Trump: A Bolivian’s Perspective

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Daniel M. Goldstein and Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia]

In the Andes last summer, while traveling to visit family and friends prior to beginning his studies in anthropology at Rutgers University, Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia took a long-distance bus ride on which they were showing the 2015 film “Our Brand is Crisis.” (Most Bolivian buses have mounted screens at the front on which they show movies throughout the ride). The movie is a political satire based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, which recounts the role of American political campaign professionals working as consultants in a Bolivian presidential election. The film depicts the Bolivians as dolts, their primitive innocence contrasted with the wisdom and sophistication of the Americans. What might it look like, Raúl wondered, if the roles were reversed, and the camera turned on U.S. politicians? What might a Bolivian insider’s view of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign reveal?

U.S. citizens and media outlets have expressed surprise and alarm at Trump’s easy use of racist and sexist language, his incitement to violence among his supporters, and his virulent border nationalism, all of which seem profoundly at odds with the democratic values the U.S. is supposed to celebrate. For observers from Latin America, Trump’s rise is also something of a surprise, given the long history of interventions by the Colossus of the North, justified in the name of promoting “democracy” and “freedom” and “human rights” in the region. Many Bolivians like Raúl find it strange that someone spouting such intensely undemocratic rhetoric could be the candidate of a major U.S. political party.

Raúl is an Aymara intellectual born and raised in the highland Bolivian cities of La Paz and El Alto, who first came to the U.S. in 2013 to earn a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at NYU. He returned to the U.S. in 2016 to study anthropology at Rutgers. Raúl became familiar with U.S. culture and politics during the presidency of Barack Obama, a time that saw increasing police violence against citizens of color and the accelerating deportation of undocumented Latinos. He participated in the protests of the Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights movements, which he considered to be appropriate responses to a racist, repressive state, and joined in dialogue with citizens and non-citizens about the nature of political liberty and rights in this country. Social movements like these are not unusual in Bolivia, where politics is often played out in the streets. Before coming to the U.S., Raúl had lived through the political turmoil of Evo Morales’ presidency, and he assumed that the social movements and grassroots political organizations so common in Bolivian democracy were a normal part of the political system in other countries as well.

Donald Trump was relatively unknown in Bolivia prior to his rise to notoriety in the 2016 campaign. At first, like many others, Raúl was puzzled by Trump’s popularity. As a social researcher trained outside the U.S., Raúl says, he became interested in how the derogatory, sexist, racist ideas expressed in Trump’s campaign could find such broad support in the U.S. Wasn’t this the country of Black Lives Matter? Raúl spoke with many people, first in Bolivia and then in the U.S., to try and understand how someone like this could be so popular.

What he learned was discouraging, if not entirely unexpected. “Contrary to what we have been told in the periphery,” Raúl says, “the well-advertised idea of the American democracy as a way of progress for peripheral countries” is the very opposite of what Trump’s campaign represents. Unlike the progressive grassroots organizations that brought Evo Morales to power in Bolivia and in which Raúl participated in the U.S., the Trumpian movement is deeply conservative and racist, the depths of which Raúl had not previously understood. Though a form of public protest and popular mobilization, the aims of the Trump movement are not liberatory but exclusionary, promoting hatred instead of freedom, violence instead of justice and equality. From a Latin Americanist’s perspective, the rhetoric of the campaign – particularly its racist nationalism and “America first”-ism – conforms with the ideologies that for centuries have underwritten U.S. imperialism and interventionism in Latin America. Raúl is too savvy to be shocked by this finding, in the way it seems to have shocked any number of naïve Americans. But still, he was disappointed to find that the hallowed “American Way” was in practice so different from the ways in which democracy has long been promoted by the U.S., in Bolivia and around the world.