In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, also tends to exploit the emotional bond with his followers to incite them against his critics and to discredit the press.
Charismatic populist leaders like Mr. López Obrador and Mr. Bolsonaro — like, of course, Mr. Trump — rely on a politics of affect. They remove reason from public debate, reducing it to pure emotional reaction, fanaticism and radical loyalties. Behind this strategy lies an ill-concealed effort to instigate polarization. Its purpose is to discredit the facts and destroy the idea of truth to prevent a collective consensus on reality and to make power even more inscrutable. For example, Mr. López Obrador has attacked the independence of autonomous institutions that protect transparency in Mexico, such as the announced elimination of the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Personal Data Protection.
In the United States, the electoral authorities did not succumb to Mr. Trump’s threats, Congress withstood the authoritarian onslaught, and democracy, at least for now, lives to see another day. Mr. Trump, described by Americans as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history, left the White House through the back door, marking the end of his revolting reality show and hopefully the beginning of his descent into oblivion.
Yet the shadow that he cast over democracy in the United States is a warning sign for countries with weaker institutions and more obsequious congresses, like Brazil, Mexico and El Salvador, where the formula of nationalist populism maintains appeal: a mixture of disgust with corruption in the political and business classes, economic and social stagnation, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
As democracy breaks down, disappointed majorities continue to succumb to the populist spell, electing leaders who invariably promise to put an end to “rotten and corrupt leadership,” as Mr. Chávez promised, or “root out the corrupt regime,” as Mr. López Obrador said he would do, or, in Mr. Trump’s famous words, “drain the swamp.” And they are not the only ones, of course. There is no shortage of aspiring caudillos in Latin America.
To promote democracy south of the Rio Grande, Mr. Biden must first lead by example by re-establishing a functional democracy at home. Bridging the opportunity gap is an important step toward tackling rising social and racial gaps in the United States. Aside from the critical need to strengthen institutions, another important step to set an example in a region torn by polarization would be the restoration of civic values by encouraging social responsibility, from top to bottom, in public discourse.
This is what Mr. Biden said he wants to do, which is good, because the world is watching. He has put forth an immigration reform proposal that would legalize millions of migrants, in large part Latin Americans, many of whom work in some of the most demanding and essential sectors of the economy. He has also said that he will allocate substantial economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to prevent the most vulnerable from having to migrate from their countries; grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who fled the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro; and promote broad collaboration on climate change.