Caudillismo or Weak Sister Conservatism? 

During a town hall hosted by ABC News from the battleground state of Pennsylvania, “a new U.S. citizen” asked President Trump what he is going to do to improve the path to citizenship for people like him if reelected. “We are doing something with immigration that I think is going to be very strong,” Trump said, “because we want people to come into our country, people like you.” 

Trump went to the White House in 2016 to fight on behalf of forgotten Americans, those who aren’t bathed in the limelight of ABC News. In 2020, it seems he is happy to answer to “new citizens.”

That scene, and Trump’s response, are a complete inversion of the raison d’être that animated the first crusade to win the White House. It also reflects the Republican Party’s misinterpretation of the recent surge in minority support for Trump, specifically among Latinos. 

Karl Rove’s analysis of that phenomenon is typical. Latinos support Trump because they hate socialism, says the Bushite. Well, that might explain why some Cubans support Trump. But it cannot explain why, say, about one-third of Latinos in California, mostly of Mexican ancestry, back the president. Across party lines, most Latinos support a more active role for the state—and in this way, I should note, they are not attitudinally dissimilar from working-class whites

The history of Latin America shows populist movements can manifest with a more active role for the state, i.e., what the GOP would consider “socialism”Peronism in Argentina was essentially “right-wing socialism.” In our time, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the generals in his cabinet have supported public investment and state enterprises, although they’re now flirting with neoliberalism via Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is softer on crime than his predecessors, but he’s an economic populist and an old-fashioned nationalist. A message that would play well with most Latinos, then, is a promise to make the government work more effectively for the people rather than for the oligarchs

Moreover, even if in the name of making government more efficient for the people we want to dismantle and downsize some of it, we would still need to be willing to exercise political power in a way hitherto alien to the Republican Party. 

Rove’s take on Latinos is wrong, but it’s probably not their backs he wants to scratch, anyway. His view provides a convenient excuse for the administration to drop the economic populism so offensive to his paymasters, picking up right where he left off with the flaccid formula of tax cuts conservatism à la George W. Bush. 

Not to be outdone by Rove, Dana Perino offers an even worse analysis, tying the increase in Latino support to the administration’s backing off on talk about illegal immigration and the border wall this time around. Perino’s view plays well with liberal white women and effete GOP strategists, but not with anyone else. 

If Trump won’t take up the mantle of a caudillo proper, we must hope that whoever comes next will build on his success and recognize the latent potential for such a coalition to achieve lasting political dominance.

When framed effectively, immigration restrictionism, which is adjacent to law and order, is a broadly popular issue. In a recent study published by the New York Times, eligible voters were asked how “convincing” they found messaging lifted from Republican talking points. Among other elements, the messaging condemned “illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs” and called for “fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws.” Nearly three out of five white respondents found the message convincing, while exactly the same percentage of blacks agreedas did an even higher percentage of Latinos

Though researchers found these results “sobering,” they’re not all that surprising. 

Just recently, 69 percent of Latinos said “yes” when they were asked: “Would you support . . . temporarily blocking nearly all immigration into the United States during the coronavirus outbreak?” Recall that 58.5 percent of Latinos polled in November 2018 said they “support Donald Trump’s immigration policies” even if they disliked him personally.

From his perch at the Cato Institute, Alex Nowrasteh also tossed his contemptuous two cents at the issue, insisting that if Latinos are “coming over to Trump,” then Republicans must accept Latinos can politically assimilate and, he implies, therefore embrace open borders. 

As usual, Nowrasteh misses the point. It is because Latinos have not fully assimilated politically that we retain our atavistic affinity for “caudillo” style leadership, and therefore like Trump because he resembles a Latin American strongman who blends nationalism, economic populism, and social conservatism. The degree to which Trump’s policies match his macho rhetoric is debatable, but he nevertheless wears the muscular visage of a caudillo.

Contra Rove and Perino, then, it is far more likely that Trump’s recent increase in support among Latinos is the result of his delayed but ultimately firm stance against Black Lives Matter-induced rioting. 

Latinos share with whites the bullseyes on their backs at which Black Lives Matter occasionally aim. The proximity in particular of “white-presenting” Latinos to “Eurocentricity” through the Spanish conquests of the Americas, say woke activists, provides them with privilege in the grand scheme of “white supremacy.” 

In South Florida, the Miami New Times reports, “non-Black Latinos often have a blind spot when it comes to recognizing themselves as a minority in the United States.” This tension at least played a part in the desire among Latinos to see rioting forcibly extinguished. As José Niño reported, 54 percent of Latino Democrats supported sending in the military to quell rioting in June, while 60 percent of all Latinos supported some form of military presence. Similarly, a July 2020 Gallup survey showed 83 percent of Latinos want more or the same police presence in their area. 

Simply put, we like and respect strong leaders. 

“Mexicans can’t stand political correctness and appreciate powerful people sin pelos en la lengua—‘without hairs on the tongue,’ a Mexican aphorism for when someone speaks their mind,” journalist Gustavo Arellano wrote in April 2016, explaining Trump’s appeal. “Sure, Bernie Sanders is as straight-talking as Trump, but where he fails as a Mexican candidate and Trump succeeds is that the latter also passes himself off as a caudillo (a strongman).” 

Arellano and I disagree on just about everything else but this: “Mexicans don’t want a perceived pussy in office, and Trump’s bellicose babadas make people think he’s tough when he’s actually little more than a chavala.” 

Arellano was right. Trump went on to win about one-third of Latinos nationwide in 2016 while taking a hardline stance on immigration. Perino’s analysis explodes in light of this.

But that was then, and this is now: sources report that the White House is embracing the Karl Rove-Dana Perino analysis, using it to justify a more open immigration agenda that has been in the works for a while. We have already seen fleeting glimpses of what is to come, when Trump let slip that amnesty may be on the table for DACA beneficiaries, which observers connected to Rove’s influence on the administration. 

The reason people like senior advisor Jared Kushner and Domestic Policy Council chief Brooke Rollins look for any pretense to justify a permissive immigration agenda is a matter of short-sightedness. They really are deluded enough to want to win pyrrhic victories at the ballot box, demographically damning the country in the long run. 

Immigration, in general, is bad for the Republican Party’s ostensive aims, and good most of all for the Democratic Party, which views immigration as the mechanism by which they can establish single-party rule. Seizing this unique moment in history by imposing an immigration moratorium and promoting working-class policies under a caudillo would facilitate the integration of Latinos into the national fabric. 

On the other hand, there is a lot of money in the immigration business. Kushner has been a staunch ally to labor exploitation, and Rollins is a long-time Koch Industries shill who is now running the chief White House domestic policy forum.

The fortuitous combination of Trump’s caudillo visage, the Black Lives Matter riots, and the economic strain brought on by the pandemic panic has created conditions conducive to incorporating Latinos more effectively into the white working-class coalition that played a part in the triumph of 2016. In other words, there is enough overlap between working-class whites and Latinos that appealing to the one with nationalism, law and order, and laborism would naturally attract the other—and Trump needs working-class white voters more than any other group to win. Caudillismo, as it so happens, appeals to the single largest constituency—working-class whites—and the largest minority group, Latinos.

But the administration appears set to squander this rare opportunity, instead using it to retcon “America First” into caffeinated Bushism. Surely some people in the White House think they’re clever, but they’re really just being assimilated into the establishment they claim to oppose without even realizing it.

If Trump won’t take up the mantle of a caudillo proper, we must hope that whoever comes next will build on his success and recognize the latent potential for such a coalition to achieve lasting political dominance. A true nationalist-populist coalition with an emphasis on law, order, and morality is the only coalition capable of uniting enough people to create a better future.

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About Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez is associate editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He publishes the weekly Contra newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @emeriticus.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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