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Worried About Trump? Learn From Latin American Resilience

Photo: Senado Federal / CC2.0

Many Americans are finding it difficult to process the shocking defeat of a political insider by a man with little to no background in politics. Their understanding of the American presidency is about to change dramatically now that a candidate with no political experience has been chosen to serve in the highest political office of the United States.

Progressives in particular find themselves now living in political limbo, as their ideals and projects appear to be crumbling around them. How issues of gender, race, and identity will play out in the policymaking process of this administration remains in question.

But for people in the developing world, and especially Latin America, such ambiguity is more familiar. In response to decades of unpredictable politics and economics, Latin Americans have turned to community, family, art and culture, forging strong and unique bonds with each other for support when government has been unable to meet their expectations. Despite corruption or divisiveness, national pride and commitment to progress remain strong in this region.

Thus, the rise of Trump is likely easier to comprehend for people in Latin America. Brazil’s frail republican democracy and Argentina’s difficulty recovering from a recession that began more than eighteen years ago have left those countries’ citizens better equipped to accept institutional failure, the ascendance of political outsiders into high office, or when political and economic surprises otherwise undermine what they believed to be true about their government.

After two decades of military rule ended in 1985, Brazilians were cautiously optimistic about promises for political stability and an economically prosperous future. It seemed they would finally ditch the “Third World country” label, and be one of the big guys. This future appeared to be in grasping distance throughout the 2000s as Brazil modernized, leading to unprecedented economic growth and the election of a progressive female president in 2011.

Fast forward to 2016: Brazil has spiraled into economic recession and impeached that president, Dilma Rousseff. Today, it is deeply divided between those who said “good riddance” to Rousseff’s populist policies and those who are scared of what their future looks like now. Michel Temer, Brazil’s new President—a man widely disliked by many Brazilians—has since assumed power. He has already made changes to his cabinet, which is now all male, and removed or replaced many programs that helped the poor and minorities, prompting numerous protests and calls for his removal from office.

But Brazilians are finding ways to show their disappointment and hold their government accountable. They are using social media, creating spaces where marginalized people and those affected by the social and political instability can come together, and using journalism to explain why tolerance and other democratic values should always be the backbone of Brazilian society, despite what their elected officials might do to challenge that. Informal fact-checking initiatives have grown. Brazilians are talking politics at the dinner table, fully aware that the future of their country is no longer a matter that can be left to the experts. And while those conversations can sometimes be hard ones, they remind Brazilians from all backgrounds and political stances that they want the same thing deep down: a country of which they can be proud, politicians that adhere to the ideals of liberal democracy, and a society in which everyone, without exception, can thrive.

In Argentina, similar instability throughout the 2000s has meant that citizens are better prepared to adjust to political and economic uncertainty when they encounter it. Like Brazil, it transitioned into democracy in the 80s, after decades of military dictatorship. More recently, the country has been unable to fully recover from the economic recession it experienced between 1998 and 2002. In December 2001, residents of Buenos Aires and other large cities rioted in response to the recession, causing their president to resign. In the two weeks that followed, four different presidents took office. One U.S. dollar equaled around 3 Argentine pesos for several years until 2008. Now, the exchange rate is more than 15 pesos per U.S. dollar. It is not uncommon to make daily purchases - groceries, appliances, clothing—in installments.

Americans were shocked when Trump suggested he would not accept a loss in the 2016 election. In a similar vein, Argentina’s former president Cristina Kirchner became entangled in a series of petty disputes with her successor, Mauricio Macri, as he transitioned into office. Most infamously, she refused to give up her official presidential Twitter handle, an act that encapsulated Argentina’s reluctance transitioning into democracy for many. Across Latin America, however, petty insults or small-minded jibes may simply comprise part of political competition. That has led many to perceive the region as fertile soil for corrupt, dishonest, and bigoted politicians that can get away with anything--characteristics that any country that wants to be taken seriously by the international community would shy away from.

Meanwhile, Argentines have enviable relationships with their neighbors, their churches, their schools, and their extended families. Argentines prioritize the humanities in primary and secondary schools, and speak with delight of the contributions citizens have made in art, architecture, theater, literature, and film during times of political upheaval. Despite inflated prices on basic goods, they continue to prioritize large family dinners where discussions of the country’s cultural contributions are also wrapped up in critique of where government has failed them. For Argentines, national pride and a recognition of the country’s many successes also entails a duty to be transparent about government’s numerous shortcomings.

As both Brazil and Argentina demonstrate, becoming accustomed to political uncertainty forms the basis of Latin American resilience: Where people have encountered various incarnations of Trump, they have sought stability in their communities and their families, promoted the development of colorful art, culture, and music, and continued aspiring to better futures despite the failures of the past. During the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, foreigners traveling to Brazil were surprised to find that, despite living in the midst of economic recession and political turmoil, Brazilians’ hope never diminished. They threw parties, built enduring communities, produced vibrant art, and continued to dance with each other in the streets.

For many Americans, a Trump presidency symbolizes social regression: They fear that the social gains made on behalf of women, minorities, and the LGBT community will be erased by the time of the next election. Americans have spent the last week unsure of how tomorrow might look; Latin Americans have lived this way for much of the last two decades.

But for Brazil, Argentina, and other countries in the developing world, the rise of Trump-like figures is, perhaps, rather unsurprising. Trump’s campaign, which is said to have appealed to populist sentiments across the white working class, relied on his claim to be a political outsider: someone who was not vulnerable to the corrupt mischief of Washington elites. In Brazil, Rousseff’s predecessor Lula da Silva, one of the most popular presidents in that nation’s history, appealed to similar concerns among the working class by highlighting his own identity as an outsider: A man with little formal education, he was illiterate until the age of 10, and his ascent into politics was mostly based on the leadership roles he held in unions throughout Brazil’s military dictatorship. While he and Trump could not be more different in their upbringing and social backgrounds, the rhetoric they each employed and their unlikely rise to the presidency are notably similar.

None of this should be understood as an attempt to normalize what is happening to American democracy right now. Racism, sexism, and pettiness should never have a place in politics. Or anywhere else for that matter.

Yet many Americans have never had to turn to these coping strategies, and perhaps a Trump win will entail a spirited revival of American culture and community. Americans may learn by looking toward its Latin American counterparts and understanding how they have grappled with ambiguity.

For Latin Americans, taking one step forward has often meant taking two steps back, and citizens have adjusted to this discomforting reality accordingly. To suggest that Americans should look to Latin Americans for tips on how to adjust to this uncertain future is not to brush off Trump’s often outrageous or troubling plans for the presidency, but to suggest that perhaps the next four years will be a time of increased civic engagement, internal reflection, and the construction of kinship ties based on shared cultural values.

Even as labor rights, civil rights, voting rights, environmental protections, and the basic foundations of good government come under attack, and even as established organizations rise up to defend against threats to liberal democracy, other, less formalized, types of participation will become more important than ever. Just as Latin Americans have had to rely on their families and communities to stand for values of tolerance and civility, so too will Americans following this political upset.

Around the world, people live the realities of a shocking Trump win daily, and do more than survive—they thrive.

Authors:

Chayenne Polimédio is a research associate in the Political Reform program at New America. She writes about American democracy and issues of representation, participation, and polarization, as well as about Brazilian politics and identity.

Carolina Marques de Mesquita is an intern with Better Life Lab’s Gender Parity Initiative. She is a sophomore studying political science and English literature at Arizona State University.