and what needs to be fixed.  

    However, to suggest that there is an enormous emotional demand for untruths (hope rather than truth) does not provide us with a satisfactory explanation for what is happening now. While the internet and social media has undoubtedly exacerbated populist authoritarianism and its attendant untruths, it is the broader context that has shaped public susceptibility—has laid the groundwork for public enthusiasm for the emotionally charged politics of untruth. We do not have to look far to recognize that at some historical moments people are considerably more predisposed to believing in fanciful stories than others. Why is that?   Here are some cases from Latin America’s history of populist authoritarianism. These cases are instructive because they cannot be explained by social media. Their untruths, supported by popular emotion, were nevertheless highly effective in determining political outcomes.

Latin America: Anti-Establishment Populist Politics

Eva Perón

Eva Perón

    In the 1950s, Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Evita rose to power on a wave of popular adulation. Perón called for a “New Argentina.” Eva Perón, bejeweled and draped in ermine, achieved enormous popular support, in part, because she provided her poor decamisados (shirtless ones) with an image that allowed them to obtain the wealth and power of the hated landed/business oligarchy vicariously. Eva Perón came to represent the victory of the poor Argentine, from whose social class she had arisen, over the Argentine establishment, which had engaged in political repression and electoral fraud to deny the majority improved living standards and access to political power. Eva, of course, also catered to the material needs of the poor and the working class (at least for a while) but her legacy cannot be fully explained without reference to this appeal to popular imagination and emotion. Eva Peron was the mother of Argentina. Peronism arose in a context in which the centre reformist Radical Party had been coopted by the political establishment, and in which the programmatic left was politically very weak. An emotionally charged populist movement was the only force capable of pushing open the political system. 

Abdalá Bucaram

Abdalá Bucaram

    One of the most bizarre cases of right wing authoritarianism in Latin America is that of Abdalá Bucaram (nicknamed the “madman’), who was the President of Ecuador between 1996 and 1997, before being removed from office after being declared mentally unfit to rule by the Ecuadorian congress. Like the Peróns, Bacaram rose to power due to deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, in this case a failed neoliberal program that did nothing to improve living standards. Sporting a Hitler-like moustache, Bararam campaigned with powerful attacks against the country’s white oligarchy and presented himself as the champion of the poor. Like Donald Trump, he flaunted convention, calling a former president a “donkey” and when pressed to apologize, apologized to the donkeys. He committed a major faux pas in foreign policy by apologizing to the President of Peru for all of the boundary problems the two countries had had in the past. In the end, he betrayed his popular support base with a turn to neoliberalism and a tough austerity program. 

    These Latin American cases of widespread support for populist authoritarianism involve heavy doses of emotional appeal and untruth. These cases also embody popular dreams for a fuller and more “real” form of political representation to address strong feelings of exclusion. Social media was not a major factor in either of these cases. Indeed, the emotionally driven nature of these movements had much more to do with the intransience of established political elites and the weakness of the programmatic political left. The cases alert us to the importance of not becoming side tracked by spurious issues that lead us away from the root of the problem. Populist authoritarianism in the U.S. and Europe with its outrageous untruths is a symptom of underlying dysfunctionalities. It is important to figure out exactly what these are. We need to consider the possibility that the popular belief in blatant untruths now on display in liberal democracies might arise from another untruth: the notion that liberal democracies and their political establishments provide effective representation.