They say history repeats itself, but let’s hope that doesn’t mean America is turning into Argentina.
There are some disquieting omens that it may be, though. Their names are (or, were) Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Colonel and Mrs. Juan Domingo Perón.
Let’s start with Juan and Don. The late South American strongman and the current GOP frontrunner share a number of attributes: both are masters of collectivist campaign techniques (e.g. fostering personality cults, skillfully using mass media for political manipulation, and making big empty promises at huge get-out-the-vote rallies).
And, when you get right down to it, Perón’s biggest promise was to “Make Argentina Great Again.”
The reality, though, is that he and his disciples in subsequent decades actually ruined a once-great country. In the process, they also badly damaged the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes are not terribly fond of checks and balances on their political powers — such as those exercised by independent and conscientious judges.
Populist policies, though, kept Perón and his political progeny in power in Argentina more or less continuously for 70 years with a simple but economically destructive formula: wasteful welfare state handouts, a swollen bureaucracy to redistribute wealth, and powerful closed-shop trade unions protected from foreign competition, all of it generously lubricated with corruption.
Donald Trump would have us believe it is only politically well-connected, mega-wealthy cronyists who know best how to manage the economy. Sort of like those billionaire oligarchs currently running Russia.
Perón preferred the old-fashioned and time-tested autocratic model, through which he and his Peronist party controlled the government (either directly or through surrogates) and imposed a series of Soviet-style 5-year economic plans.
Trump famously has no problem with the use of state power to expropriate private property (i.e. so it can be handed over to powerful and presumably smarter real estate development billionaires). Perón didn’t, either. That’s what the many investors (from Argentina, Britain, and elsewhere) found out when Perón started nationalizing private businesses after World War II.
Both men are protectionists (Perón called his version “import substitution”). To enhance their political power, both fanned ugly nativist fears (e.g. of Mexicans or British imperialists) among their less-educated, lower middle class followers.
Both were bolstered by organized labor. Trump’s rise to mega-wealthy status was fueled in part by friendly relations with unsavory New York City construction unions. Those unions can supply heaps of political muscle, as Perón knew.
For all his power, though, in the end Perón couldn’t defeat the ultimate adversary — the Grim Reaper. But he tried.
She was no “Evita” but Perón’s third wife, Isabel, didn’t just stay at home making dulce de leche cookies, either. To preserve the family’s dynastic political power, she was elected Vice President when her aged and ailing husband won his final term as president in 1973 and then succeeded him when he died in 1974. That sounds familiar.
Had he been born in Argentina instead of Arkansas, Bill Clinton would surely have felt comfortable following in Uncle Juan’s footsteps. During his presidency, in fact, Bill Clinton was especially close to then-President of Argentina (and Peronist) Carlos Menem.
Bill Clinton’s Peronist proclivities were always held in check, though, by his brilliant “triangulation” political instincts. The same cannot be said about his wife.
For Hillary, collectivist and statist solutions are her default settings. Although she flamed out in spectacular fashion when she attempted to nationalize the American healthcare sector in the early 1990s, as president there is no doubt that she would battle to preserve and extend Obamacare, perhaps re-baptizing it as Hillarycare in the process. Like Obama, Hillary is a hard-left Alinskyite who seeks to insert the state into every nook and cranny of American families’ private lives. Juan Perón would have been impressed — maybe even a little frightened.
Fortunately, after years of economically toxic Peronist rule, Argentines finally wised up last month and elected a new, center-right president. Mauricio Macri has his work cut out for him.
Let’s hope Americans wise up sooner than that.
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