by Geoff Shullenberger
Tuesday, 23
February 2021

Trump is no Perón — but their opponents were similar

Both leaders provoked far greater illiberalism on the part of their rivals
by Geoff Shullenberger

On 24 February, 1946, the electoral victory of the populist firebrand Juan Domingo Perón altered the course of Argentina’s history. This political earthquake was made possible in part by an actual earthquake that occurred two years earlier in the city of San Juan.

Perón was serving as labor and welfare minister in the military government that ruled at the time, and he became a national hero for spearheading relief efforts. He was subsequently able to consolidate a powerful base of working-class support by throwing his support behind labor unions and fighting to expand the social safety net. His 1946 triumph offered the first proof of concept for a strain of economic and cultural nationalism that remains potent to this day.  

Perón’s success at turning the so-called descamisados — the “shirtless” urban poor — into an overwhelming political force galvanized an alliance of otherwise opposed factions to attempt to block his election. His opponent in 1946, José Tamborini, headed a coalition that included communists and socialists as well as mainstream liberals and conservatives. Those on the left saw him as a fascist (and it’s true that he admired Mussolini), while free-trade liberals deplored his economic nationalism and the conservative elite feared the anti-oligarchic fervor he had whipped up with the help of his increasingly influential wife, the former radio actress Eva Duarte. 

Ever since the 2016 US election, commentators have drawn analogies between Perón and Trump, pointing to their personalistic style of leadership and shared rhetoric that pits the people (descamisados/”deplorables”) against the corrupt elite. However, it was not Juan but Eva Perón who likely exerted some influence on the former US president. The latter’s favorite musical is Evita: the story of a show-business natural who transferred her skills to politics, and a social climber who transmuted her resentment of the brahmin class into a contagious populist fury.

Unlike Perón, Trump did not forge a broad or durable working-class coalition capable of delivering him commanding electoral victories. He was also unable and often unwilling to fulfill his more ambitious populist promises. Conversely, both admirers and his detractors see Perón as a transformative leader whose impact was comparable to Franklin D Roosevelt’s in the US. Trump is unlikely to ever be seen this way.

The more meaningful historical parallel, in fact, is between the oppositional forces Perón and Trump summoned up. The anti-Trump “resistance,” like anti-Peronism, was a big tent: it brought together hawkish neoconservatives and barons of the finance and tech industries with Antifa and racial justice activists. Antipathy to Trump also prompted a realignment of affluent majority-white suburbs toward the Democratic Party. 

While Perón is often perceived as a dictatorial figure, the real problem his enemies confronted was the electoral potency afforded by his status as the tribune of the masses. As a result, it was his opponents who ultimately resorted to far greater illiberalism. Desperate to keep Peronism out of power, they lined up behind the series of military dictatorships that ruled periodically from Perón’s exile in 1955 up until the 1980s. Since the country’s return to democracy in 1983, 8 out of 11 Argentine presidents have been members of the Justicialist Party, which Perón founded. His historical example reveals that a successful populist agenda might prove nearly undefeatable. On the flipside, such a scenario can lead to the abandonment of democracy on the part of populism’s opponents — ironically, in the name of “defeating fascism.” 

Join the discussion

  • The last sentence says it for me. It calls in the word ‘democracy’ which is overused to the point of ridicule. It is defined as anything the writer wants it to mean.
    According to Mr Pericles from about 2500 years ago, we don’t have democracy, we have a system of government developed over hundreds of years which we think gives us an input. But all of the politicians are the same, they all rely on the Civil Service for everything. The Civil Service is, in fact, the government and you couldn’t get more undemocratic than that. I think of Tony Benn when he became Postmaster General trying for years to get proper service from the Civil Servants.

  • Another article blaming Trump for the atrocious behaviour of the Democrats and friends! God, it’s tiring.The Peron argument, even if the writer doesn’t fully agree with the likeness, is a slur by association. As I heard Brett Weinstein say in a very interesting interview, Trump had many opportunities to behave as a fascist while he was President. And he didn’t take them.

  • We’re full of people accusing Trump and others of fascism while engaging in tactics that would make the brown shirts proud. And it continues today. Trump has become the left’s oxygen. The media is utterly lost without him and it certainly won’t professionally cover the Biden camp. He is the left’s great white whale.

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