On the same day President Donald Trump was honoring veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion and warning that Democrats were spreading socialism in the country, he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose the Nov. 3 election.
For some, Trump’s refusal is the closest and latest example of what they’ve been saying for a while — no American president has come closer to an authoritarian Latin American strongman, whether from the socialist left or the right. But in the last four years, few Republicans, including Latino Republicans, have spoken out against Trump’s flouting of established norms.
“I’m a first-generation born American of Cuban descent and grew up in a household being very acutely aware of the Castro regime, and abuses of power,” said Tony Jiménez, a member of the Hispanic Steering Committee of the Lincoln Project, a political committee formed by Republicans or former Republicans dedicated to defeating Trump in November.
“Not enough is being said, whether it’s a Cuban American politician, elected Republican, Democrat or Independent; I would say more so if you are Republican — what it is now is nothing short of Trumpismo,” Jiménez, an alum of President George W. Bush’s administration, said.
“For the first time in my life I’m starting to understand how a society from one month to another can be in a place blindly following and regurgitating what a crazed leader is peddling,” Jiménez said. “We have an obligation and a right to speak up and strongly denounce what Donald Trump has said.”
Trump’s remarks refusing to guarantee a peaceful transfer come after a first term in which he has chipped away at the checks on his power by politicizing agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau, turning the public against the media and firing or ousting career government officials and workers whose findings challenge his administration, such as the government watchdogs known as inspectors general.
Javier Corrales, professor and chair of political science at Amherst College, said there are two factors that contribute to a country’s democratic backsliding — the executive branch and the ruling party.
In countries where it has occurred, democratic erosion starts with the executive branch refusing to accept some form of a competitive election. The question after that is will the ruling party follow suit, he said.
“We should be very attentive to the Republican Party now that we know there is a very questionable statement on the commitment on the part of the executive branch to accept the results of an election,” Corrales said. “We should find out if the ruling party is committed to democracy.”
Diego von Vacano Camara, a Texas A&M political science professor, said he sees parallels between Trump’s statements and his own country’s history.
“I came from Bolivia,” von Vacano said, “a dictatorship in the ’80s. This is the type of thing that the U.S. didn’t have to worry about before.”
Just recently, he noted, Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Áñez, insinuated that she might remain in power if there were irregularities in the Oct. 18 election. Áñez abandoned her election bid last week amid low poll numbers and after a year in which she broke a pledge to be a caretaker and hold transparent elections.
In an email statement to NBC News, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh stated: “The premise of the question the President was asked assumed that he would lose, which he naturally disagrees with, meaning there will not be a change in administration.”
Murtaugh reiterated the doubts Trump is raising about the mail-in process, saying Trump’s answer “also highlighted the huge potential for fraud in Democrat schemes to mail unrequested live ballots to all registered voters,” but added the president “will accept the results of a free and fair election.”
After Trump’s comments ignited a media firestorm, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted a statement, though he did not mention or rebuke the president.
“As we have done for over two centuries we will have a legitimate & fair election/It may take longer than usual to know the outcome, but it will be a valid one/And at noon on Jan 20, 2021 we will peacefully swear in the President,” Rubio tweeted.
“No one calls him out on his bad behavior”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a Senate Judiciary Committee statement, downplayed Trump’s remarks and instead shifted the focus on the Democrats. “It has become a popular Democratic talking point, it has become a popular media talking point, that it is Trump who is going to dispute the election,” he said, not addressing Trump’s statements that he may not accept a transfer of power.
“That’s one of the disappointing things of the Republicans, no one really calls him [Trump] out on his bad behavior,” said Abel Guerra, a former adviser to George W. Bush and part of the Lincoln Project. “I know Ted (Cruz), he’s really smart — but I’m not seeing anything but pandering to his supporters and the hard right.”
Former Florida congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Republican of Cuban descent, said he was encouraged by Rubio’s tweeted statement, which he retweeted, and by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement that there would be an “orderly transition” of power in 2021. But, he said, “more should speak out.”
“This is a nonpartisan issue and it’s a moral issue. It’s an American issue. Definitely all leaders from all parties should be outspoken and unequivocal in expressing their support for respecting election outcomes,” Curbelo said.
By far, the strongest reaction to Trump’s comments were from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who stated: “Any suggestion that a president might not respect this Constitutional guarantee is both unthinkable and unacceptable.”
This has been an election year in which Latin American strongmen such as the late Fidel Castro of Cuba and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro have loomed large. While Democrats have accused Trump of behaving like a caudillo, or strongman, the Trump campaign and Republican candidates have bombarded Latino and other voters with the specter of the U.S. spiraling into socialism with the election of Joe Biden.
The messaging has helped Trump make gains in segments of the Latino population. He leads Biden among Cuban Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade area, according to a Bendixen & Amandi/Miami Herald poll.
On Friday, as Trump was in Florida for a Latino campaign roundtable, Latinos for Trump sent an email that bore a headline calling Biden a puppet of the “Castrochavistas Who Control His Party,” referencing Castro and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
“A beginning of a process of democratic backsliding”
“There is a significant number of norms he has violated in terms of notions of separation of power, maintaining independence of different branches of government, not using his budget powers to his own benefit,” Corrales said of Pres. Trump.
Unlike previous administrations, Trump recently used the White House as a backdrop for the Republican National Convention and has steered government and Republican Party business to Trump hotels and properties.
“Then, he has also used the bureaucracy to divert attention away from the problems, corruption and to target other groups he sees as his enemies,” Corrales said. “So I think we have evidence there has been a beginning of a process of democratic backsliding in the United States.”
Jimenez said the country is headed down the kind of dangerous path that his family fled from and that he was raised to speak up against, yet Trump’s enablers are supporting him.
“Never in my wildest, craziest nightmares did I ever think I’d have to stand up and speak up,” he said, “in my own country, the United States of America.”