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Conservative pundits might like Obama more if he really were a caudillo

Reagan and Franco in 1972
Reagan and Franco in 1972
Universidad de Alcala

Conservative pundits who didn't like the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the US Senate in 2013 also didn't like Obama's deportation relief through executive action. They object to both the content of the president's action and to the process through which it happened. A process that is being described not as a somewhat unusual pushing of the envelope, but as roughly akin to overthrowing the democratic constitutional order through military force in order to establish a brutal Latin American dictator.

As Ross Douthat put it, declining to arrest and detain millions of unauthorized migrants and then forcibly ship them out of the country is a form of "creeping caudillismo."

The Obama-is-now-a-Spanish-speaking-dictator meme is so popular that National Review editor Rich Lowry borrowed it for his Politico column, cleverly titled "Barack Obama, American Caudillo."

There are many things one could say about this comparison, starting with the fact that unlike a proper caudillo such as Augusto Pinochet, Obama hasn't had thousands of people detained and tortured without trial. Or, indeed, that it was actually Obama's predecessor who was having people detained and tortured without trial. But perhaps the strangest thing about it is that when American conservatives analogize Obama to a Hispanophone military dictator, we are meant to understand this a criticism when the historical reality is that American conservatives have generally been quite enthusiastic about caudillos.

Indeed, thanks to the miracle of modern-day traffic recirculation methods, old National Review content singing Pinochet's praises falls directly adjacent to complaints about Obama's caudillismo.

Francisco Franco, self-proclaimed Caudillo de España, was a particular favorite of Lowry's predecessors. William F. Buckley called him an "authentic national hero" in the magazine's October 26, 1957 issue and earlier that spring "the man to whom the Spanish people look — as the Chinese have looked to Chiang, for all his faults — for leadership." The offhand reference to Chiang Kai-Shek is a reminder that military dictators from all regions have found favor on the right. But actual caudillos are particularly beloved, thanks to the close historical association between military dictators and conservative elements of the Catholic church in Latin America. Thus when Franco finally died in the mid-seventies, National Review praised the fallen dictator with two separate obituaries. One hailed him as "a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant" and the other as "our century's most successful ruler" (sensible people might prefer FDR, perhaps, or Churchill or Gandhi).

This enthusiasm for caudillismo is not just a literary matter. As Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan wrote in the Washington Post in 2004, "Reagan also supported the repressive military dictatorship of Guatemala, where more than 200,000 people, mostly indigenous peasants, died over 36 years of civil strife." Reagan was so enthusiastic about the military dictatorship in Argentina that he took the caudillos' side over Margaret Thatcher during the Falkland Islands war. Otto Reich called Pinochet a "tragic figure" just a couple of years after leaving office as the top Latin America official at the George W. Bush state department where he helped orchestrate a failed coup in Venezuela.

It is certainly possible that conservatives, genuinely terrified by the totalitarian menace of insufficiently vigorous deportations, have simply changed their minds on the merits of caudillismo. But it looks an awful lot like throwing Spanish words around for no real reason.

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