MAGA Warms to a Murderous Chilean Dictator

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.