Friday, February 24, 2017

Trump is our first Caudillo

I learned a new word today. Revolutionary periods breed lots of new words. Actually this is an old word from a bad old time. Most of Trump's ideas are bad old ideas.

The word is Caudillo.

In the Spanish colonies of South and Central America the caudillo was a militarized landowner who exercised authoritarian power in his locality. A tinpot tyrant. A strong-man.

"The root of caudillismo lies in Spanish colonial policy of supplementing small cadres of professional, full-time soldiers with large militia forces recruited from local populations to maintain public order. Militiamen held civilian occupations but assembled at regular times for drill and inspection. Their salary from the Crown was a token; their reward was in prestige, primarily because of the fuero militar ("military privilege"), that exempted them from certain taxes and obligatory community work assignments, and more significantly, exempted them from criminal or civil prosecution. Away from colonial capitals, the militias were at the service of the criollo (white, European) landowners." ~Wikipedia

A caudillo is a petty dictator, but often one of them would rise to the top in a country becoming a tinpot dictator. This was usually accomplished through force, always through threat of force, often with the kind of violent reprisal and butchery we saw in the newspapers. Note the caudillo was always white, whiter certainly than the peasants he butchered. When this brand of politics prevailed we used to refer to South American countries as 33 or 45 or 78 r.p.m. (revolutions per minute).

Political instability is something the U.S. has never been familiar with. We may need to get used to it now. The tinpot/caudillo/brownshirt/mafioso-style leader has never risen this far in the U.S.

I thank James Fallows of the Atlantic for enriching my vocabulary and improving my understanding of what is happening. His Atlantic article can be read here.

The title of his Atlantic article refers to Trump’s habit of treating people in any way he pleases because his power allows him to. “With Such People You Can Then Do What You Please,” i.e. grab them by their genitals. This is how Trump referred to women in his notorious conversation with Billy Bush. Treating women as things he can abuse by a kind of divine right, as if they are possessions or domestic pets. This also echoes the caudillo tradition in various places (not just in former Spanish colonies) where the strong-man had access to any woman who struck his fancy. Sometimes this extended to the prior right to every young bride, prior to her husband. Saddam Hussein exercised this kind of power. Putin’s harem is joked about in bars and now, no doubt, in the White House. Dictators have behaved in this way for as long as there have been dictators. The tales of the Arabian Nights are full of this, as are the tales from the Brothers Grimm. It is a medieval throwback.

Fallows explains how leaders of this type demonize and attack all critics and opponents using all the powers they hold. The president we elect has many powers, but those powers are checked by our system. Trump and his apparatchiks have stated loud and clear that Trump will not accept any checks on his powers. Judges who stop him are illegitimate. Reporters who "ask hard questions" are mean and unfair and "enemies of the people." That is the talk of a strong-man, a tinpot dictator, a mobster, a caudillo with an armed militia behind him. Those who oppose him are put on notice. They are told to expect armed men might come for them in the night. We don't take this seriously because we have never experienced it.

This is a reversion to an earlier time, a less evolved time, a tribal society before there was democracy. Fallows says that the threats against journalists are especially troubling. It sounds like his hero, Putin, who routinely liquidates reporters and editors who disagree with him.

"...what Trump has said about the press and all other institutional buffers on his power reflects a simpler calculus, not institutional but tribal. These other centers of power are either for him, or they are against him. If they are for him, they are good—from foreign leaders who congratulate polls that show results to his liking, to "very honorable" news shows like Fox and Friends. Or they are against him, and if the latter they are “so-called,” “phony,” “failing,” “cheating,” “crooked,” or otherwise to be discredited."

The news media, especially long-form journalism, print journalism, are the guardians of our democracy. They will be the first to go when we are hustled into a dictatorship.

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