Latin American revolutionaries have some battle-tested advice for how to deal with Donald Trump: Get organized. Get connected. Get ready to take the fight to him.
Times and circumstances change, but authoritarianism looks eerily similar throughout history, as Umberto Eco points out in his seminal essay on Eternal Fascism. The rise of Trump is a movie Latin Americans have seen before. And if you think the previews and the casting suck, just wait until the ending.
Even before he takes office, Trump is already acting the part of a banana republic caudillo—one who uses Twitter instead of a palace balcony to make crazy proclamations.
He’s a boorish anti-intellectual who bullies women and union leaders, threatens immigrants and religious minorities, rails against the free press, blurs personal business and politics, is shameless about nepotism and cronyism, has murky ties to the Kremlin, is narcissistic despite looking like a muppet monster, and is so garish and gaudy he makes Muammar Gaddafi look subtle. Dress Trump in olive drab, dark sunglasses, and a fake beard and he could star in a remake of the Woody Allen film Bananas.
But what looks like a Latin Americanization of U.S. democracy could be a golden opportunity to reinvigorate grassroots activism. It’s a chance for America’s rusty left to form new alliances, articulate a modern agenda for social justice, and imbue a younger generation with a deep awareness of human rights. It won’t be easy, but it might just be the kick in the pants that this country needs.
Although nobody I spoke with is advocating violent insurrection in the United States, those who have led revolutionary movements in Latin America think some of the same principles they applied in clandestine circumstances against tin-pot tyrants could now apply just as well to a peaceful resistance against El Trompudo.
STEP 1: Don’t demobilize. Organize and grow
Former Nicaraguan guerrilla commander Hugo Torres says the first mistake anti-Trump forces could make would be to disperse now that the election is over. The groups that mobilized against Trump’s campaign—an opposition that, numerically, is larger than the group who voted for the guy—need to keep the pot boiling once he takes office.
“This wasn’t a typical election where only the presidency was in play,” says Comandante Uno, who helped lead the Sandinistas’ takeover of the National Palace in 1978. “Those who feel disillusioned with the results, and even those who didn’t vote, need to organize if they fear that all the advancements that have been achieved over the years are now at risk.”
Torres thinks the anti-Trump movement could start to peel away at the president’s voter base once he’s in office and proves he can’t deliver on campaign promises of job growth and economic expansion. Torres predicts others will turn on Trump once they realize his policy aims—including the repeal of Obamacare—hurt the working class even more.
The opposition needs to remember that today’s Trump supporters could become valuable anti-Trump allies in the near future, the former rebel leader stressed. So remain vigilant, but don’t write them off as the enemy because Trump is probably in his finest hour. Once he’s in office, it’s a different ballgame because the Trumpistas “are no longer going to be content with discourse alone,” Torres said.
“Economic growth will be crucial,” he said. “The hope these people have in Trump is so great it will only be matched by the size of their deception if Trump doesn’t deliver quickly. That’s Trump’s boomerang.”
In the meantime, the rise of Trump provides a valuable opportunity for U.S. activists to look beyond their borders and form a stronger nexus with international rights movements, says Salvadoran feminist leader Vilma Vasquez.
“This might be the best opportunity we have had for a North-South dialogue between the U.S. and Latin America,” Vasquez said. “We have wanted this for years. Collective action is the only way forward.”
STEP 2: Use clear language and tailor messages for different groups
Trump’s campaign was successful in part because his messaging is so simple: Drain the swamp! Build the wall! Lock her up! Make America Great Again!
The opposition can learn from that. Simple messaging and clear labeling are powerful tools in the age of Twitter.
“You have to call things by their name: Fascism. And a united front will stop it,” says Henry Ruiz, the Sandinista guerrilla hero known as Modesto.
Targeted messaging is also important, says former Salvadoran rebel commander Guadalupe Martinez. It’s a mistake to think that all Latinos are allies in the fight for immigration reform, or that political opponents to Trump are necessarily interested in social justice issues. Messages need to be tailored to “awaken consciousness” in different groups and “mobilize” everyone toward the same goal, Martinez says.
“Political groups understand a political message, while groups working on solidarity issues respond more to messages that focus on ethics and morality,” Martinez told me.
Social media should be used to target different groups with different messages, she says, because “a good message can get massive circulation.”
Allies can then be brought together under a common cause, Modesto says.
“Why not raise a banner in defense of the popular vote?” the former Sandinista guerrilla told me. “Hillary would have beaten Trump. Gore would have beaten Bush. So why can’t that be a common cause for the opposition? A call for the United States’ democracy to function like others?”
STEP 3: Stay on the offensive. Don’t give an inch.
There’s a principle of revolution known as the strategic offensive, the idea that the best defense is a good offense. It’s a strategy that Central American rebel movements used when fighting dictatorships, but it also applies to organizing social movements against any populist demagogue, revolutionaries say.
“You need to establish coordination between all sectors participating in the movement, but do so in a way that’s offensive and not defensive,” says former FMLN revolutionary Sonia Umanzor. “We can’t wait for them to strike us to react.”
Trump is always on the offensive. If social movements (and the press, for that matter) continue to react to each of his midnight Twitter attacks, they’ll always be off-balance while Trump continues to move the chains. The best way to deal with him is with a counteroffensive—take the fight to him, force him to react, keep him off his game.
Honduran indigenous activist Laura Zúñiga Cáceres says the best way to challenge power is with clear proposals that offer “a different vision” for the country. “When we have clear goals, we will move beyond a defensive position,” she says.
The most important thing is to not stop fighting, says Chile’s Lautaro Guanca. “People who fight, win. People who don’t, don’t. People who fight advance. People who don’t, don’t.”