If you are a pessimist, 2017 has so far been a pretty good year. The chaotic beginning of the Trump presidency has provided the nation’s media with truckload after truckload of low-hanging political fruit, and pundits are in breathless competition to enumerate the ways in which Donald Trump is likely to destroy American democracy. Readers of The Times or The Post could be forgiven for believing that we are on the verge of following pre-WWII Germany down the terrible road to tyranny, and the picture painted on social media looks even worse. Angry Twitterers and Facebookers would have us believe that political conditions here are fast approaching the level of disarray currently on exhibition in Venezuela.
As it happens I recently stumbled upon an interview with the last American journalist to be granted a visa to report from Caracas. Hannah Dreier, who writes for the Associated Press, spoke to Politico Magazine about what life was like in a country where democracy is actually circling the drain.
Venezuela was once one of the richest country in South America, a beautiful tropical land above and the world’s third largest petroleum reserves below. But political instability, economic inequality and poverty have long persisted there and, a la Cuba, populist discontent eventually brought populist Hugo Chavez to power in 1999. After the bombastic Bolivarian revolutionary ascended to the presidency, he courted the masses by spreading the wealth generated by $100-a-barrel oil. But collapsing oil prices deprived the country of most of its cash flow just as the death of Chavez, from cancer in 2013, deprived it of charismatic leadership. Enter Nicholas Maduro, Chavez’ Interior Minister and political heir, whose futile – and increasingly brutal – efforts to keep the Chavista Revolution alive have left his country economically paralyzed and its people descending into anarchy. Since winning the presidency by a bare 1% margin Maduro has shown no proclivity for running Venezuela other than to make absolutely sure that he gets to continue ruling it. Bolivarian democracy means never having to say Vaya con Dios!
What has Maduro’s brutal incompetence meant for Venezuelans? Dreier’s reports that even the most affluent are becoming malnourished while the poor are approaching starvation. Inflation has rendered the national currency nearly worthless. The Black Market is the only source for staples like toilet paper. Kidnappings and robberies happen hourly, and no neighborhood is safe. Dreier tells of being robbed only to be told by her local friends that it was a “good” robbery, since she survived it. Later she was also kidnapped and was momentarily relieved to discover that her abductors were none other than Maduro’s secret police, who nevertheless threatened her with rape and worse.
Despite international sanctions, Venezuela continues to sell millions of barrels of oil per day, but no one seems to know where the money is going. It is certainly not in evidence anywhere outside Maduro’s circle. Rioting, however, is everywhere, as are Maduro’s police and the (presently) loyal military, their control measures growing more violent as the death toll rises into the hundreds. The situation is so horrific, reports Dreier, that many Venezuelans are willing to embrace Maduro’s nascent dictatorship just to see some stability in their lives.
Venezuela’s final fall into Totalitarianism, though years in the making, has taken place in less than one US presidential term. The democratic institutions that should have intervened – a truly free press and an independent judiciary – were muzzled or co-opted by Maduro loyalists. The result has been a country in total ruin. Does anyone really believe that Donald Trump is capable of – or even slightly interested in – perpetrating this kind of national meltdown here?
In the face of Venezuela’s reality, the implied and inappropriate comparisons of Trump to other “tyrants” fall softly dead. Those fearmongers who claim to see Fascism in the face of our Chief Executive give far too little credit to Americans’ respect for – and faith in – the other two branches of their government, fractious and dysfunctional as they often may appear. They also sell short the independence of the American media, which any observer can see is continuing to freely hound Trump at every Tweet.
Trump may have a tyrant’s mentality, but anyone who has ever cracked a history (or psychology) book will recognize him as an emperor with a very limited wardrobe. More to the point the US is not Weimar Germany or, God help them, Venezuela. Our institutions are stout enough to shrug off the worst our current Egomaniac in Chief can throw at them. What would happen if Trump ordered the military to round up the Supreme Court justices and ship them to Gitmo? Congress would have him impeached faster than you can say Russian sanctions. Our societal rules of operation still apply, and it will take more than Donald Trump to break them.
Anybody who thinks that democracy is truly under threat in the United States should have a chat with Hannah Dreier.