Chávez is dead, long live Trump

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 9, 2017


When Hugo Chávez was president of Venezuela, he skillfully manipulated the media to drive attention away from the problems of his own country toward the controversies he created. Today, US President Donald J. Trump is trying to use the same style of media manipulation to deviate attention away from the shortcomings, unforced errors and scandals of his administration toward controversies over his views and tweets. Fortunately for US democracy, the strength of its institutions makes it more difficult for Trump to successfully manipulate the media in the same way as Chávez.


When he came into office in 1999, Chávez quickly rose to prominence in Latin America through his skillful use of the media to promote his ideological views. Going after television and printed media outlets, Chávez successfully built up the perception that the media was closer to the powerful business sector elites that represented the old order, and that he represented the marginalised that have historically been manipulated by the media. As he pretended to be the champion of the people, Chávez also became an enemy of the established media.


His assault on press freedom was an early signal of his lack of respect for democratic values. After a few months in office, it became clear that the president wanted to do much more than level the playing field in favour of Venezuelans who were excluded and marginalised. Chávez wanted to throw out the old order and found new institutions that would allow him to expand and prolong his tenure. Because Venezuela’s democratic institutions were weak and delegitimised, and because the opposition was divided, Chávez replaced the old institutions with new ones. In the process, he continued to use his communications skills to control the agenda and to force media outlets to discuss the controversies he himself had generated while the country was taking a drastic turn for the worse.


In the five months he has been in office, President Trump has followed an initially surprising, but now predictable, behaviour in pursuit of the media’s attention. Given his insatiable appetite for being in the frontpages of all major newspapers, Trump seems to push for different policies, depending on what will most likely get him media coverage. Rather than following a consistent ideological pattern in the public promotion of his policy initiatives, Trump moves forward with as much unpredictability as possible. The continuous surprises that he has thrown at the media in terms of policy priorities and announcements of policy change or legislative initiatives do not follow a consistent pattern. Unlike presidents who care about their policy preferences moving forward, drawing a new roadmap for the future of the country, Trump seems to be primarily driven by his aspiration to be talked about in the press.


Following his plan

The press in the United States has played right into Trump’s game plan. Since US citizens pay more attention to what their government does when there are scandals, the media has jumped into almost any potential scandal that Trump has thrown their way. The president’s numerous potential conflict of interests, his deviations from the diplomatic script, the possible links of people in his close circle to Russians and even potential marital problems have captivated a media eager to cover anything that might embarrass the president or confirm the suspicion among his detractors that Trump is unfit to govern. Because Trump builds part of his support on being rejected by the liberal elites, the Washington establishment and the media — which he regularly brands “fake news” — US citizens have witnessed the rise of an unholy alliance. The media gets high ratings and higher revenues from covering Trump’s scandals and the president gets in return what he values the most: media coverage.


At the same time, Trump is also trying to radically transform the country and change the road map the US will follow in the future. His decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement on climate change, his effort to repeal Obamacare (The Affordable Care Act), the travel ban he wants to impose on seven Muslim-majority countries and his intent to renegotiate North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), show that Trump wants to radically alter the path of his country.


Fortunately, though he has succeeded in controlling the media agenda by getting television networks and media outlets to obsess over his tweets, controversies and polemic statements, Trump has had more limited success in advancing his reform agenda. Democratic institutions in the US have proven far more resilient than those in Venezuela under Chávez. Several of Trump’s initiatives have been tied up in court or blocked in Congress.


Yet, the style that Trump has used to deviate attention away from his policy reforms toward controversies generated by his declarations and public spats reminds any careful observer of the style Hugo Chávez utilised so masterfully used during the 13 years he was in power in Venezuela. Trump and Chávez are ideological opposites, but the way in which they generate controversy and induce the media to focus on scandals rather than the substance of the reforms the two presidents sought to implement is strikingly similar.