Trump redefines presidential — and his effect will be contagious

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 9, 2016


One month after his surprise victory, Donald Trump is redefining presidential politics in the United States in ways that will send shockwaves to other countries that also have such systems. And as the most presidential region in the world, Latin America will be directly affected by the rapid evolution that presidentialism will experience through a Trump presidency.


The way President-elect Trump has broken with tradition since winning the election has not surprised many in Latin American countries. Trump’s attack on the press, his resistance to putting his businesses under the scrutiny of independent observers and his grandiose declarations about the accomplishments of his administration (even before his inauguration) is nothing new in a region accustomed to having outspoken, controversial and populist presidents. In the past, many presidents-elect in the region have taken on the press to exemplify their distance from the elite. Presidents in Latin America regularly use their feuds with the press to shore up popular support.


Believing that they are exempt from the regulations that apply to other public-sector servants, Latin American presidents in the past have successfully shielded their business dealings from the press and the scrutiny of independent institutions or institutional powers designed to provide a system of checks and balances. Entrusting children and/or other family members with the family business has long been common practice among presidents in the region, long before Donald Trump tried to do the same in the US.


In many dimensions, Trump’s behaviour as president-elect has illustrated how drastically different the expectations of how a President should behave are in the US and Latin America. Trump has lowered the standard in the US to the point that many citizens are understandably worried about the strength of democratic institutions and the ability of the institutional setup to provide an effective check on presidential powers. The same types of behaviour Trump has shown in the weeks since he won the election — mixing personal business dealings with national priorities and going off on one about his dislike of an independent and critical press — would not even have raised eyebrows in several countries in Latin America.


Yet, the fact that the US president has lowered the standard and has engaged in practices that were considered inappropriate for a president of the nation in the past has weakened those critics of the populist presidential style elsewhere in Latin America. If the US president lashes out at the press or vents his frustrations out on Twitter, Latin American presidents will find no reason to refrain themselves from overstepping their powers.


In recent years, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa often launched Twitter wars against his detractors who criticised him on the site. Using his television programme, Correa outed anonymous critics who turned out to be adolescents doing what adolescents do. Former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has used Twitter extensively (and, just like Trump does, packs long messages in a chain of furious tweets) to respond to criticism and attempt to bypass the media (and avoid press conferences) — to speak directly to the national audience. Now that Trump has successfully embraced Twitter to bypass the media, and to lash out at outlets that are critical of him, including comedy television programmes, it will be difficult to criticise Latin American presidents who do the same.


Just when many of the region’s countries were making significant progress in transparency and in accountability, President-elect Trump seems to be moving in the opposite direction as he has signalled that his business ventures will be entrusted to a blind trust fund controlled by his children. Being the wealthiest US citizen to reach the presidency, Donald Trump joins a large group of Latin American presidents, past and present, who are among the wealthiest persons in their respective countries. In the past, those presidents have ignored calls to build a firewall between their business interests and national politics and economic policies. Even today, former Chilean president and likely contender in the 2017 election, Sebastián Piñera, is facing criticism for not putting more thanUS$2 billion of foreign investments in the same blind trust fund that he created for his investments in Chilem during the time he was previously president (2010-2014).


President-elect Trump was also the first major presidential candidate in the US in more than five decades not to release his personal tax returns while campaigning. It is unclear whether he will release his tax returns when he becomes POTUS. In Latin America, for the most part, presidents have chosen not to release their personal tax returns.


There are many differences between the democratic system in the US and the presidential democracies of Latin America. Yet, in the past, advocates of strengthening democracy in Latin America and making presidents more accountable would normally use the US system as an example to demand more transparency and accountability. With Trump as president, they will have to look elsewhere. In fact, President Trump will probably have a negative, almost contagious effect as many presidents in Latin America will have the perfect excuse to resist calls for more transparency and accountability — the man in the White House.