What does Trump have in common with Hugo Chavez? A media strategy.

February 17, 2017

President Trump is an avowed admirer of Vladimir Putin, and his administration is under investigation for its ties to Russia. But Trump’s governing style in the first few weeks has more in common with the Latin American populists who have risen to power in the last several decades. In particular, Trump’s unrelenting attacks on the media and attempts to undermine its credibility and paint it as an opposition force are straight out the Latin American populists’ playbook. Thursday’s press conference, in which he railed against “very fake news,” was a case in point.

While Trump is on the right and most of populist movements of Latin America are leftist-oriented, there are remarkable similarities between the two in the rhetoric they employ to mobilize supporters. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner—along with the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela—all rose to power in campaigns that targeted the media. In office, they continued their attacks.

“The No. 1 enemies of Evo Morales are the majority of the media,” the Bolivian president said in September 2006, a day after his government published a list of the country’s most hostile media outlets. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has described critics in the press as “ignorant,” “trash-talking,” “liars,” “unethical,” “mediocre,” “ink-stained hit men,” and “political actors who are trying to oppose the revolutionary government.” Daniel Ortega calls journalists “children of Goebbels” and enemies of the Nicaraguan people. Hugo Chávez frequently called the media opposition coup plotters and fascists. More mildly, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Uruguayan President Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas refer to the press as the “unelected political opposition.” Sound familiar?

For these leaders, the shared insight is that a mobilized and committed base is more important than broad popular support in advancing their political agenda. This realization turns standard political practice on its head: Creating a more polarized society—rather than a more unified one—becomes an explicit political goal. For example, soon after taking office in 1999, Chávez rallied his supporters behind a Constitutional Referendum. It passed with 88 percent of the vote—but a 60 percent rate of abstention.

The necessary first step of a strategy of fomenting greater political polarization is to marginalize the media, and more broadly to undermine its ability to provide a shared, unifying narrative. In Latin America, this process was aided by the fact that the traditional media has been allied with oligarchic interests. When Correa or Morales denounce the media it resonates with their supporters. Trump’s larger goal seems to be similar; certainly his tactics are.

Lashing out at the media at public events; denouncing and vilifying individual journalists, expelling reporters, blocking access, and threatening lawsuits: Trump and Chávez have these things in common. Like Trump, Chávez insisted on his own version of reality (now known as “alternative facts”) and his perspective was amplified by the segment of the media that supported his political project. Later in his administration, he built a government-funded media network that, not surprisingly, agreed with everything he said.

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Like Trump, Chávez effectively used Twitter to do an end run around media he didn’t trust and to communicate directly with his supporters. Argentina’s Kirchner also used Twitter to attack and undermine her critics, becoming so obsessed with social media that she refused to relinquish control of the official presidential account after being voted out of office.

These systematic attacks on the media accomplish two things. First, they fire up the base, which believe that traditional media do not represent their interests or concerns. Second, they provoke the media itself, which feeling threatened, adopts a more oppositional posture. This in turn further fuels the polarization on which the leaders depend and paves the way for the government to introduce legal restrictions.

The most dramatic example was in Venezuela, where elements in the media embarked on a campaign of open warfare, engaging in overtly partisan coverage intended to undermine Chávez’s rule. Some media owners were alleged to have conspired in a 2002 coup that briefly ousted the president. Once Chavez returned to power, he rallied his supporters behind a new law imposing broad restrictions on what the media could and could not cover under the guise of “ensuring the right to truthful information.” Across the hemisphere, other restrictive legal measures were adopted, including Ecuador’s notorious 2013 Communications Law, which criminalizes the failure to cover events of public interest, as defined by the government. In the first year, approximately 100 lawsuits were filed under the law, stifling critical reporting.

The situation is obviously very different in the US, where we have a robust, independent and financially viable media; a highly protective legal framework; and a journalistic culture that values “objective” reporting. But Trump’s intent is clear. Through his relentless attacks, he seeks to create an environment in which critical media is marginalized and the truth is unknowable. The experience in Latin America—which, unlike Russia, has a democratic tradition, a robust civil society, and a history of independent media—shows that the strategy can work.

But only if the US media takes the bait, and starts acting more like the opposition. The high-impact reporting in recent days on the links between Trump aides and Russia shows that the media retains sufficient credibility in the US to change the political dynamic. It is also a vivid reminder of what’s at stake.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.