Against the Populist Passions: A Visit with Enrique Krauze, Part II

Enrique Krauze (Photo courtesy of Mr. Krauze)
How a famed Mexican historian sees it

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece on Enrique Krauze, by Jay Nordlinger. Mr. Nordlinger has now expanded it. Part I, published yesterday, deals primarily with Mr. Krauze’s work, background, and influences. The second and final part, below, deals primarily with current politics, in Mexico and elsewhere.

Lionel Trilling, the American critic, once spoke of “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” (His student Norman Podhoretz borrowed the language for the title of a 1986 collection, The Bloody Crossroads.) Enrique Krauze, like Octavio Paz and many others, has worked at these crossroads for a long time. Today, the focus of attention in Mexico is the populist, and popular, president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

AMLO is “more than a populist,” says Krauze: “He is a messianic figure.” When AMLO first ran for president in 2006, Krauze wrote an essay about him entitled “The Tropical Messiah.” AMLO grew up in the state of Tabasco, which is in the southeast of the country, on the Gulf of Mexico. He absorbed the political culture there. He sees himself as called to save the people, according to Krauze, and he convinces others that this is his calling, too. AMLO is not a cynic, Krauze stresses. No, he is a true believer, in himself and in his destiny.

He lost that race in 2006. He lost again in 2012. And in 2018, at age 65, he made it. López Obrador is a very talented, canny, dangerous performer, says Krauze.

In a 2016 article, Krauze discoursed on populism:

The term has different meanings, or at least overtones, in different regions of the world and in different political traditions. In my part of the world, Latin America, it usually implies an authoritarian government centered around a charismatic leader who claims to be able to personally resolve all social and economic problems. It has been an endemic flaw in Latin American history and government.

Here is a type:

The Latin American populist leader harangues his people (or hers, in the case of Peronist Argentina) against those who are not “our people.” He proclaims the dawn of a new history and promises the advent of heaven on earth. Once in power, microphone in hand, he installs a pattern of systematic lying, decrees that his official truth is the only truth, invents external enemies to blame for his own failures, unhinges the economy, feeds hatred between classes, races, or other groups, maintains a continual mobilization of the masses, disdains parliaments and judges, manipulates elections, persecutes the press and media, and destroys civil liberties.

Before I left New York, to come to Mexico City, I spoke with a friend of mine — a South American intellectual. I said, “What would you ask Krauze?” He said, “Ask him how conservatives, classical liberals, and others can compete with the populists in the area of inequalities. Populists exploit inequalities, and they do it brilliantly, almost inevitably.”

I indeed put this question to Krauze. He cites Gabriel Zaid, whom he calls “the most important intellectual in Mexico and maybe in Latin America, although he’s not very well-known.” Zaid is a senior figure, born in 1934. Since the 1970s, he has been advocating a UBI, as we would say in the United States: a “universal basic income.” Krauze agrees with this idea. The government would give cash directly to people as a matter of course. For something like half the Mexican population, Krauze says, this would mean an “immense change” for the better.

As it stands, AMLO is distributing cash in Big Daddy fashion, says Krauze. He is bestowing largesse on his fans, his flock. A universal income would be something very different, Krauze says: impartial, with a governmental, not a personal, stamp on it.

No one doubts that the populists can talk — and talk and talk. Often, they are entertaining, and sometimes they are mesmerizing. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez “bewitched” the population, Krauze says. Krauze further remembers Chávez’s Sunday talk show, Aló Presidente. It could go on for hours and hours, according to the president’s mood and calculation.

Here in Mexico, López Obrador speaks to the public every day, in his mañanera — his morning performance, which takes place from 7 to 9. In these hours, he sets the agenda of the country for the day. Even the tone of the country. Everyone is tuned to the president’s words and mood. The mañanera is an ersatz press conference, basically, in which the president holds forth in front of friendly media figures, with a few others in attendance to serve as foils. Typically, there will be YouTubers and the like in the front — a presidential claque, if you will — and a sprinkling of “establishment” types in the back. (These are the foils.)

Recently, AMLO praised what he called “the blessed social media.” And he blasts what he terms “la prensa fifí,” i.e., “the fancy press.” He creates the impression that only he himself, and his enthusiasts, can be trusted to deliver the news.

Enrique Krauze recalls what Gabriel García Márquez, the great Colombian novelist, said about the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, whom he adored. In 1975, García Márquez singled out Castro’s “genius as a reporter.” Castro was always talking to people, for hours on end, giving them the news. “Thanks to those spoken reports,” said García Márquez, “the Cuban people are some of the best informed in the world about their own reality.”

A very different Gabriel, namely Zaid, has dubbed López Obrador “el poeta del insulto” — “the poet of the insult.” His friend Krauze agrees. AMLO indeed has “a truly poetic gift for insulting,” he says. “He has coined scores, if not hundreds, of insults, in order to attack, diminish, delegitimize, and harm people who don’t agree with him.” If you disagree with the president, you are an enemy of the people, fifí at best.

Of course, Chávez had this same gift, and many others have it too. One of them is Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. He is a populist of the Right (if it makes a significant difference). He conducts his own mañanera. In the second week of February, the Wall Street Journal reported this:

“President, do you have a receipt?” a reporter asked on a recent morning. He wanted to know if Mr. Bolsonaro could prove that a financial transaction involving his family was legal.

“Why don’t you ask your mother about the receipt she gave your father?” Mr. Bolsonaro shot back. His fans, clustered nearby, cheered on their leader.

Moments later, the president shouted back at a reporter after another inconvenient question: “You have such a homosexual face.”

Of great concern, says Krauze, is that López Obrador is “destroying institutions that took decades to build,” governmental institutions that have been independent. Currently in his crosshairs is the National Electoral Institute, which has organized Mexico’s federal elections. It has ensured that those elections are clean, at least relatively so. AMLO is determined to bring governmental bodies under his personal control.

Krauze talks of other populists as well, not excluding our own Donald J. Trump. Krauze has always expressed a strongly negative view of the U.S. president, seeing in him a nativist. He is also amazed that we have a president whose style resembles a caudillo’s. Many others here, and throughout Latin America, share that amazement. But U.S. democracy is strong and entrenched, notes Krauze. Mexico’s, not so: It is fragile.

In the late 2000s, he spent time in Venezuela, and published a book: Power and Delirium. It is about the Chávez effect on that country. Chávez and chavismo led to “the most gruesome and terrible human disaster in Latin American history,” says Krauze. He is not predicting the same for Mexico. He is not predicting a collapse on that scale. Still, he is worried. “There is a temptation to say, ‘Well, Mexico is different, and López Obrador means well. Also, you can’t deny that people like him.’ I heard just the same about Chávez, when I was in Venezuela. Exactly the same.”

Earlier in our conversation, I used the American expression “to have seen this movie before.” Krauze now says, referring to populist Mexico, “I have seen this movie before,” in Venezuela. “The actors are different, and some scenes are different, but the script is the same.”

He further points out that if Mexico hits the skids, economically and socially, the United States will have a huge problem on its hands. It behooves us Americans, says Krauze, to pay attention to our southern neighbor.

Toward the end of our morning together, Krauze and I talk about Mexican movies, and, in particular, the much-honored 2018 film Roma. (The title refers, not to the capital of Italy, but to a neighborhood here in Mexico City.) The film is, in part, about women abandoned by their men. This is a common theme in Mexico, says Krauze — and not just in the movies but in life. Yet women persevere, he says, trying to make a life for themselves and, especially, their children. He is deeply impressed by what they do.

I say, “There’s a lot of quiet, everyday heroism, isn’t there? Pardon the cliché.” Krauze then rebukes me, memorably. “Are you afraid of clichés, Jay? You shouldn’t be. And I will not be afraid of clichés.” Then, with emotion, he tells me about some of the people he has encountered in Mexico, in his years of traveling the country: ordinary people, poor people, trying to keep their dignity, and often succeeding.

“I can tell you something,” he continues: “People in Mexico are of a very sweet nature, and of a very religious nature.” Now his voice becomes indignant. “That is why I’m so furious at López Obrador for taking advantage of that sweet, religious nature, and making people believe that he is a demigod who will save them. The people of Mexico do not deserve that. They did not deserve the authoritarian and corrupt regime of the PRI, and they don’t deserve this populist regime either. They deserve the slow, difficult building of a democracy. But maybe my very modest, humble utopia was, after all, a utopia” — in other words, a place that does not and cannot exist.

(You will recall that Krauze has described his dream and aspiration for Mexico: “real elections, a free press, separation of powers, and the rule of law.” That is the “very modest, humble utopia” of which he speaks.)

It occurs to me that Enrique Krauze may be feeling the spirit of defeat. That he fears his lifework — all those books, all those documentaries, etc. — has been in vain. I don’t forbear to mention this to him. He answers me, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fighter, and I will fight to the end.”


The Latest