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Past Is Present

MAGA Warms to a Murderous Chilean Dictator

Augusto Pinochet’s perceived enemies were drugged, hooded, and tossed into the sea by helicopter. Some of Trump’s fans—including a GOP congressman—find that worthy of praise, or at least humor.

Mike Collins, a Republican congressman from Georgia
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Mike Collins, a Republican congressman from Georgia, suggested putting an undocumented migrant on “Pinochet Air.”

Anthony D’Esposito, a congressman from New York, posted a picture on X last week of an undocumented immigrant flashing two middle fingers after being arraigned for allegedly assaulting two NYPD officers. “We feel the same way about you,” D’Esposito wrote. “Holla at the cartels and have them escort you back.” But Republican Congressman Mike Collins took it a step further: “Or we could buy him a ticket on Pinochet Air for a free helicopter ride back.” His post was flagged as violent speech, but it was allowed to stand on the grounds that “it may be in the public’s interest for the Post to remain accessible.”

Collins probably considers his statement a joke intended to communicate his views of migrants, and it is best not to overreact to behavior that is designed to provoke. But his post also reflects the mainstreaming of authoritarianism in the GOP. Since at least 2016, members of the Proud Boys—the extremist group that Trump told to “stand back and stand by” in the event he lost the 2020 election—have worn shirts with slogans like “Pinochet did nothing wrong” or “Pinochet’s Helicopter Rides.” Now a Republican in Congress is repeating them.

During Augusto Pinochet’s rule in Chile, more than 1,000 people were “disappeared”: abducted by the state, never to be seen by their families again. More than a hundred of those were drugged, hooded, and tossed from helicopters to sink into the ocean. Given the debate about whether Trump and his movement are fascist—a debate Trump has fueled by describing immigrants as “poisoning the blood” of the country and promising that he would be a dictator on “day one” who would “root out the Communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin”—you might expect comparisons to Pinochet to come from his critics. That they come from admirers instead reflects the unsettling and bizarre ways that Trump is seen by his supporters (as Pinochet was by his) as the savior of Western, Christian civilization against its enemies from within.

There are, of course, many differences between Pinochet’s dictatorship and MAGA. They represent different people in different times. Trump, despite his apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings, has not actually ordered any inside the United States. Even a second Trump term would not resemble a military dictatorship. But there are some similarities between Pinochet and today’s right that reveal the authoritarian cultures that Trump has given greater power and influence in Republican politics. One place to see these points of contact is not with the beginning or duration of Pinochet’s rule but the end of it: how he tried to cling to power, and how it ended for him.

General Pinochet took power in a coup d’état on September 11, 1973, deposing elected Marxist President Salvador Allende amid an economic crisis and extreme civic polarization. Fifteen years later Pinochet was under domestic and international pressure to allow a plebiscite to determine whether to keep him in power. Pinochet argued that a “no” vote, which would restore a competitive electoral democracy, would bring back the chaos of the Allende years. The “no” coalition, which was allowed to organize on the ground and advertise on television, brought together a broad group of parties. Even the United States, whose policies had helped Pinochet come to power, pushed for the results to be respected. Harry Barnes, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Chile, warned that “Pinochet’s plan is simple: (a) If the “yes” is winning, fine: (b) If the race is very close rely on fraud and coercion: (c) If the “no” is likely to win clearly then use violence and terror to stop the process.”

There is a wry joke sometimes told on the Latin American left: “Why has there never been a coup in Washington, D.C.?” The answer is that there is no American Embassy there. But the insurrection on January 6, 2021, and the associated efforts to reverse Joe Biden’s victory represent the closest the United States has come to a coup d’état in living memory. It did not succeed precisely because it lacked the support of multiple institutions, including the military and, crucially, key Republican officials. But the plan was right out of the authoritarian playbook: Like Pinochet, Trump only agrees to respect the outcomes of elections that he has won. As in the Chilean coup of 1973, which the military justified with propaganda describing a fictional plan by the left to assume dictatorial power, January 6 depended on a stew of conspiracy and misinformation, supplied in online communities like QAnon and right-wing media, and from the mouth of President Trump himself.

Pinochet did lose the plebiscite in 1988, and he did try to overturn the results. He pressured members of his own junta to give him emergency powers. He tried to argue that his 43 percent of the vote was actually a victory. The secretary general of his government collapsed from a heart attack on the spot, and other members of his government refused his plans. Though Pinochet eventually had no choice but to accept the results, the government took steps to protect him from accountability for crimes he committed as president. He remained commander in chief until 1998, at which point he became senator for life; both granted him immunity from prosecution.

The military regime also set up an electoral system that favored its interests. The “binomial” system it established sent two legislators from each electoral district to Congress. Unless one party defeated the other by a two-thirds majority, the “winner” and the “loser” would both go to Congress, giving the right-wing minority (and Pinochet-supporting rural areas) more power than its percentage of the population warranted. Changing this voting system, which occurred in 2013, was considered a key step in the long transition to a fuller democracy in Chile.

Chile’s military government succeeded in creating authoritarian enclaves within an electoral democracy. The American situation has different historical roots—some of them related to the protection of slavery—but is functioning in a similar way. Extreme gerrymandering and the rules of the Senate give rural and right-wing areas disproportionate power, which can be further entrenched via judicial appointments not subject to correction by elections. Meanwhile, the administration of elections across the country, particularly in red states, is increasingly being handed over to partisan bodies. And a Supreme Court with a disproportionate 6–3 conservative majority—thanks in part to Trump, who picked three of its members—will decide whether he should be disqualified for his role in January 6, and possibly whether he should be immune from prosecution for any crimes he committed as president.

Attempts to hold Pinochet legally accountable for his crimes were vexed. He died in 2006 with hundreds of unresolved criminal charges—ranging from violations of human rights to self-interested embezzlement—working their way through Chile’s legal system. Meanwhile, the democratization process in Chile was long, difficult, and is arguably unfinished. But the plebiscite that marked the beginning of the end in 1988 was based on dedicated electoral work at the neighborhood level, and by the creation of a broad political coalition. That alliance consisted of parties of the left and center who, in the 1970s, had been deeply at odds. It required compromises and democratic commitment from all. Against the dictatorship’s message of fear, their campaign held out the promise that if people came together to reject authoritarianism, then better times were ahead. They won, and they were right.