Becoming a Latin American-Style Dictatorship: Trump on the Brink

Augusto Pinochet in 1973. (Photo: Chas Gerritsen.)

Donald Trump has taken the next step down the path toward dictatorship, threatening to use an 1807 law to deploy the U.S. military across the country without states’ request or consent in an effort to crush the rising protests against police brutality.  To many, this looks like a significant move in the march toward a full declaration of martial law.

For those who follow Latin American history, the slide into dictatorship is an all-too-familiar tale.  So, if Trump continues following the Latin American playbook, this is what we can watch for next.

After the military occupies the major cities, closing off popular gathering places, clashes with protesters will increase, resulting in bloodshed.  This development will be used as the legal justification for longer curfews and wider lockdowns.  These executive decrees will be ruled as lawful by compliant officials in the nation’s judicial system.

Soon after will come the closing down of the opposition media, charged with spreading sedition and encouraging rebellion.  At first, one or two papers may just suffer heavy-handed censorship, and a couple of television news channels will go off the air.  But before long, all media outlets challenging the emerging dictatorship will be suppressed.  Some investigative reporters will disappear.

Meanwhile, some of the opposition political leadership, past and current, will be jailed on dubious grounds, alleging nefarious conspiracies and ugly crimes.  The nation’s top law enforcement officials will actively support these moves.

Remaining voices in Congress that speak out against these violations of the Constitution will find themselves muzzled, placed under house arrest.  If members of  Congress somehow manage to call for the removal of the president, the high court will find a way to rule against this.  Some of the more outspoken members of Congress will begin to disappear.  After a while there will not be enough lawmakers left to establish a quorum.  Congress will close.

If the full support of the military is shaky, with some officers still trying to express support for the Constitution and the rule of law, the president will encourage the formation of armed bands of supporters, granting them free rein to discipline all opponents, real and imagined.

And at that point, with military occupation in place; the media left free only to proclaim the leader’s greatness; all political opponents silenced, neutralized, or gone; and paramilitaries roaming freely; the dictatorship is in place.

If the Latin American scenario were to happen, it would not, however, mean that democracy would be gone forever.  In Chile, after all, the Pinochet dictatorship left after 17 years, ending in 1990.  In Brazil, the military held power for 21 years, letting go in 1985. 

After a time democracy came back, sort of, in both places.  In Chile they were going to vote to finally set aside the Pinochet-era constitution, but the COVID-19 pandemic has now postponed the balloting indefinitely.  In Brazil, recently moving up into second place after the United States in most coronavirus deaths, the scandal-plagued government of Jair Bolsonaro is teetering. 

History may not repeat, but it sure rhymes.  If Trump’s steps down this pathway bring him success, look for Bolsonaro to follow his lead.  And then Latin American academics can write dire warnings of sliding into a U.S.-style dictatorship.