A number of political observers have expressed concern that our president has a fondness for autocratic rulers on the global stage: Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Trump even has had some apparently kind words for “sharp cookie” Kim Jung Un, the North Korean leader who Trump would be “honored to meet.”
Throughout Trump’s rise, alarmists have invoked the specter of fascism, American-style. They warn citizens who believe in the resilience of American democracy that it is naïve to think that “it can’t happen here.” These concerns have been triggered by a variety of behaviors and statements: Trump’s narcissism and his encouragement of a cult of personality; his gestures toward tearing up the Constitution and rebalancing the separation of powers; his stigmatizing of the press; and his choice to be surrounded by flatterers and corrupt individuals. Comparisons can be made to recent autocrats of the Western Hemisphere (Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Panama’s Manuel Noriega, Venezuela’s Cesar Chavez). To this list we might as well add those of mid-century tyrants like the Duvalier family (Papa Doc and Baby Doc) of Haiti and Raphael Trujillo who ruled for more than three decades from 1930 through 1961 when he was assassinated by conspirators some of whom were members of his inner circle. Et Tu Brute?
Trujillo comes to my attention because of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s appearance at the University of Chicago for a series of four lectures under the general title “The Novelist and His Demons.” The fourth lecture (on May 15th) is devoted to his 2001 novel The Feast of the Goat. This historical novel about Trujillo and his age was one of the reasons why Vargas Llosa, a writer with close to 20 works of fiction and numerous non-fiction works on his resume, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.
The novel follows a number of inter-related stories which take place over the course of the last year of Trujillo’s life, some of which hone close to the historical record and some that are clearly in the area of fanciful speculation. One historically accurate story is that of the conspirators who plot to assassinate him and smoothly establish a more democratic government. The must survive the blow-back from Trujillo loyalists and his secret police when the insurrection does not go as expected. Vargas Llosa reveals the mixed motives behind the core group of dissenters. Another story is that of the vainglorious Trujillo who at 70, the same age as Trump, exercises total control over the state but also must deal with a failing prostate and with his dissolute sons.
One slender thread is the involvement of the American government and its Central Intelligence Agency in the creation of Trujillo and then as a player in the game to assassinate him. The novel suggests that Trujillo endured despite his violations of human rights because he successfully defined himself as an oppositional force in the Caribbean to the socialist government of Romulo Betancourt in Venezuela and the Communist government of Cuba. (Trujillo ordered an assassination attempt on Betancourt and drew the wrath of the Organization of American States for this and other interferences in the affairs of neighboring states). He was a nasty dictator but he was our dictator. The novel is a reminder that American outrage over Russian meddling in a recent election ignores many incidents in the 20th century where America worked overtly and covertly to affect the outcome of elections in sovereign nations.
The most fictionalized of the subplots is devoted to Urania Cabral, the daughter of the Secretary of the Senate. In 1961, the year of the assassination, her sensible but milquetoast father has been demoted; in Trujillo’s Kafkaesque world, there’s no reason given for his relegation to powerlessness after 30 years of loyal service in a variety of government positions. Urania, 13 at the time, is “offered” to Trujillo by his procurer as a way to reinstate the father. The part of the novel that takes place in the future, 1991, is devoted to the return of Urania, now a well-traveled and successful employee of the World Bank, to the island where she confronts her enfeebled father with questions about his political submission and tells to incredulous relatives the story of her awkward deflowering literally at the hands of the dictator. Fortunately for the young victim she’s whisked out of the country by sympathetic Dominican nuns from Adrian, Michigan before The Great Benefactor can block the orders that expedited her departure.
It is quite a stretch to suggest that Trump is Trujillo brought back to life. While history does indeed take strange paths, it’s evident early in the Trump presidency that he faces powerful pockets of opposition, even within his own party. This resistance suggests that his autocratic tendencies will not do the kind of harm that they might if unleashed in other weaker societies, like that in the Dominican Republic in 1930. The reanimation of a vigilant free press, the emergence of street protests involving millions of citizens, an active judiciary unwilling to roll over and comply with his executive orders, a military that is led by apparently sane and responsible leaders, and the president’s inability to enlarge the size of his loyal and fervid base suggest that we are not on the brink of fascism. To the best of our knowledge, although Trump excites bullying alt-right goons, he does not have a ruthless secret police of the kind that forced compliance in El Jefe’s Dominican world. Would the streets be filled with angry mobs if articles of impeachment were filed against him?
Nevertheless, there are some interesting parallels between Trump and Trujillo. Of passing interest is the fact that both men have two sons (if we discount 10 year old Barron, Melania’s child). Erik and Donald Trump manage the Trump Empire, allegedly never tell the old man about their business deals, and try to limit embarrassing statements and social indiscretions. Ramfis and Rahdames, Trujllo’s boys, may remind more of the privileged sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, siblings who spent the family’s money and who exhibited little interest in or skill at governance. Ramfis Trujillo dedicated himself to fine clothes and food and to bedding Hollywood starlets. After his father’s assassination, Ramfis eagerly took his father’s place, threatening to kill all of the conspirators, but when the wisdom of President Juaquin Balaguer prevailed, Ramfis and his brother took the money and ran to Paris where he had always been more at home.
One of the most disturbing episodes of the Trujillo years was a result of his appeal to Trump-like nationalism and racism. In the early 30s, early in Trujillo’s administration, the northwest corner of the Dominican Republic was becoming increasingly “Haitianize” in part because of a porous border. [Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean, is divided between Haiti on the west and the DR on the east.] A long-standing animosity between the two neighbors was intensified by Trujillo who exploited grievances about jobs lost to immigrants and who played on the fears of “mongrelization” if French-speaking, black Haitians became more numberous. In 1937, Trujillo ordered the genocidal deaths of Haitians (identified because they couldn’t pronounce the Spanish word for “parsley” as true Dominicans could). An estimated 20,000 perished.
Of course, one could get a quick education about Trujillo reading the Wikipedia entry devoted to this consequential man, but in reading Vargas Llosa you’ll have the opportunity to observe the inner life of the many actors in this great and tragic human drama and to experience how the temperament and decision-making of “a great man” impacts others. For Urania Cabral, the psychological scars last a lifetime.