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Latin America shows the danger of populism. The U.S. must not follow

We must remember that America is not a president or a government — it’s our faith, our family and our community

President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Sept. 28, 2018, in Washington.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Late in 2019, my wife and I watched attentively as Chile confronted one of its biggest social crises ever. The government raised metro prices by approximately 50 cents, which sparked massive protests throughout the country. I remember watching the news and talking to my wife’s family in Chile while all of this was going on.

Large buildings were burned down and a state of emergency was established. As a result, a conversation about changing the constitution was opened. The last time it was approved was during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ousted socialist President Salvador Allende from power. Thirty years later, Chileans participated in an October 2020 referendum to vote if the constitution should be rewritten. Seventy-eight percent of Chileans said yes.

Chile and the U.S. are both seeing populist factions that have deep mistrust in government and elites. But unlike Chile, other Latin American nations have chosen populists leaders — like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador — leaders that view politics between the good will of the common people and an evil, conspiring elite.

Many of us already know what happened on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., as a violent mob stormed the Capitol. A similarity I see with Latin America and the U.S. is choosing a personality instead of an ideology in leadership. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez comes to mind. Chavez promised to be the savior of Venezuela. Instead of bringing change, he brought radicalism, which led to where it is today; once the wealthiest Latin American country, it is now one of the poorest nations in the world.

I am not saying that former President Donald Trump and Chavez are the same — many of their political viewpoints are opposite — but their populist energy and rhetoric is similar. As Chavez denounced the American imperialists, so did Trump warn about the invasion of immigrants. As Chavez railed on the wealthy, Trump blasted the political class. As Chavez used his weekly TV program, “Aló Presidente,” Trump used his Twitter account.

I want to be clear: I am a firm believer in the United States. Our institutions are durable enough to withstand socialism and autocratic governments. But the truth is this — what happened on Jan. 6 was sparked because a group of people put trust in a personality and not in an ideology. They were misguided by lies and conspiracy theories. Both extremist left and right ideologies are not separated by a line, but instead are met in a circle. Both believe the way to achieve what they want to do is through violence, something common in Latin America.

We, as a country, can choose to continue down this path of unwillingness to give accountability where it is merited or undermining institutions like our electoral system. But once on that path, it’s difficult to turn course.

As a son of a Mexican immigrant and a former missionary in Mexico, I’ve witnessed the effects of populist personalities firsthand. If the U.S. wishes to get off this path, we need to instill trust into our institutions. We must focus on community and civil societies. We must give power back to the states instead of thinking that Washington, D.C., is the most important part of American society. We must do better in teaching civics and ethics to all Americans. We must be willing to listen to those who think differently from us and be open to healthy debate of ideas.

Se. Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, said it best: “America is not a government. America is not a president. America is not a Congress. Let me tell you what America is. America is your family. America is your faith. America is your community. That’s America.”

I affirm Rubio’s words. If we want to get off this unwary path, we need to remind ourselves that America is not Trump and it’s not President Joe Biden. It’s our faith, our family and our community. I know that if we hold those three tenets tight, our country and its democracy will flourish. Our best days lie ahead of us if we choose so.

Hunter A. Thomas is a recent graduate of BYU and is a former president of BYU College Republicans.