• June 26, 2024

If Latin America’s populists are any indication, Trump’s conviction won’t matter

If Latin America’s populists are any indication, Trump’s conviction won’t matter

Andres Oppenheimer

Many pundits in Washington are speculating that Republican hopeful Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 charges of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal during the 2016 campaign may hurt his chances in the Nov. 5 elections.

I’m not that sure.

After having watched Trump-like Latin American populist demagogues for several decades, I have seen this movie several times. And it often has a happy ending for the villains.

When Trump deceitfully blamed a “rigged” U.S. justice system for his conviction on Thursday, I couldn’t help drawing parallels with a long list of Latin American populist leaders who played his same victimization game after being convicted for various crimes, and got elected later.

Venezuela’s late strongman Hugo Chavez was convicted for staging a 1992 coup, pardoned two years later, and was elected president in 1998. Much of Chavez’s campaign strategy was to portray himself as a victim of a supposedly corrupt system. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had done that decades earlier when he famously proclaimed that “history will absolve me” during his 1953 trial on sedition charges.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Colombian leader Gustavo Petro, Argentina’s former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Ecuador’s former President Rafael Correa and several other populists have also played the victimization card after being found guilty in court or banned from running for office. Most of their followers believed their narratives, and continued to follow them anyway.

Lula, as he is known in Brazil, was convicted in 2017 on corruption and money laundering charges committed during his 2003-2010 government, and sentenced to 26 years in prison. He spent 580 days in jail, until a court annulled his sentence in 2021. A year later, he won Brazil’s presidential elections.

Argentina’s Fernandez de Kirchner and Ecuador’s Correa are claiming to be victims of “lawfare,” a term they use to refer to an alleged conspiracy of their countries’ elites and the judiciary to persecute political leaders who side with “the people.”

Much like Trump, Latin America’s convicted populists have said their guilty verdicts were unfair and politically-motivated.

“This was a disgrace. This was a rigged trial,” Trump claimed as he left the courtroom after being convicted on Thursday. “I’m a very innocent man… I’m fighting for our country, I’m fighting for our Constitution.”

Trump, who faces three other criminal cases — including one for trying to subvert the 2020 elections — attacked not only the U.S. justice system, but the judge, whom he accused without evidence of being “corrupt,” and even the jury.

But I wouldn’t hurry to proclaim Trump’s electoral demise because Trump has firm control of the Republican Party, and the support of powerful right-wing media.

Spineless Republican loyalists such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio immediately came out to criticize the court’s verdict, and a constellation of pro-Trump media led by Fox News are now echoing the former president’s narrative around the clock.

Fox News anchor Jeanine Pirro said shortly after the verdict, “We have seen the criminal justice weaponized to bring down a candidate for president and a former president.” Her fellow prime time Fox News anchor Sean Hannity said it was “a conviction without a crime.”

It’s as if Americans had long forgotten the fact that Fox News had to pay a $787 million settlement to a voting machine company last year for claiming that the 2020 elections had been rigged.

Court documents showed that Fox News executives and anchors knew that President Joe Biden had won the election, but the network lied anyway in an apparent effort not to lose its pro-Trump audience. And yet, four years later, it seems that many Americans are happily ready to be lied to again.

Before his latest attacks on the U.S. justice system, Trump had defended as “patriots” and “hostages” his loyalists who were arrested in the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which resulted in five deaths.

And Trump continues to deny the fact that he lost the 2020 election despite the fact that 60 courts rejected his lawyers’ arguments, and even the right-wing majority Supreme Court found them without merits.

Yes, I know, you may argue that Latin American populists like Chavez or Lula won elections only after they were pardoned, or their sentences were reversed. In Trump’s case, he will probably have to run as a convicted felon, because his likely appeal to the New York conviction will probably take more than a year, and the remaining three criminal cases against him are not likely to start before the Nov. 5 elections.

Still, there are many similarities between Trump and Latin America’s populist demagogues across the political spectrum.

In addition to posing as innocent victims of sinister elites, they attack democratic institutions like the judiciary, call independent journalists “enemies of the people,” and denounce elections they lose as fraudulent. And throughout it all, they grab big headlines, and — sadly — often win elections. This will be a very close election, and this verdict may not hurt Trump as much as it should.

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