Podcast / Start Making Sense / Sep 7, 2023

Heather Cox Richardson on “Our Authoritarian Experiment”

On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, conversations about Trump, Chile, and “the other 9-11.”

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Heather Cox Richardson on ‘Our Authoritarian Experiment,’ Plus Chile Since Allende | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Every night, more than a million people read Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter about the day’s political events. Now she has a new book out, “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.” It’s about the history of Americans’ fight for equality—about which she remains optimistic, despite Trump’s current polling.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: September 11th is the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile, ending 150 years of democracy there and putting the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Power. Marc Cooper wrote about Chile since the coup for Truthdig.com. He joins the show to discuss the legacy of that coup and the deep divisions in Chile today, both economic and political.

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President Trump Departs White House For Campaign Stops In Minnesota

Former President Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House in September 2020.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Every night, more than a million people read Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter about the day’s political events.  Now she has a new book out, Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. It’s about the history of Americans’ fight for equality—about which she remains optimistic, despite Trump’s current polling.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: September 11 is the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile, ending 150 years of democracy there and putting the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Power. Marc Cooper wrote about Chile since the coup for Truthdig.com. He joins the show to discuss the legacy of that coup and the deep divisions in Chile today, both economic and political.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

The Abortion Pill Underground, plus Can Dems Hold the Senate? | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Since Roe was overturned, pregnant people seeking abortions in Red states have found help from providers operating at the edge of the law. Amy Littlefield reports.

Also: Democrats in the Senate are going to lose the seat vacated by Joe Manchin in West Virginia — can they hold all the others in November? John Nichols has our analysis, starting with Maryland, where Democrat Angela Alsobrooks will face Republican ‘moderate’ Larry Hogan, the popular anti-Trump former governor.

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Jon Wiener, host: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making sense. I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in the show: Sept. 11 is the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile, ending 150 years of democracy there and putting the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Power.  Marc Cooper will report on the legacy of that coup and the deep divisions in Chile today. 
But first: Heather Cox Richardson on our authoritarian experiment.  That’s coming up – in a minute.  

[BREAK]

Now it’s time to talk about our authoritarian experiment. For more than a million people, including me, the last email we read before going to bed is from Heather Cox Richardson. Her nightly email provides some historical perspective on the political events of that day. She’s a lot calmer than the people on cable news, but her passion and her commitments are pretty clear to everybody. She teaches history at Boston College. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Guardian, and she’s written seven books including How the South Won the Civil War. Now she’s got a new book out: it’s called Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. We reached her today at home, somewhere on the coast of Maine. Heather Cox Richardson, welcome to the program.

Heather Cox Richardson, guest: It’s such a pleasure to be here, Jon.

JW: The New York Times reported in 2020 that you are the most successful independent journalist in America, more or less by accident. How did you get into the practice of writing every night about that day’s events?

HCR: That was a funny interview. I think he was really shocked to see somebody coming, if you will, from left field. I got into doing the Letters from an American simply because I had been keeping a habit of posting it on my Facebook page, which had about 22,000 followers an essay once a week or so. But in the summer of 2019, I was moving, I was doing a lot of stuff and I hadn’t done it for a while, and I was starting to get letters from people that were concerned about my health or my safety. And it happened that on September 15th, I was in a rush. I was painting, I got stung by a yellow jacket and I’m allergic to them and I did not have my EpiPen. So instead of hopping in the car to go onto the next thing I was supposed to do, I thought I really should sit and observe how I was going to react. So I thought, “I’ll just write an essay for all those people wondering how I am.”

And it happened to be two days after Adam Schiff, the Representative from California, who was then the head of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives, had written a letter to the acting director of National Intelligence to say, “We know there’s been a whistleblower. By law you’re supposed to have handed that information over to the Intelligence Committees. You haven’t done it. Therefore, we believe it must be either the president or somebody very significant in the White House, hand the thing over.” And I recognize that that was the first time that there had been an accusation from the legislative branch that there had been a specific law broken by the executive branch.

So I wrote about that and then questions started pouring in. And I thought, “I don’t want to clog channels here. I won’t write tonight.” But I wrote again on the 17th, and I’ve written every night since.

JW: Historians know that our problems didn’t begin with Trump, some trace the anti-democratic politics of the current Republican Party back to the Reagan Revolution. You point out that Reagan himself began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the place where three civil rights workers had been murdered at the beginning of Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Others say the real starting point for today’s Republican Party came in 1968 when Nixon ran on the Southern Strategy. You describe how Nixon promised to stop using federal power to enforce desegregation in the States. I think the key question is, how do you define our current divide and where does it fit into our history?

HCR: One of the things that shows up in this book is an earlier date for the ideology that is currently embedded in the Republican Party. And the book dates it from 1937 when racists in the Democratic Party from the American South made a coalition with Republicans in the west and the north and came up with a series of principles that they actually called a Conservative Manifesto. And that called once again for state’s rights, and for an end to public investment in infrastructure, an end to social welfare legislation, a return to the country before FDR’s New Deal, because this is 1937.

And what was really shocking to me when I found that and started looking into that was the degree to which you could lift it straight out of 1937 and put it – not in the present, because I think now–by, what year are we in, 2023–the Republican Party has married an authoritarianism and Christian nationalism that it didn’t have in those days – but you could certainly glue it directly over 2015 and say, ‘Wow, they really have managed to put this vision into place.’

JW: Let’s talk about that marriage.  You writeTrump married Republican politics of this traditional kind to authoritarianism. What exactly do you mean, and how did he do it?

HCR: One of the arguments in this book is not only that there has been a march from democracy toward first oligarchy and then authoritarianism, but that it says a lot about a peculiar American authoritarianism, that has happened and the way it has happened. The way authoritarians dismantle a democracy is by using language first to divide people and to take a population that is becoming disillusioned with society and feeling as if they’re being left out either economically or religiously or culturally – to divide them from the rest of the population, and give them someone to hate.

That authoritarian approach to language is not original to me. I mean this is Hannah Arendt and Eric Hoffer and George Orwell and the people who were looking in the immediate aftermath of World War II at how people like Hitler and Mussolini got a population to follow them. Once they have done that, one of the keys to turning that into authoritarianism is to meld that group of people into a movement. And one of the ways that you meld them into a movement, Hannah Arendt argued, is that you have to convince this disaffected population that they are being thwarted from having control over their society by an enemy, and that the way to retain or the way to get back their control over that society is by following a series of laws that are either natural or God-given, and that characterize the nation back in a period that was really just idyllic.

And that’s one thing that Trump was spectacular about doing, was convincing people that there was an enemy, that they were better than that enemy, and that the way to make America great again was by adhering to a series of laws, and I don’t mean legal laws, I mean natural laws or religious laws, that would give them priority again in society. And once you have done that, scholars of authoritarianism will tell you, it’s extraordinarily hard to break those people away from that authoritarian because it has become such a key part of their identity. And I think Trump, weirdly, when I wrote the Trump section in the book – it’s divided in three sections – but when I wrote that section, I’d really been closely following it because of the nightly letters.

But when you strip out the noise, ‘he got fired,’ ‘she said this,’‘this law happened,’ ‘this isn’t going to pass’–when you strip out all that static, the patterns of authoritarianism that scholars of that trend have identified are such huge red flags over the Trump administration. Even I found it breathtaking.

JW:You see one crucial manifestation of this you in the rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 called Unite the Right. For you, this was a key moment of our authoritarian experiment. Explain why this was key.

HCR: So that’s such an important moment, and we know it’s important in retrospect in a lot of different ways. But one of the things that I find fascinating as a political historian about Trump is that he never was as a politician really. He was a salesman. So what he did was he held up a mirror to a certain population, figured out who they were and what they wanted to hear. He, in a sense, in 2016, people forget this, but he in many ways was very different than the other Republicans who were running for the presidential nomination in that year, because he was in many ways the most moderate of them.

Remember he called for universal healthcare. He was going to make taxes fair – he was going to get rid of loopholes, he was going to bring back manufacturing, he was going to invest in infrastructure. He also had all the other baggage that we now know was the centerpiece of who he was, the sexism and the racism and the authoritarianism and all that. But he held up to people at that moment, a number of different things that they could be. And in the beginning of his presidency, of course, you had the early influence of what he called his “Stevens” – both Steven Miller and Steve Bannon – who instantly went into the administration and tried to disrupt everything with things like the travel ban that became popularly known as a Muslim Ban, which was all about creating chaos and pleasing some constituencies and trying to convince other constituencies that in fact there was a leftist plot to destroy America.

But it was possible in those early days for people who likedDonald Trump to say, ‘Hey, he’s not that bad. I mean, he’s helping us in all these – look, we’re going to have infrastructure week any day.’ The Unite the Right rally was the break. That was the moment when he came out and broke away from all the people who said, ‘Hey, he’s really about economics,’ or people who were willfully not seeing who he was. When he came out and said there were ‘good people on both sides,’ that was a signal to all of those militaristic gangs that we have had on the American right now for decades. He said to them, ‘You are an organization and I, the President of the United States, agree with you.’ Of course, later on people tried to back off and say, ‘Well, he didn’t really mean it. He didn’t really say it.’ Believe me, he did mean it and he did say it. I’ve read the transcript a number of times.

But that was the moment that said, ‘I’m the President of the United States and I’m on your side.’ And that’s never happened before. That was a huge deal. Because then in a way, he had established his own militarized hate group base that we now know he weaponized repeatedly until finally on January 6th. It looked like they might overthrow the country. And one of the things that really comes out in the Trump years is that in America, fascism and far right activism doesn’t come from a top down. It really comes from motivating people over specific issues. They may not otherwise be involved in any political activism, but maybe they get really mad about masks or maybe they get really mad about books in school libraries, or maybe they get really mad about potholes in front of their house. Once you have convinced them to act as a gang, preferably to commit violence, you have made them adhere to each other in such a way that they’re far more susceptible to the ideology of right-wing nationalism than they were beforehand.

JW: Trump’s presidency coincided with the COVID pandemic. You might’ve thought that would undermine the traditional Republican idea that government is the enemy, or that Trump was the man we wanted to be in charge of a public health crisis. But despite the death of more than a million people from COVID, Trump emerged from the pandemic stronger than he had been before. How did he do that?

HCR: That’s such an interesting moment, isn’t it? First of all, it is an absolute travesty and tragedy that we took a public health moment and politicized it, first of all. But remember when it happened: it happened right after the first impeachment trial in which Trump was acquitted by the Senate even though various senators admitted that they thought he had done that of which he was accused, but they were focusing on the upcoming election. And he comes out of that impeachment, if you remember, just loaded for bear. I mean, he’s going to take revenge on everybody.

In addition to that, the one arrow he’s really got in his quiver for the upcoming 2020 election is the economy. I mean, he kept screaming and screaming about how good the economy was. Now you can argue about whether or not it was, I’ve got a lot to say on that topic. But for him, that was what he needed was the economy to be good. Well, once people started shutting down, everything actually, restaurants and factories, and everything that was keeping the economy afloat, he was desperate to get it opened back up again. And remember he kept telling us, “We’re going to all be open by Easter.” I remember that one. And that was March, March of 2020.

JW: The beginning.

HCR: In 2020, yeah. So rather than saying, “We need to shut down and we’re going to figure out a way through this,” what he went with was, “It’s their fault. It’s the Democrat’s fault that we’re shutting down.” The other piece of that was that he really weaponized again those gangs against certain people. Gretchen Whitmer, of course, is the poster child for this, that he had people screaming in her face and in the face of the legislature to personify the pandemic as being a liberal hoax. And that from there it politicized the pandemic, of course, but it also set the stage for believing amongst a certain group of people that the Democrats or liberals – however you want to slice the way he was talking about that – were deliberately trying to destroy America. And that of course is going to roll directly over into the George Floyd protests of later on that summer.

Can you believe we lived through all this? Truthfully, when you read the section of that book about the Trump years, I find it unbelievable. I mean, I wrote it and I’m like, “It couldn’t have been this bad.” And then of course it happened. It really was that. I mean, it’s interesting to me the degree to which even my memory doesn’t want to remember how terribly bad it was, which of course is one of the reasons I write the letters, is that we will have a record so that nobody can go on and say, ‘It really didn’t happen.’

JW: On the other hand, Trump gave us Operation Warp Speed, which got us vaccines sooner than even the best scientists thought was possible. That’s his greatest achievement. Maybe his only achievement.

HCR: One could easily have seen a president making his entire pitch for reelection around the idea of doing the moonshot to combat this terrible disease. And yet I just don’t think that that was the thing that somebody like Donald Trump could have done.

JW: Changing topics here: you and I are historians, so we emphasize Trump’s rewriting of American history. Is this just a turf thing, or is it really an important element of our authoritarian experimentthat Trump has his version of American history, which he talks about at his rallies?

HCR: I’m so glad that you want to push on that, because I think that’s something that people may not be paying enough attention to and obviously it’s something I deal with in the book. That belief in a perfect past that we could get back to if only we followed the right rules and the rules under the current MAGA Republicans are, of course, Christian nationalist rules, is itself a key element of authoritarianism. Because it presupposes not only that we were good in the past, and you and I both know we’ve never been fabulous in the past. It also presupposes that there are rules that we need to adhere to, and that somebody needs to tell us what those rules are. And as long as we’re willing to do that, we’ll get back to that perfect place.

In contrast to that, what I was trying to set up in this book is that it seems to me the reality of American history is what I would call a democratic history. That is, it has been a constant struggle and crucially in the United States because of our history with race and gender, it’s been a struggle that we have in general been able to use to expand democracy because of the fact that marginalized Americans have tended to keep the idea of equality front and center at all times. And I just think that’s such a cool idea. We are constantly writing our history, and the truth is, it’s not a question of telling the MAGA history and then perhaps gluing a few women and people of color around it. It’s actually that the centerpiece of our history is that we’re constructing it every day, and the people who are doing it in the most American way possible are those who have previously been marginalized. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

JW: Getting back to your nightly newsletter, in that 2020 New York Times piece, their media columnist Ben Smith said that your writing routine, “isn’t sustainable.” If I could just quote from this piece, “She makes dinner most nights and eats with her partner then starts reading. She often falls asleep for an hour around 11:00 PM before getting back up to write.” That was in 2020. You’re still doing it every night. So I guess The Times was wrong that this project is unsustainable, but I wonder what your plans are. Are you going to keep it going every night through November 2024?

HCR: I remember doing that interview and it just seems like so very long ago because now it has really become all consuming. When I started, I vividly remember the first time I sat in my office and stayed there until midnight, and I’m like, “Well, I can’t do this every night.” Now I’m incredibly lucky. I’ve actually been trying the last couple of weeks to be in bed before midnight just because it’s not healthy to keep those terrible hours.

But going forward, I feel like, first of all, that I’m the luckiest person on earth. That to be able to keep the record for this country at any time is amazing. But in this time of extraordinary transition, it’s especially just an incredible honor and something that I just cannot believe I’m lucky enough to be able to do. But my sense of it is that they began very organically, believe me, I never woke up and said, ‘I’m going to start writing every night,’or that ‘I’m going to start writing every night for as many people as I write for.’

But they began very organically, and I think they will end very organically. I think there will come a time when nobody will need me. We’re both teachers. That’s the mark of a good teacher, is to get to the place where people don’t need you anymore. So I would consider that an extraordinary success if in however many years somebody is like, ‘Wait, I remember your name.’That would be like, it had all been worth it.

JW: Finally, we need to talk about optimism. Lots of people are not optimistic about the future of our democracy,because even after we saw what kind of President Trump was, 74 million people still voted for him. And then, even after January 6th, there’s that recent poll showing Trump tied with Biden. But you are optimistic. You’re optimistic about what the future of democracy can be. Why is that?

HCR: Well, for the same reason I think that you probably are. We know our history, and we know the American people. This is not the first time it looked like it was all going to hell in a hand basket. And one of the things that is a real North Star to me is remembering the 1850s. In the 1850s, the only people who could vote were wealthy white men or propertied white men. Wealthy is putting it too far. People who had a real interest in creating a society in which they held all the power.

And yet what happens, once they figure out the democracy is on the ropes, is that they decide to vote in such a way that they give the country a rebirth of freedom, much closer to the lines of the Declaration of Independence than it had had before that. So I look around me and I look at the fact that now, this time around, we have people of color voting, Black people voting, and women voting – and I ask, do I really think that they will ultimately decide to give up their democracy? Normally when a democracy goes down, it goes down fast. It certainly feels to me like the forces are gathering now to say, ‘No. We actually quite like democracy, and we’re willing to put some skin in the game to make sure we keep it.’

JW: Heather Cox Richardson – her new book is Democracy Awakening. Heather, thank you for this book – and for everything you do.

HCR: Thank you, Jon. It’s been a real pleasure to be here.

[BREAK]

Jon Wiener, host: It’s been 50 years since the military coup in Chile that ended 150 years of democracy there. The overthrow of Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11th, 1973, was followed by 17 years of dictatorship and continues to divide the country today.

For comment and analysis, we turn to Marc Cooper. He’s a reporter whose work has appeared in The LA Times, The AtlanticHarper’sThe New YorkerPlayboyRolling Stoneand The Nation. He’s also taught journalism at USC, and he served as translator for Allende in 1973. His book about Chile is called Pinochet and Me. And his two-part report on Chile since the coup appears at Truthdig.com. One more thing: he got me into radio and podcasting, starting with Radio Nation back in 1999. We reached him today at home in Vancouver, Washington, across the state line from Portland. Hi, Marc.

Marc Cooper, guest: Hi, Jon. I can’t take responsibility for your last few years on the radio. 

[LAUGHTER]

JW: Monday, September 11th is the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile. What was that day like 50 years ago for you?

MC: It was a very bad day, as they say. As it turned out, my residency permit in Chile expired on September 11th, 1973, and I was supposed to go that morning downtown to get it renewed, because I was supposed to travel with Allende the next week to Argentina. I had been out the night before with a friend of mine, an American, who was not political. He had a house up in the rich neighborhood that he rented, and we got stranded there because there was a transport strike. So I couldn’t get back home that night, which was great because my apartment was 75 yards across the street from the headquarters that Pinochet set up to direct the coup and to direct the first couple of weeks of the government, which meant that my apartment was actually inside the security zone of General Pinochet.

JW: Wow.

MC: So it was not a good idea to have been there. I was scared to death. I was able to stay at my friend’s house for four or five days. There were a lot of rumors, very little information. I was in contact once with the US Embassy who basically told me to drop dead. The fifth or sixth day of the coup – the fifth day, they’d lifted the curfew for a couple of hours and I was able to go with a group of people who were older. I was a kid, I was 22, but there was a group of older, more civilized, more presentable people than me. They were mostly Ford Foundation grantees and Ford Foundation functionaries, Americans. And they came to where I was hiding and we went to the US Consulate as a group to ask for protection, and we were told there was no protection available, that the State Department had no special orders, that we should obey the new authorities. And the punchline was, “Be on the lookout for left-wing snipers,” who were of course all dressed like Chilean army officers. Right?

It was really quite horrible. I was able to leave eight days after the coup under protection of the United Nations through the help of the Mexican Embassy, by the way. The Americans never did anything. It was a bad day, but a very bad day for Chile — because that coup wound up not only destroying its traditional democracy, it annihilated the leadership of the social justice parties and movements that had been built for decades in Chile. It abolished the political system. It abolished the political parties. It was a totalitarian, violent dictatorship. And this is its 50th anniversary, and I’m unhappy to report that there’s no consensus at all in Chile about what that coup meant.

JW: It’s been three decades since Pinochet left power.

MC: Yes.

JW: And as you write in your piece on truthdig.com, Chile has made clear economic advances. Extreme poverty has been greatly reduced. Hunger and malnutrition are no longer an issue. Consumer goods are available and visible. You report smartphones abound and satellite dishes poke from the rooftops even in the most crowded slums. But the progress, you write, “is deceptive.” Please explain.

MC: Wages are very low in Chile and 30 to 40% of the population works in the informal sector, which is a way of saying that they’re unemployed and they sell trinkets on the street. So we’re not talking about an industrial powerhouse. When you go to a cafe, and I’m not talking about a fancy cafe, I’m talking about even a working-class cafe, and you have a lunch, which are now expensive because things are very costly in Chile, they have a cheap lunch in Chile that might cost 8 or $9, which is a day’s wage, by the way.

That’s a day’s minimum wage. When the bill comes, everybody pays with a credit card. When the credit card goes into the little machine, you immediately have an option to press a button and say, “I’d like to pay this in four installments.” That’s also true of the grocery market. And people use it. It’s also true at every department store – now, we have this in the United States as well, but not to this degree. Every big box has its own credit system at usurious rates. An international survey found that 62% of Chileans find it difficult to get to the end of the month.

JW: But isn’t it true that Chile is the only country in South America to be granted first world status by the OECD, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development?

MC: Well, nobody grants first world status, but it’s understood is that if you’re in the OECD, which is currently about 38 countries, that’s considered the first world and the criteria that you use is some relationship between a gross national product and debt or whatever. Chile is at the bottom of that list. It’s a number 37 or 38 out of 38, and it’s the most unequal of all of them. Yeah, it’s technically a first world country, but it’s got to be the only first world country in the world where 40% of the population has to sell toys and homemade sandwiches on the street in order to get by. So in the survey that I was saying, it’s more than 62% say they have difficulty getting to the end of the month. Worldwide, only 35 or 34% say that they have difficulty getting to the end of the month.

But Chile is a radical case and it’s deceptive. It’s a strange sort of consumer society. But as I point out, the middle class has a lot more in common with the working class and the poor than it does with the wealthy. The wealthy live in their own world in Chile, in the higher-class neighborhoods. Those are actually self-contained worlds. We have family – my wife has a small part of her family that lives on that side of the fence, the rest don’t. But the wealthy part of the family, we know them very well. They never leave unless they’re going to Europe. They never leave the neighborhood. They’re not about to go downtown.

JW: Let’s talk about historical memory here. How many Chileans still admire Pinochet– and why, and who are they?

MC: Well, the 50th anniversary is upon us. So this is a moment of great debate. And the word that’s in vogue right now, because I read the Chilean press every day and every night, the word that’s in vogue now is “denialism” because now we’re in a new phase. The Chilean right-wing, which is authentic, integral to Chile, it’s a solid 35, 40% of the population. The more extreme elements now, they used to say, “Well, the coup wasn’t so bad,” or “The dictatorship wasn’t so bad.” We’re now at a point where it didn’t happen. And the way they’re trying to make that argument is by de-linking the coup from the dictatorship.

Now, there are still plenty of people in Chile who will defend the dictatorship, but conservative politicians, a lot of them don’t want to defend the dictatorship per se. But what they’re saying now is, “We cannot commemorate the coup in the same way the government wants to because we think the coup was great. We don’t like the dictatorship,” which isn’t true. They did like it and they participated in it, but their historical revisionism is, “Well, the coup was provoked by Allende’s violation of the Constitution,” which isn’t true. So that was the necessary intervention. But all those horrors that came afterward were horrifying. The opposition in Chile now is starting to look a lot like the opposition here. It’s been Trumpified, and there’s a split in the right between the traditional right, which supported the coup, and the resurgent right, who is now openly pro-Pinochet.

JW: So that’s the right. I want to talk a little bit about the other side and Gabriel Boric. He was elected in 2021. How did that happen? What are his politics?

MC: Boric and his closest advisors, they were all millennials, were leaders of a 2011 university movement that paralyzed the country over the protesting of the country’s backward educational system. And after that, he became a congressman. They were elected because in 2019, there was a spontaneous, for real, spontaneous, general uprising of the population against 30 years of economic stagnation and misgovernment. At that time, it was a right-wing government. That grew to enormous proportions and unfortunately was quashed by the pandemic. Just as it was peaking, the pandemic hit. Everything shut down. The right-wing government at the time, took advantage to impose a draconian shutdown. You couldn’t even go out to go shopping without a permit. That killed that social movement. The election was in the end of 2021. He took office in 2022, just over a year ago. By then, the situation in Chile had completely changed. People were no longer interested in the grand ideas of social transformation that had been behind that uprising in 2019. Now they were worried about how to get through the month, how to pay the bills.

And there was also a huge influx of immigrants, mostly from Venezuela, a lot of them Black. Chileans are not very used to foreigners. They live on the edge of the world. They’re somewhat xenophobic. And the arrival of Venezuelans, about a half million of them, by the way ––

JW: Wow.

MC: Coincided, or has coincided, with a radical spike in violent crime. But this has turned into a hysteria over crime and immigration. It’s just like being here, and it is like being in the US and those are the issues that are dominating the political debate right now in Chile and overshadowing the still unresolved human rights cases. There’s still – of the 1,400 people who were disappeared, only 300 have been identified in the last 50 years. We still have 1,100 people that we know nothing about. And the government, Boric, announced last week a national search plan for the first time in 33 years since the demise of Pinochet, or the demise of his government. The Chilean state for the first time is now assuming responsibility for finding the people the earlier Chilean state disappeared. So it’s about time.

JW: You were down there recently, and you talked to community organizers who told you there are reasons to remain hopeful. What are those reasons and what do you think about them?

MC: Well, Chileans have shown tremendous historic resilience. Social change in Chile did not come about when Allende was elected in 1970. Going back to the turn of the 20th century, there was very serious political and union organizing on the left by the Communist party, by unions, and then by a socialist party that was very different than the Social Democratic parties of Europe. So there is a long history and tradition of Socialists and radical and progressive community organizing. The left, whatever problems it’s having right now in government, and it’s having big problems, is nevertheless a legitimate political force in Chile. There were rectors of Chilean universities who were Communists. Allende was president of the Senate. So those sort of traditions of community organizing, et cetera, remain existent in Chile. And we saw as recently as four years ago, really a general uprising that was spontaneous. And we saw one in 2011 with the university students, and we saw one in 2006 with high school students.

Right now, the pendulum has swung to the right. The one factor that’s changed, that’s not hopeful, is that, after 50 years of the neoliberal model imposed by blood and bayonets, a lot of people got used to the model. They’ve absorbed it mentally. So the levels of individualism and indifference to bigger social issues is much more elevated in Chile than it has been in since the last 50 years. During the dictatorship, there was more political effervescence because you had somebody to rally against, right? The dictator. Even though it was extremely dangerous, nevertheless, it was a unifying factor. Now it’s more complicated. People have absorbed the sort of, ‘I’m in it for myself,’ dog-eat-dog attitude. Whether that holds up or not, I don’t know. There are counter pressures, there are organizations. The Chileans have this in their DNA, so we’ll see. Right now, a lot’s going to be defined between now and the next presidential election in 2025. If the right-wing wins that election, then the game is over for the time being. If not, we don’t know.

JW: Marc Cooper. He wrote about Chile 50 years after the coup for truthdig.com. Thank you, Marc.

MC: Thank you, Jon.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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