For the entirety of this year, perhaps longer, the South American country of Venezuela remains embroiled in extreme political turmoil. President Nicolás Maduro has ended diplomatic relations with the United States and no longer recognizes U.S. diplomats in the country. An American-led coalition of nations recognized Juan Guaidó as President; a de-facto coup by the National Assembly to self-declare the National Assembly President as Venezuela’s President due to both the instability of the government and the irregularities and possible corruption during the last election. Trump’s support of ousting Maduro has brought full circle the Republican effort of casting Democrats as “socialists” and hurling “look at Venezuela!”. Domestically, Trump has assailed “socialism” as incompatible with American ideals. Ironically, his vision of how government should operate displays poignant authoritarian traits, familiar to anyone who knows the regimes of both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.
Are you Calling me a Socialist, Sir?
At the State of the Union earlier this year, President Donald Trump declared that the “United States will never be a socialist country”, a clear shot at Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, although they identify as Democratic Socialists. Trump has also utilized anti-socialist messaging in his re-election campaign. Long known to be conservative, political scientist Max Boot quickly debunked the theory that Ocasio and Sanders are like Maduro. In addition to Trump’s recent twitter tirade of racist remarks towards Ocasio-Cortez, now looping in Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, Trump has also attacked each individual as anti-American socialists, while repeating that America will never be a socialist country. Boot is aware that Republicans prefer the attack line that “Democrats want to make the United States another Venezuela”, a move that may be hypocritical after examining Trump’s own political actions. But Boot, an immigrant from the Soviet Union, is aware that Ocasio and Sanders do not present Soviet politics to Congress; the ex-Republican knows that socialism can come in many forms. It was Frederich Hayek who knew there were “socialists” who believed in social and economic justice and then there were “socialists” who were devoted to eliminating all private enterprise, entrepreneurship, and resorting to economic planning.
Senator Sanders, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the “Squad” are the first label; they are Scandinavian or European-adjacent Democratic Socialists who believe in strong safety nets and have no clear indication of converting America into a planned economy. They are believers of a gradual democratic system of social change and efforts to help the poor and the broken. They have not shown interest in becoming revolutionaries calling for or personally committing violence, breaking car windows, lighting trash cans on fire on busy urban streets, or setting off homemade bombs.
The same Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland that the Senator from Vermont invokes are fundamentally free-market countries, who allowed the wealthy to tower over the middle class, have balanced budgets, increased the use of private health insurance, and eliminated the estate tax. Contrast the latter with Presidential Candidate and Former Vice President Joe Biden claiming that the estate tax is “too low”. All four nations have become more liberalized- they remain slightly less financially regulated than the United States, as neither Wall Street, Silicon Valley, nor the London Stock Exchange reside within their borders. They support private sector growth. There is however, a catch: despite being deeply capitalist and market-oriented, these Nordic nations have also taxed more, have done more government and social spending, maintained a national health insurance system, and offered stronger labor and collective-bargaining rights. The strong welfare provided leads Boot to call Sweden and other EU countries “free-market welfare states”, which could also be categorized as social democracies, market democracies, or capitalist democracies, all of which, in some respects, are outperforming the U.S. economy. Capitalist but tax, welfare, and labor-friendly may seem like an oxymoron; it is nonetheless a proven and successful economic model at least four times over.
No signs are present that Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez (a former entrepreneur) fit the mold of politburos in either Beijing or Hanoi. Senator Sanders’ recent Presidential Campaign platform for 2020 clearly states that free trade is “good”. Given trade’s inevitable usage of markets, financial institutions, and private sectors, there is no tangible possibility that Bernie Sanders is a capital-s “Socialist”. Sanders also released a campaign platform plan where if elected, 2 percent of corporate equities and stocks would be transferred over to company workers and non-executive employees, also allowing them to be part of corporate boards and be considered shareholders. Given how little income would be lost from those who already own large quantities of shares in these companies, this plan still preserves the wealth and power of those at the top of multinational firms. While this does shift some ownership and wealth back to workers, its acceptance of publicly-tradable stocks is a far cry from the socialist doctrine of government owning and controlling the means of production. Having workers from the rank-and-file in corporate boardrooms makes capitalism look more fair and efficient due to seasoned insight into business strategy, an idea simultaneously touted by Senator Elizabeth Warren for her Presidential Campaign.
If Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez do not fit the traditional socialist mold and Trump is truly mistaken, then former President Barack Obama, an avid free- trade enthusiast who pushed the TPP and made much of the NAFTA adjustments that Trump ultimately kept under his administration, while making appointments to the US Treasury and the White House from the banks (Goldman Sachs, Citi), is not a socialist.
Senator Bernie Sanders’ political leanings are deemed to be “centre-right” in some European nations. France and Germany’s divisions with the Trump Administration could not be more self-evident. Those nations, along with Sweden, Belgium, Britain, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Austria insure 99% or more of its population for healthcare, and only 10% of the Swedish population is on private health insurance. The United States meanwhile insures slightly less than 92% of residents. Trump’s hatred of “socialized or socialist medicine” and center-left egalitarian views of government make him and the Republican Party lone wolves among leaders in the free and developed world.
A Convergence of Beliefs and Actions That Are “Par for the Course”
Despite Trump’s wrath towards Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (whom he has termed “Pocahontas”), those more aligned with the right do end up agreeing with those more aligned on the left on certain issues; ideological divides are not always explicitly black and white. Both sides have opposed globalization, support tariffs and protectionism, and adhere to a set of populist ideals. In perhaps one of the only places where agreement is possible, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders oppose the free trade agreements like NAFTA and PNTR because of the jobs that have left the United States. Fact-checks show that these jobs left more so because of technology and automation. The U.S. economy is in a period of transformation while nudging for more reforms- American manufacturing is proving to be unfeasible at times. Meanwhile, new jobs created are reducing income inequality in developing countries and China has lifted millions of out of poverty with new jobs while also improving literacy and education.
While fascism has been associated with President Trump, he does show flashes of socialism and communism at times. Socialist and politically-unstable Marxist leaders in Africa and other post-colonial nations during the Cold War used to be committed to a completely-inward economy on self-reliance; this led to economic inefficiencies and eventually large government subsidies were used to keep those economies afloat. More so than before, the United States is now spending billions on federal subsidies to help farmers who have lost revenue due to the new trade war. In the process, billions of government revenues are being lost, the Trump tariffs are most-likely being used to pay for them, while also opening the door to the United States being forced to borrow money from the foe the tariffs were supposed to defeat: China. Despite this outcome, Trump is now debating raising his tariffs on Chinese products. Trump has additionally stated a desire to get German cars off the streets in favor of American vehicles by increasing tariffs (despite BMW production in South Carolina) and has recently expressed displeasure about French wine. The intensification of tariffs in American life comes after they have already been placed on foreign cars for many years and it is mainstream to believe some tariffs are appropriate.
The Trump Administration’s strategy of committed protectionist with or without injury is a historical staple of other socialist regimes. Meanwhile, Kenya is now an avid-free trader with its African neighbors, and all the countries involved have prospered. On a basic level, both the Kenyan example and Trump’s farm bailouts should cause trepidation in the hearts and minds of England’s Pro-Brexit Labourers, Conservatives, and UKIPs-turned Brexit Party members, who believe in the merits of a self-sufficient, “medium-size” economy.
Like many socialist dictators of the past, President Trump ignores income inequality, given his tax-cuts have proven to mostly help the wealthy and the Trump Administration continues to oppose minimum wage increases. Socialist dictators also seem to be complacent with debt running amok. For the second time in modern American history and for the first time under a strong economy, the Federal deficit is set to reach $1 trillion before the 2020 election, significantly because of tax cuts. While Venezuela piles on more debt, the United States’ National Debt has compounded dramatically. Trump meanwhile, battling accusations of violating the Emoluments Clause, is using government resources to golf to a degree that has cost three times more money than President Obama’s own golf trips at this point in office, and once golfed in Florida the same day of funerals for victims of the Parkland mass shooting (which happened near the course). Several members of the Trump family have used government money to take exuberantly-lavish trips and vacations despite enormous personal wealth beforehand which should have predicated the ability to take trips before entering government. Lack of concern for the poor, debt, fiscal irresponsibility, and the utilization of government for unnecessarily luxurious lifestyles: it would be believable if President Trump was attempting to spoof the recently passed socialist despot Robert Mugabe.
The Venezuela Connection
The bridge between President Trump, fascists, statists and certain socialists and communists is authoritarianism. Trump finds himself in clear ideological linkage with Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsanaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Erdogan, and Narendra Modi (all Trump comrades). But these leaders also find themselves similar (at least in-part) with Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-Un, Nicolás Maduro, and other fascist, socialist, and communist autocrats around the world. These leaders are all tyrannical, ill-informed on science and climate, deflect on human rights protections, oppose the freedom of the press, support state media and propaganda, speak with premises full of lies, oppose independent judiciaries, exercise long-winded martial law or emergency powers, want a military or police state, and have aggressive geopolitical or foreign policy goals.
President Trump has retweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise claiming that the Democrats are using “Soviet-style” tactics to propagate impeachment against Trump. That retweet comes after over two years of utilizing Fox News as de-facto state media supporting the government, and days after Trump announced plans to explore starting his own state media outlet to defend the Administration against the press.
Despite not being a socialist, Trump is historically the closest thing to a socialist dictator America has ever had.
Derek Chollet, a former U.S. diplomat and now Vice President of the German Marshall Fund put it bluntly: Trump represents the politics of the late radical-Republican Senator Jesse Helms (anti-globalization, anti-international law and anti-UN), but the political delivery and style of Hugo Chávez (constantly saying controversial things, insulting others, weak on the facts, and providing laughter through a variety of sources). Jesse Helms, as extreme as he may have been viewed, displayed articulation, politeness, graciousness, and got others to like him personally even if one staunchly disagreed with his politics. Trump continues to remain disliked by those of all political stripes, but like Chávez, is a showman and the talk of the town.
Venezuela’s former President had strong populist support and his socialist authoritarianism survived scandal after scandal. The wave of MAGA hats and large crowds after controversial Trump soundbites, tweets, letters, and actions display an identical persona to Hugo Chávez’s supporters. Many, if not most Trump allies do support building a wall (including using national emergency), a trade war, massive tax cuts, pulverizing Obamacare, and banning citizens from Iran, Syria, and other Muslim countries. The strength of Trump’s own cult of personality is reflected by the almost-yesterday history of the Republican Party advocating for limited government and labeling President Obama as a socialist, a line repeated over and over by Fox News, other conservative media outlets, and conservative political commentators. Both Trump and his base (much of whom were part of the Tea Party movement) have now embraced the virtues of overbearing government the GOP once feared so much they organized incessantly to flip both chambers of Congress to gridlock the last President. Roughly two years in, evidence points to Barack Obama executing a stronger approach to limited government, free-market capitalism, and fiscal conservatism than Donald Trump. Former President Ronald Reagan never made the government reductions Obama would ultimately make.
Like Trump, Chávez put his closest friends and associates around him instead of competent bureaucrats. Many Trump Administration posts have been filled by Fox News alumni, Trump Organization employee Hope Hicks, Omarosa from the Apprentice, and his own daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared, to name a few. Trump has also allowed Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney who is not in government, allegedly conduct shadow U.S. foreign policy (including the continued pursuit of the Bidens for impropriety) and use the force of government to help his own legal clients.
The Chávez comparisons eventually break down. Chávez, despite failed economic policies and an authoritarian bent, still believed in fighting poverty and reducing economic inequalities and preserving social justice and democratic freedoms for the people of Venezuela. Chávez also pardoned political opponents instead of wanting to investigate or punish them. Trump has not only called to imprison former Secretary of State and opponent Hillary Clinton, but opened up investigations on Clinton-era State Department employees, all of whom were recently cleared of serious wrongdoing. Trump has also asked Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden while reciprocally-accusing Joe Biden of corruption (a bipartisan letter from the Senate in 2014 supported Biden’s agenda), has called for the death penalty for a Ukraine whistleblower, and believes Congressman Adam Schiff should be arrested and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be impeached.
It is Nicolás Maduro who Trump resembles more than Chávez, a vicious dictator who has stomped on human rights and freedoms, engages in corruption and wins elections unfairly, cloaked fully in totalitarianism, and constantly lies or exaggerates to keep support intact. Donald Trump has shown that he wishes he had what Maduro has: the support of Venezuela’s highest court. The independence of the Venezuelan courts is not iron-clad, which allows Maduro to commit these acts without accountability or a form of checks and balances. President Trump has repeatedly opposed the idea of checks and balances and American Constitutional separation of powers. Despite being a socialist, Maduro has also created his own kind of “Bitcoin” or cryptocurrency to get around U.S. sanctions placed on Venezuela, but it is widely viewed as financial fraud. The current American President has also been alleged to conspire in business fraud such as massive tax evasion and other illegal schemes.
As negative as Maduro’s reception may be on the economy, an article by the Wharton School, Trump’s alma mater, suggests that regardless of what Maduro did or could have done, Chávez (who passed away in 2013), delivering a crushing blow to his own purported goodwill, left the economy in such shambles before his death that economic crisis was inevitable. Equally unavoidable is Maduro’s reported authoritarian and nefarious intentions. Back in the summer of 2015, President Maduro used martial law for two months in order to close the Venezuela-Colombia border after violent clashes in that vicinity. President Trump, often citing the violent individuals who come through the US-Mexico border to commit crime, also tried to use emergency executive powers as President to build a taller border wall between the U.S. and Mexico for national security reasons, and intends to use these emergency powers for far longer than two months. The U.S. Supreme Court in a related dispute recently ruled that the Pentagon can divert funds to build that wall.
Because Trump could not get his border wall through Congress, he ultimately went for a Maduro-akin tactic: shutting down the Federal Government through “emergency” and causing political chaos, another page out of the old socialist playbook. During that government shutdown in January of 2019, Federal Government workers were seen standing in Soviet-reminiscent breadlines and free food stations. Those who work in the private sector also suffered economic hardship during the shutdown due to government contracts.
The United States now has a Nicolás Maduro of their own, as Donald Trump shares a fondness for President Putin like the real Maduro and will use authoritarian and dictatorial measures to get what he wants. Despite not being a socialist, Trump is historically the closest thing to a socialist dictator America has ever had. It should bear no surprises that Trump has now begun to tepidly praise Maduro’s tenacity and efforts to stay in power while Guaidó and the anti-Maduro forces in Venezuela continue to move ahead despite the fatal risks involved. Trump’s lack of urgency on Venezuela in favor of grappling with other matters despite Caracas’ humanitarian conflicts marred by unbearable inflation, hunger, violence, and only-recent opening of the Venezuela-Colombia border prove that his commitments to perceived-First Lady Fabiana Rosales de Guaidó are solely lip-service.
The GOP has not elected a socialist outright, but someone Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has characterized as a fascist. Despite notable differences, Trump’s overlapping authoritarianism with socialists has paradoxically taken the Republican party and the United States closer to Venezuela’s politics. Regardless of his ideology, Donald Trump vows that America will never be a socialist country. Bernie Sanders, often called a socialist by the GOP, believes Trump has already made it one to some extent, but not for the better.