Beware the Outsider

I'm afraid of Donald Trump — because in Latin America, I've seen what the likes of him can do.

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Donald Trump is running for president of the United States as the ultimate outsider. His campaign message is simple: only leaders who have no ties to Washington politics can change the status quo. Freedom from political debts means freedom to get things done.

Trump’s lead in the primaries shows that many U.S. voters appear to be seduced by this idea. It’s understandable that electing an outsider might be an attractive prospect for people disillusioned by the workings of their political system.

For me, as a long-time observer of Latin American politics, what’s most unnerving about Trump’s rise is just how familiar it feels. Latin America has a mostly unhappy history of dealing with outsiders-turned-presidents. Far more often than not, they have ended up either hurting democracy or ruining the government’s ability to act.

Latin America has seen 13 people with minimal experience running for office become elected presidents of their countries since 1989. These outsiders have had varied backgrounds: they have been military officers, business tycoons, TV personalities, recording artists, PhDs in economics, union organizers, even former priests. Their beliefs cover a wide range of ideologies: Some come from the political left, others from the right. Once they are in office, however, their rule tends to take two specific directions.

First there are the strongmen. These semi-dictators are the ones who succeed in their quest to change the status quo, thus enthralling their supporters. But they are able to do this only at the cost of eroding their country’s checks and balances, almost always to the detriment of future generations. Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Evo Morales in Bolivia all fall into this category.

The other group of leaders — let’s call them “the mismanagers” — plunge their countries into utter political chaos, characterized by extreme polarization, gridlock, and constitutional crises. It’s no accident that their careers often end in premature resignation. Examples of this pattern include Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Michel Martelly in Haiti.

The difference between these two groups has less to do with their political goals and ideology than how they approach their country’s institutions once in office. The semi-dictators understand that their ability to carry out their agenda depends on crushing the ability of existing political institutions to resist them. So they use their first years in office to weaken opposing political parties, modify constitutions to weaken checks and balances, and otherwise undermine any institution that stands in their way.

In Peru, Fujimori staged a “self-coup” against the country’s congress and then organized a constituent assembly that gave the presidency more powers. Chávez and Correa organized constituent assemblies in Venezuela and Ecuador after essentially brushing aside their congresses. Morales tried to do the same in Bolivia, but outside pressure forced him to negotiate with congress before changing the constitution. In the end, he had to give up his plan to draft a constitution with expanded presidential powers.

After taking advantage of their large majorities, weakened opposition parties, and revamped constitutions to expand their powers, these semi-dictators turned their sights on the judiciary, the electoral system, and even the press. By this point, they had essentially mastered the political system and bent it to their will.

The outsider “mismanagers,” meanwhile, also attempt to change the status quo, but never quite manage to beat the political opposition. Their country’s opposition parties turn against them, blocking them from seizing key institutions and accomplishing their mandates. Because many of them deliberately neglect, or simply never manage, to cultivate ties with traditional politicians, they have few allies across the political system who can help them when they get into trouble. In many ways, their independence translates into isolation. Their isolation translates into helplessness during political crises. And helplessness in some cases has led them to either turn nasty towards their enemies (Aristide and Martelly in Haiti) or too corrupt (Saca in El Salvador).

Granted, not all outsiders in Latin America have ended badly. Mauricio Funes, for instance, was El Salvador’s first leftist president since the 1930s — and he left the country more prosperous than when he found it. Alejandro Toledo helped Peru democratize after Fujimori’s autocratic period. But these positive outcomes are notable precisely for their rarity.

Drawing parallels between Latin American countries and the United States is always risky. The socioeconomic differences are too stark. And yet both political environments have one thing in common: the central role of a strong president whose power is supposed to be constitutionally restrained by checks and balances. That’s why studying Latin America’s outsider politics can throw a useful light on the United States’ current predicament.

Trump doesn’t seem especially fond of Latin Americans, but the parallels between him and the region’s outsiders are striking. As candidates, Latin American outsiders always make a point of stressing their opposition to normal politics and politicians. There’s nothing worse, in their view, than a “professional politician,” because such people are, almost by definition, corrupt and incompetent. Sound familiar?

This anti-politics stance generate a groundswell of support among low-income, low-education voters (and even some elites), yielding an almost revolutionary wave of anger that energizes the outsider’s campaign and demoralizes rivals. And the more career politicians criticize the outsider for being inexperienced, the more they end up bolstering his popularity (shades of Jeb Bush versus Trump). In Bolivia in 2001-02, when ex-presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Jaime Paz Zamora, both running for re-election, criticized newcomer Evo Morales, Morales just grew in the polls, giving him a strong second place that would ultimately prove his springboard to the presidency.

On their way to high office, Latin American outsiders usually highlight some internal and external enemies that they then pledge to destroy or challenge. The role of domestic foe is often played by traditional politicians. The foreign enemy, meanwhile, is often embodied by some particular recent political agreement: a letter of intent with the International Monetary Fund, a plan to cooperation with the U.S. on drug enforcement, or a trade pact. Trump, of course, has made his criticism of Washington’s trade deals central to his message.

While no Latin American outsider has come out strongly against immigration, they have often highlighted external threats, sometimes embracing economic protectionism as well. Fujimori and Morales were particularly aggressive against their neighbors, Ecuador and Chile, respectively. After defeating internal guerrillas, Fujimori came close to war with Ecuador over a border conflict.

Morales criticized efforts by former presidents to sell natural gas to Chile as an unnecessary concession to Bolivia’s historical enemy. And Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, world famous for his rabid anti-Americanism, not only exacerbated oil nationalism, but also cut relations with Colombia four times. All this hurt Venezuela’s economic performance.

In short, Latin America’s political outsiders usually rise to power through a fiery anti-establishment discourse and a penchant for inflating domestic and international threats. Remind you of anyone?

Because their success depends on weakening checks and balances, these political non-conformists have a perverse incentive to weaken existing institutions. And this is the fundamental irony of self-proclaimed outsiders. Though they often profess to be interested in rebuilding their countries, they usually end up engaging in institutional destruction.

Not surprisingly, the first target of their efforts is the established political party system. Initially, this means establishing the ability to govern outside of existing party structures. Most Latin American outsiders have solved this problem by running for office as independents. Others seek to establish agreements with their own parties that grant them a blank check to govern at will. Either outcome liberates them from the constraints of having to reach deals with their own parties.

Trump, of course, is not following that route. He is running as the candidate of an established party that, in large part, has turned against him. So his first order of business is to wage an outright war on his own organization — a war that has become more overt as his numbers have grown. Given the resistance of his party establishment, it comes as little surprise that he, too, has repeatedly flirted with the idea of going it alone.

But in dealing with his party, Trump is deploying the very same weapon that Latin American outsiders used: mobilizing his base. Every vote he gets is a vote against the party machine. If he wins the Republican nomination, there’s a real possibility that he will leave his party in such a debilitated condition that it will no longer work as an effective check on his power.

Having passed this stage, Latin American outsiders typically then move on to attack the next obstacles to their power. They attack opposition parties by smearing them as más de lo mismo — more of the same — portraying them as defenders of the status quo and vested interests. And they invariably seek to regulate the press. “A free press is vital for democracy,” as Rafael Correra once put it, “but a bad press is lethal for democracy.” Judging by his performance to date, Trump appears to have similar instincts. How far he will be able to act upon them remains, of course, to be seen.

It’s important to point out that outsider candidates, despite their early appeal, also tend to be enormously polarizing. Once in office, large sectors of the electorate, sometimes even a majority, turns against them. Some dislike their extremist policies; others dislike their concentration of power. If the opposition unites into a single block, which admittedly is hard, gridlock and confrontation follows. Either the president resigns or is forced to tone down his policy ambitions.

If the opposition proves to be weak or ineffectual, however, the outsider emerges with even stronger powers than he had on election day. From that point on, the outsider-turned-president gets a blank check to tinker with other institutions, including the constitution and the courts.

The point is that there is a political logic to the rise of outsiders. In the event of a Trump presidency, one can only hope that the institutions of the United States prove resilient enough to stand up to such challenges.

In the photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the Sunset Cove Amphitheater on March 13, 2016 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor and chair of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.