Could Latinos actually warm up to a caudillo candidate like Donald Trump?
The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump will not do well among Latino voters, the fastest growing U.S. electoral demographic — no matter what Donald Trump says.
"If I get the nomination, I'll win the Latino vote," Trump told NBC News on July 8, after his heavily criticized comment about Mexico sending "rapists," criminals, and drug dealers across the U.S. border. "Yeah, I think I'll win the Hispanic vote," he affirmed in Laredo, Texas, on July 23.
Few people shared that assessment even before he released his hardline immigration policy paper on Sunday. But the conventional wisdom on Trump has proved pretty useless so far. Could Trump be right?
Trump is calling for deporting all undocumented immigrants, seizing the remittances they send home to support their families, tightly restricting legal immigration, and, of course, building a giant wall between the U.S. and Mexico and forcing Mexico to pay for it.
More risky politically, Trump wants to do away with the "birthright citizenship" conferred under the 14th Amendment on every child born in the U.S., and kick out the "DREAMers" — people, mostly Latinos, brought to this country as kids and raised here, protected under an executive order issued by President Obama. "We have to keep the families together, but they have to go," Trump said on Sunday's Meet the Press.
Republican leaders and immigration moderates aren't overly concerned about Trump losing Latino voters, but they are expressing alarm that his hardline rhetoric is spreading among other GOP presidential candidates. "That's going to kill the Republican Party," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
"If Republicans want to be competitive in the general election, they have to distance themselves from Trump on both illegal and legal immigration," Alfonso Aguilar, an official in the George W. Bush White House who heads the Latino partnership program of a conservative group, tells The New York Times. "His proposal on birthright citizenship is very insulting to Latinos, and every day, this is the top story on Spanish language media."
The polls, for what they're worth this far out from the first vote being cast, bolster Aguilar's argument more than Trump's.
Trump has been touting a survey released July 16 by One America News Network and Gravis Marketing that found the real estate mogul leading in Nevada not only among GOP primary voters, with 27.7 percent, but also among Hispanic Republicans, with 31.4 percent support. But its sample size is 35 Hispanic Republicans. A second poll, released July 22 by Public Policy Polling, found Trump to be the Republican with the highest favorablility rating among Hispanic voters, 34 percent — though Trump loses the Latino vote to Hillary Clinton in the same poll, 61 percent to 28 percent, and to Sen. Bernie Sanders, 61 percent to 33 percent. (Believe it or not, that would actually be something of an improvement over the GOP's showing in 2012, when Romney lost the Hispanic vote to Obama 71 percent to 27 percent.)
A more recent, and more typical, poll is an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Aug. 2 that found only 13 percent of Latino voters saying they view Trump favorably, versus 75 percent who said they view him unfavorably (14 percent) or very unfavorably (61 percent).
So case closed? Well, maybe not.
Among the small cadre of political observers who believe Trump may actually do well among Latinos is Ruben Navarrette Jr., a syndicated columnist who focuses on Latino issues. "Hispanics for Trump?" he asks in USA Today. "Oh yeah. Get ready. That's a thing."
Navarrette has three main arguments: Trump's Republican rivals are tiptoeing around immigration issues and "when you flinch, Hispanics notice"; Trump's hard line on immigration actually "is not a deal killer with all Hispanics, many of whom want stricter border security"; and Hispanics are actually pretty similar to other Americans and "what appeals to many other people about Trump also appeals to them." He elaborates:
Hispanics have been deceived and manipulated by both parties. And they're hungry for a candidate who says what he thinks, doesn't back down, hammers the news media, and doesn't sugarcoat differences with opponents. Apart from substance, Trump will get points for his style which — during a hot summer — seems as refreshing as a cool breeze. [Navarrette, USA Today]
That style of projecting strength and confidence through bluster has a name, says Meg Mott, a professor of politics and gender at Vermont's Marlboro College. "In the Spanish-speaking world, this type of leader is known as a caudillo, the man on horseback who takes out the bad guys and leads his people to safety," Mott tells The Christian Science Monitor. "He's rough and he doesn't care about fine things like legal rights, but that very roughness means he can get things done."
Caudillos originally referred to regional power players in 19th century South America with their own armies and popular appeal tied to their charisma and vague promises to make life better for the masses. The term has come to encompass any authoritarian, charismatic leader who rules with some combination of force and populist appeal. Outside Latin America, the term might be applied to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Here's how David Ignatius at The Washington Post describes Putin (and Trump):
He promises to restore his country's greatness, without offering a specific plan. He uses crude, vulgar expressions that make him sound like an ordinary guy, even though he's a billionaire. He's a narcissist who craves media attention. And for all his obvious shortcomings, he's very popular. [Ignatius, Washington Post]
Meg Mott likens Trump to late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez — and if you get past their policy differences, it's also a plausible comparison. In her remembrance of Chavez in The New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto calls the Venezuelan strongman "the last caudillo," defining the term as "willful chieftains who rule by force of personality."
Interestingly, Chavez and Trump have more in common than their strong personalities, patriarchal comportments, and delight in boastful mocking and belittling. They both also preached that the U.S. is a deeply broken, corrupt oligarchy. Chavez promised to protect Venezuela and Latin America from this crooked alien meddler; Trump promises to fix it.
"All of that money that's going to Hillary and Jeb and Scott and Marco and all of them, the people that are putting up that money, it's like puppets, bing bing," Trump said in New Hampshire on Wednesday, referring to his presidential rivals by their first names, like a boss. "They're totally controlled by special interests, lobbyists, and donors." Trump likes to claim that he was able to demand that Hillary Clinton come to his third wedding because he donated money to the Clinton Foundation and Clinton's campaigns, but insists that he gives to everyone, because money is power.
In other words, a man who is heavily involved in the casino industry and boasts that he buys off politicians is arguing that he's too wealthy to be corrupt, too rich to be bought. This is another campaign claim you often hear in parts of Central and South America, as well as other parts of the world where national leadership moves back and forth between small groups of the country's wealthiest families. It's an appealing line that quickly falls apart if you give it much thought.
Every caudillo is different, just as every country has its own political and social culture. But will U.S. Latinos somehow respond to the caudillismo of Donald Trump, even if they have lived in the United States since birth, or their families have been here for generations?
The question seems absurd, even insulting. If Candidate Trump does somehow win a sizable following among Latinos in the Republican primary, it might merit consideration. But there's another line of inquiry that might be more appropriate.
"What's surprising about Trump is that he has attracted such a wide following," Ignatius writes in The Washington Post. "Americans have had flirtations with demagogues.... But the bullying authoritarian personality — the Putin style — usually doesn't work here." In the end, if they get the chance, Latinos probably won't vote for Trump in any great numbers in 2016. But if Trump does somehow make it to the general election, is the rest of America ready for its first caudillo president?