Can readers recognize the country I am about to describe?
A President, who has never won the popular vote, unleashes the full force of his executive powers to avoid defeat in a momentous election. In fervent and fascist rallies, he accuses his democratic opponents of being puppets in the service of dark foreign interests, captives of revolutionaries and extremists bent on spreading chaos and violence, a threat to Christian and Western civilization. He warns his ardent supporters that if he does not win the coming contest, their neighborhoods will be invaded by hordes of the poor and their women in danger. He denigrates those who protest against him and does nothing to prevent them from being attacked by well-equipped right-wing thugs. There are fears that this man, who proclaims himself the savior of the country, will refuse to accept the verdict of the polls, invoking his rank of Commander in Chief to continue in office.
The United States in 2020?
Actually, he was portraying a similar situation in Chile thirty-two years ago when a plebiscite was held to determine whether General Augusto Pinochet, our dictator since the coup in September 1973, would remain in power or if the country would initiate a transition to democracy.
It is chilling that Pinochet’s attempts to win that referendum in early October 1988 foreshadow the inflammatory rhetoric and threatening measures of Donald Trump to the increasingly certain probability of losing to Joe Biden in the November elections. But that distant election in Chile also offers an encouraging example for the United States of how ordinary people can through peaceful mobilization save their republic from authoritarianism.
Indeed, on October 5, 1988, the Chilean people voted overwhelmingly – as my wife and I did that day in Santiago – to end Pinochet’s nightmare, with a resounding 56% of the electorate marking the NO option on the ballot electoral. Such a beating was essential to the strategy of the anti-dictator coalition. We could not prevail unless we achieved a victory of such magnitude that General Pinochet and his allies could not dispute the reverse. Although the tyrant, crouched in the Presidential Palace, wanted to declare martial law and ignore the final count, he found himself isolated after the Air Force, Carabineros and prominent conservative spokesmen recognized the indisputable success of the opposition.
Many had predicted that such a feat was impossible, given the dictator’s reign of terror and the fanaticism of his followers, but I was among those who always believed that we would win. When asked how such an amazing victory would be achieved, my answer was that I trusted in the dignity and decency of the Chilean people, their ability to fight and love for justice. I prophesied that our people, like so many others who have shown stubborn heroism in adverse circumstances, would come out of the shadows.
Today I find myself launching an analogous prophecy for the United States, the country in which I reside and of which I am also a citizen. Trump is a less fearsome figure than Pinochet. As much as the current American president admires strong men abroad, he has not been able, despite his appetites and bravado, to imitate these totalitarian tactics, he is incapable, as the Chilean dictator did, to imprison and torture dissidents. disappear and exile opponents, let alone silence the media. Being more vulnerable than Pinochet, it should be easier, therefore, to give him a defeat, a vulnerability that only makes the virus he just contracted more apparent. Finally, the arrogance with which he dismissed the risks of this contagion comes to weigh on him.
Some may accuse me of excessive optimism. Despite the damage Trump has done to his country, despite his criminal handling of the pandemic, his vandalization of the environment, his war on science and coexistence, his divisive white supremacist jargon, he is still favored by bias in the absurd electoral college and enjoys a considerable – and almost implausible – margin of popularity, close to the 44% that General Pinochet received in the 1988 referendum. That support should be enough, if the results of the election night were to be delayed, for the US President to take advantage of the confusion to declare a national emergency, invoke the Insurrectionary Law and ask that the enthusiastic and well-armed militias that support him dedicate themselves to imposing “law and order.” It is not inconceivable that, faced with such a crossroads, a civil war would break out.
To avoid such a terrifying scenario, the opposition cannot be content with just three, four or five million votes ahead. Trump must be beaten in an irrefutable way. This immediate and conclusive display of the popular will must be backed by the decision of those countless voters to defend that electoral victory in the streets with their bodies.
I trust the future. I have witnessed in recent years the massive deployment of so many Americans in favor of climate change and fighting for the rights of women, immigrants and racial justice. That makes me believe that, like the intrepid patriots of Chile who faced a dictator more than three decades ago, a categorical majority of the citizens of the United States will show the world that the most powerful man on earth will be subdued by the voice. most powerful of a peaceful and mobilized people.
* Ariel Dorfman is the author of “Death and the Maiden.” His latest books are the novel Allegro and the essay Chile: Rebel Youth.