Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have clearly tapped into a segment of the American electorate that believes radical change is necessary to fix what’s wrong with the country. People are angry and have lost patience with establishment candidates offering the same ol’ solutions.
The Trump and Sanders alternatives lean heavily toward big ideas and bold talk. Their populist pablum draws support with outsized promises that ignore pesky little questions such as how to pay for it, or how to get Congress to go along. Let someone else sweat the details.
Voters who find themselves sitting on the fence and toying with the idea of a Trump or Sanders presidency should take a hard look at what happens when oversized dreams smash head-on into harsh reality. Two international populist figures from the past decade offer a cautionary tale.
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First, let’s consider the experience of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Chavez was a former army colonel who led a bloody coup attempt in 1992. He wound up in prison, but in a bizarre twist of Venezuelan politics, received a presidential pardon. That set the stage for Chavez — clearly someone minimally tethered to democratic principles — to run for the nation’s highest office.
He won in 1998 on a populist platform of socialist reforms, a shocking victory that sent oil-rich Venezuela’s longstanding two-party system into upheaval. Chavez engineered the legislature’s dissolution, replaced the supreme court and trashed the nation’s constitution. He methodically set in motion the legal foundation for him to remain in power for life. Had he not died of cancer in 2013, he’d probably still be president today.
On the streets of Caracas’ hillside slums, Chavez was a huge hit. He kicked out foreign oil companies and threatened to seize “bourgeois” golf courses, ranches and farms to redistribute land to the poor. Price controls and import restrictions put a stranglehold on business and led to widespread consumer-goods shortages.
Chavez outlined his half-baked, utopian socialist dreams in broadcast monologues and call-in shows that sometimes lasted for hours on end.
All notions of presidential decorum flew out the window. Chavez spoke like a street thug. He once called President George W. Bush a “donkey” and, addressing the U.N. General Assembly right after Bush had spoken, complained that the podium “smells of sulfur,” as if Satan had just been there. The guy refused to control his own mouth, prompting King Juan Carlos of Spain to tell him, “shut up.”
Venezuela wound up isolated economically. Its only diplomatic friends were countries like Iran, Libya, Ecuador and Bolivia. Today, under Chavez’s socialist successor, Nicolas Maduro, inflation has reached triple digits amid shortages of basic consumer items, such as toilet paper. The Chavez experiment has been such a disaster, even Cuba is backing away.
Beware anyone offering a socialist utopia, including Sanders, if the plan isn’t accompanied by a detailed explanation of how to fund it. And for those attracted by Trump’s crude street language, consider the diplomatic isolation that followed Chavez’s verbal abuse. The international tolerance level for this nonsense is very low and, regardless of what Trump supporters might think, international relations are critical.
Let’s look at the opposite end of the political spectrum. In Iran, a heavily engineered vote in 2005 led to the election of conservative extremist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. He stayed in power until 2013.
Like Trump, he was a man who spoke first and used his brain afterward. He spouted lies about the Holocaust. Without concern for the diplomatic consequences, he spoke boldly about attacking Tehran’s enemies and restoring Iran to its former glory as the pre-eminent power in the Persian Gulf region.
He promised to make Iran great again. He was a nuclear hawk, refusing to budge even when the international community warned of severe consequences unless Iran curtailed its efforts to enrich uranium to bomb-grade quality.
Ahmadinejad brought his country to its knees as Western nations, Russia and China reacted with one of the toughest and most unified set of economic-sanctions regimes in world history.
Donald Trump is no Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bernie Sanders is no Hugo Chavez. But all of them took advantage of uncritical, starry-eyed supporters who were far too easily sold on populist promises.
Populists prey on ignorance. Like vampires, they despise any attempt to shine daylight on their ideas. Their nightmare is the probing questioner or prying reporter who dares to demand details.
When newspapers and broadcast media questioned Chavez, he shut them down and sent their owners into exile. When Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Trump a tough question, he attacked her viciously. He mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s physical disability.
America, be careful about whom you contemplate empowering with the presidency. The crowd-pleasing appeal of big talkers and big dreamers masks the nightmare that almost always accompanies the populist’s rise to power.