“The populist recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavorless hipsters, you name it. Paint yourself as the savior. Enrapture your followers with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.”
Those are the words of Andrés Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan, speaking of Chávez whom he sees as identical to Trump. He is writing to explain how Chávez defeated people like us and how to avoid the failures of those who resisted him. If we listen we may yet avoid their fate. But so far, he sees us headed in the wrong direction. The same direction he took along with the rest of the Chávez resistors. They lost and their country was destroyed.
Don’t forget who the enemy is.
Populism works through caricature, through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. You’re the enemy, you, with the Starbucks cup. Trump needs you to be the scapegoat. “But facts!”, you’ll say, missing the point entirely.
Why me, you may ask? If you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits. In your case, you’re that modern bogeyman called the liberal urbanite hipster who thinks all cultures and religions are valid and equally worthy, who thinks of the working-class disparagingly. You are ‘a citizen of nowhere’ whose utopia is a massive, world-wide kumbaya with carrot chips, no church, and no soul either.
Show no contempt.
Your first step: don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind. The Venezuelan Opposition struggled for years to get this. It wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid the Chavista electoral base was.
Rebukes such as the one the “Hamilton” cast gave Vice President-elect Mike Pence shortly after the election, while sincere, did not convince a single Trump supporter to change his or her mind. Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion.
The Venezuelan opposition wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was. “Really, this guy? Are you nuts?” The subtext was clear: Look, children — he’s blatantly siding with the bad guys: Putin and the white supremacists. He’s not that smart. He’ll destroy the economy.
My political awakening was set off by the tectonic realization that Chávez, however evil, was not actually stupid. Neither is Trump: Getting to the highest office in the world requires great, calculated rhetorical precision.
By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.
Don’t try to force him out.
Our Opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Inviting international intervention? You guessed it. Remove themselves from the ballot in a parliamentary election. Yes, they just handed Chavismo full congressional power as some sort of ‘diplomatic statement’. Honest to God.
[Similarly, our far left almost certainly handed Trump the election. Yes, even Jill Stein’s votes would have been enough to stop Trump, never mind the votes for Johnson and the even greater number who didn’t vote. And then we tried to swing the electoral college and looked like idiots when more electors abandoned Clinton for Bernie surrogates than abandoned Trump]
Look, opponents were desperate. We were right to be. But a hissy fit is not a strategy.
The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind and look like an enemy of democracy [the way UC Berkeley protesters just turned against free speech, right where the free-speech movement began in 1964].
To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still just spoiled, unpatriotic schemers. That view sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most.
[I don’t think he means not file a suit, for example, to stop unconstitutional executive orders. But acknowledge the legitimate fear of gruesome terrorist attacks and seen on TV. Yes it is out of proportion, but that’s human nature.]
Show you are real
Ditch all the big words. The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger. You’re more valuable to Trump supporters as an enemy than as a compatriot. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them — that you are American in exactly the same way they are.
In Venezuela, it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds but could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. This is not populism by other means. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.
You will not find that pause button in the cities or the university’s campuses. You will find it precisely where you’re not expected.
There’s no point sugar coating: the road ahead is tough and the pitfalls are many. It’s way easier to get this wrong than to get this right, and the chances are the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right.
But if you want to be part of the solution, the road ahead is clear: Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.
It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Believe me, I know: I’m from Venezuela.
[I know some will find this hard to swallow. But remember, he is not saying that none of Trump’s supporters hold some ugly views. Remember, he condemns their cartoon view of us. He does not say Trump’s politics deserve respect — he views populism as abhorrent. And he does not say we should abandon our principles. He just says to be real, and treat Trump’s supporters as human and not with contempt.]