On February 15th, two weeks before he would speak at Millsaps College, Jorge Galicia stood in a crowd outside of the Arizona State Capitol Building for a “Second Amendment Rally.” Wrapped around his shoulders, he wore a Venezuelan flag like a cape. He held a sign that read “Just Ask Venezuela.” The rally was sponsored by Riders United for a Sovereign America (Riders USA), a motorcycle group classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-immigrant. On the Riders USA Facebook page, I found a promotional poster for an event that refers to Black Lives Matter as a “Domestic Terrorist Group,” and a photo of a man at one of their rallies wearing a shirt that reads “Fuck Islam.” One photo from the pro-gun rally Galicia attended shows the back of a man’s shirt that reads “Trump: Here to Grab Pussy and Make America Great Again – And He’s All Out of Pussy.” In another photo, a man carries the green and black “Kekistan” flag, an alt-right flag whose similarities to the Nazi flag are meant to “troll” liberals. Photos of Jorge Galicia attending the rally are on the Riders USA Facebook page, as well as on his personal Instagram.
Though Jorge Galicia does not use the same hateful language as the people he spent time with on February 15th 2020, he was not afraid to publicize his attendance at their rally. His first and most important priority seems to be to achieve regime change in Venezuela. However, Galicia has increasingly adopted the political connections and some of the less explicit rhetoric of the American political Right-wing. One of his Instagram posts in April was captioned “Triggering,” a reference to a trend on the U.S. Right of mocking “trigger warnings” that are intended to help people navigate traumatic information. He speaks to organizations like Turning Points USA. Recently, an article about him comparing “lockdown-era America” to Venezuela was published by Fox News. His participation in a Riders USA rally is arguably a noticeable dip into a more radical pool of the American political Right though; and it raises questions about the political affiliations he has adopted in the United States to try to enact change in Venezuela. We bear responsibility for those we choose to ally ourselves with. Galicia’s presence at the Riders USA rally in Arizona is notable, but not surprising. Jorge Galicia has only fulfilled the role of right wing coalition builder that traces back to at least the resurgent Right of the 1960’s.
In late February, posters appeared around Millsaps College, inviting students to “Hear the Real-Life Story of A Venezuelan Asylum Seeker.” Jorge Galicia was introduced to the audience in the McMullan Lecture Hall on March 2nd 2019 by Millsaps graduating senior Brandon Beck. Beck is an alumni of the Fund for American Studies (TFAS) internship, which sponsors and funds Jorge Galicia’s presentation tour. Beck described the Fund as “dedicated to civil liberties and just government.” Jorge Galicia was not invited to speak at Millsaps College by any conservative student group, but by the college itself. An alumni who heard Galicia speak at another university recommended him and the event was organized through the Government and Politics Department. Dr. Nathan Shrader, the Government and Politics professor who helped organize and promote the event, was interviewed for this article. Though Jorge Galicia was promoted as a Venezuelan asylum seeker, Galicia’s story is much more complicated than it appears at first glance. Jorge Galicia may be firstly preoccupied with Venezuela, but his sponsor cares first and foremost about the politics of the United States of America. What exactly were The Fund for American Studies and Jorge Galicia doing at Millsaps College?
After Beck’s introduction, Galicia took the podium and began his speech. Comparing Galicia’s speech at Millsaps with his other presentations and his eBook, Galicia’s argument is consistent and has two central parts. First, he argues that Venezuela was a wealthy, stable country in the 1970’s, but socialist welfare policy destroyed the economy and turned Venezuela into an authoritarian state. His second argument is that if the United States supported “socialist” policies, it would end up as a failed authoritarian state like Venezuela. In particular, Galicia identifies three major “socialist” policies to be wary of: Free College, Free Healthcare, and “(Almost) Free Gasoline.” Of these three talking points, universal free healthcare and college have in recent years become major policy points for the progressive movement in the United States. While Galicia carefully never references any United States politicians by name, he said during his presentation that “If I were you, I would definitely stay away from politicians that offer me free housing…free college tuition…It cost us our democracy and freedom.” After opening the presentation with a brief introduction and stories from his childhood, Galicia supports his arguments with a brief interpretation of Venezuelan history.
Galicia sees the turning point in Venezuela’s slide towards authoritarianism firmly during first presidency of Carlos Andrés Perez which lasted from 1974-1979. In 1976, Perez fully nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry for the first time. Galicia argues that by the time Perez moved to cut social programs and increase taxes to pay off foreign debt during his second, nonconsecutive presidential term in 1989, the people of the country had developed a “culture of dependency.” People responded with what he calls the “Caracazo Revolt,” a series of riots that were the first steps in the slide toward an authoritarian state. A few years later, Hugo Chavez would be elected president and install a system of government that since then has not been removed. Interwoven through the presentation are stories from Galicia’s personal life of growing up doing “normal stuff” before eventually becoming a “freedom fighter.”
At the end of the talk there was time for questions. An emotional Venezuelan woman stood up and, speaking in Spanish, told her story of walking out of Venezuela and into Colombia as a refugee, before asking Galicia to translate her words for the audience. Her testimony was a genuine and heartbreaking reminder that while Galicia’s narrative will be contextualized and contested in this article, the refugee and humanitarian crisis’s of Venezuela must be taken seriously and empathetically.
When asked about the presentation, TFAS internship alumni Brando Beck admitted “it was a little shocking TFAS would fund something like this. [It] doesn’t match up” with the quality he saw in the TFAS internship program. Another student in attendance, Millsaps graduating senior Bailey Cary, described her initial impressions of Galicia as an “articulate man who could grasp the audience’s attention with tales of emotional and physical trauma.” However, she found the conclusions of Galicia’s presentation surprising. While she believed most Millsaps students would see past Galicia’s “one-sided argument,” she also said “I do not believe that either of our major political parties should use a foreign citizen to evoke fear in the American people come election day.” Cary acknowledged she had a general lack of knowledge regarding Venezuela going into the presentation. However, she still found Galicia’s comparisons between Venezuela and the United States inappropriate.
In contrast, rising senior Summer Ables was more familiar with Venezuela than Cary. She described Jorge Galicia’s presentation as “extremely biased.” Ables said that “As someone who personally knows Venezuelan immigrants and their stories, I wasn’t surprised by some of the things that were told, and my thoughts remained the same after the talk. I believe that Galicia himself seemed to have had a more privileged experience upon immigrating to the United States, which I think contributes to his political perspectives on the matter.” Finally, Millsaps senior Asia Allen said that Galicia “opened my eyes tremendously” with regards to the political and economic situation in Venezuela today. But “what Galicia said about socialism is something that I don’t completely agree with. I still believe in free healthcare and education.” Allen emphasized that the situations in Venezuela and the United States are very different.
Galicia’s argument that social welfare policy could lead to authoritarianism is based on his historical narrative of the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The interpretation of Venezuelan history is often contested on political lines, and it is, to be quite blunt, complicated. That is, at least partially, the value of Galicia’s story for TFAS. Few U.S. college students have a strong background in Venezuelan history. For those who would disagree with Galicia’s comparisons of Venezuela and the United States, many lack the knowledge to do so. For those who are uncertain of where they stand on progressive issues like universal education or universal healthcare, Galicia’s version of Venezuelan history may scare them into fearing the implementation of those policies in the United States. However, there are uncontested historical facts that put Galicia’s interpretation in doubt. One major weakness in Jorge Galicia’s argument is that it starts in the 1970’s. This hides a long history of un-democratic government in Venezuela.
Nineteenth century Venezuela is a complex history of strong man caudillo leaders. It was not a period in the country’s history known for democracy. In the early twentieth century, Venezuela was ruled by military dictators who accepted varying levels of democratic expression from 1908 to 1945. In 1945, a coup led to a brief three year experiment in democracy before another coup in 1948 led to another 10 years of military authoritarian rule. That military dictatorship ended in 1958. By the 1974 presidency of Carlos Andrés Perez, Venezuela had been a democratic country for only 16 consecutive years. Most audience members listening to Galicia speak are unlikely to know about the fragility of Venezuelan democracy in the second half of the twentieth century. The reality is that Venezuela had an entrenched history of military enforced authoritarianism long before Venezuelan politicians began to implement social welfare policy.
Jorge Galicia also omits from his arguments the influence that the imperialism of the United States had on the ways that socialism developed in Latin America. In an op-ed piece recently published in The New York Times and based on his book The Jakarta Method, Vincent Bevins writes about the violence of U.S. backed anti-communism during the Cold War and how the search for anti-communist allies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa often led the United States to support authoritarian dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile or General Suharto in Indonesia. Bevins argues that in response to U.S. backed right wing violence in Latin America, “In turn, leftists movements radicalized or took up arms, believing they would be killed if they attempted to pursue the path of democratic socialism.”
I cannot authoritatively analyze the entire twentieth century history of Venezuela, except to say that Jorge Galicia drastically oversimplifies it. I am not a historian of Venezuela, but neither is Galicia. Without taking into account the role of the International Monetary Fund and its insistence on austerity measures in Latin America, without considering the deeply institutionalized influence of the military in Venezuela, without weighing the crippling influences of corruption and mismanagement, and most importantly, without analyzing the historical legacies of colonialism and U.S. imperialism, you cannot give an accurate account of how and why Hugo Chavez rose to power in Venezuela. You cannot understand how all of those things shape the way Venezuela looks today. Historians and political scientists spend entire careers analyzing the confluence of all of those factors. It’s too bad we didn’t invite one of those.
It is still important to analyze Galicia’s presentation, not only to counter his telling of Venezuelan history, but to respond to his underlying claim that the threat of authoritarianism in the United States comes from the political Left. Because in truth, that is the most important part of the presentation. That is why the Fund for American Studies sponsors Jorge Galicia’s talk.
Jorge Galicia first posted a promotional flyer about his speaking tour for TFAS on Instagram in October 2019. On November 8th, 2019, Galicia gave his first presentation as a TFAS speaker in front of an audience at the conservative Young Americans Foundation’s (YAF) Fall College Retreat at the Reagan Ranch.
The Fund for American Studies is a well-established and influential conservative organization. TFAS’s leaders are powerful, wealthy, and strongly connected to both the historical and contemporary conservative movement. At their 50th anniversary celebration in 2019 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C., the Fund’s keynote speaker was Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. More recently, President Trump tapped a member of TFAS Board of Trustees and a major Republican donor, Louis DeJoy to serve as Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service. The Fund for American Studies is part of the conservative establishment, not the fringe. Jorge Galicia’s project likewise is a central part of the Fund’s mission at the moment. As of the writing of this article, the TFAS homepage features a headline promoting a video made by Galicia titled “If You Like The Shutdown, You’ll Love Socialism.” A pop up ad invites you to download Jorge Galicia’s new eBook about Venezuela; the advertisement follows you as you navigate the TFAS website.
Though Jorge Galicia is being heavily promoted by TFAS at the moment, it is the TFAS internship program that represents the organization’s strongest link to Millsaps. Millsaps has no official relationship with TFAS, but several Millsaps students have taken part in “Capital Semester” or “DC Summer Program” internships organized through TFAS. Dr. Nathan Shrader of the Millsaps Government and Politics Department strongly endorses the academic rigor of these internships, which include courses taught through the George Mason University Economics Department. The internships, though organized through TFAS, are not with TFAS, but with various other organizations in Washington D.C.
Asked about his experience with TFAS internship during the summer of 2018, graduating senior Brandon Beck described it as high quality and, on reflection, “libertarian” in its academic focus. The academic rigor of this aspect of the Fund for American Studies generally stands up to the descriptions given by Dr. Shrader and Brandon Beck, though it is also undeniably politically motivated. Emails sent by TFAS to potential donors frequently include lines like “For decades now, the progressive left has been infiltrating the media, education systems and the minds of young Americans who will soon outnumber those of us who value America’s founding principles of limited government and individual liberty.” TFAS promises that donations to support its internships will help “to find, educate, then place a future leader who will defend your values and American’s founding principles for generations.” The internship program and its place at Millsaps is deserving of its own interrogation. Nevertheless, it is not the internship programs that greet you on the Fund for American Studies homepage.
In December 2019, Jorge Galicia attended the Turning Points USA (TPUSA) sponsored Student Action Summit, which included speakers such as President Donald Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr., Ben Shapiro, and Sean Hannity. TPUSA is a conservative organization founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012 that specifically recruits high school and college students. Its stated mission includes the promotion of “the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.” Their most controversial project is the “Professor Watchlist,” that publishes the names and faces of professors that allegedly “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Professors have been known to be harassed and even placed on leave due to backlash that came from being placed on the Watchlist. At the Turning Points conference, Galicia had a table where he was promoting his recently-begun national tour on Venezuela and the dangers of socialism.
Galicia is a central part of an influential organization in the conservative movement and he has connections that span from moderate to the very edges of the right wing. He warns that the threat of authoritarianism in the United States comes from the progressive Left. The historical record challenges that argument.
The United States has always been to some degree or another undemocratic, both internally and in its actions abroad. It is a country founded on land stolen from Native Americans and built on the labor of enslaved Africans. Consistently, the United States’ undemocratic tendencies have been racialized in nature and crossed party lines, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. However, in modern political history, the racialized language of authoritarianism in the United States has consistently come from the Right.
Two of TFAS’s founders can help us to understand the history of authoritarian ideology in the United States’ political Right-wing. The Fund for American Studies was founded in 1967 and was originally known as the Charles Edison Youth Fund, after its principle founder. In the 1960’s, both Charles Edison and his close political ally (and fellow founder of TFAS) William F. Buckley Jr. at one time or another expressed political beliefs that almost could have been pulled out of their interviews and writing and placed in the hands of Jorge Galicia. They also evoked an authoritarianism that lurked behind the politics of the Left. This alone is valuable historical context. The American Right has been warning that progressive policies would lead to authoritarianism at least since Lyndon Johnson’s administration established the Medicare and Medicaid programs in 1965, if not earlier.
In an interview Charles Edison gave with the conservative Manion Forum in 1964, he lamented the loss of a national appreciation for liberty. He saw in 1964 United States, “a country where self-reliance, pride, hard work, and thrift are being replaced by ideas of dependency on government, pleasure before duty, higher pay for less work, and the right to government handouts.” Edison feared that “Socialism [was] Slowly Strangling Individual Freedoms,” in the United States, and he compared the social welfare policies of the President Johnson’s New Frontier with incarceration. Down to the rhetoric of dependency and authoritarianism, Edison sounds like Galicia.
And like Jorge Galicia, Charles Edison straddled the line between “respectable” conservatism and the radical elements of the Right. Unsavory coalition building with the people that say the quiet parts loud has been essential to the rise of the Right in the Republican Party and conservative politics. Edison exemplifies that. As the son of the famous Thomas Edison, Charles Edison inherited wealth and powerful business connections. A prominent John Birch Society member, Charles Edison served on many committees and boards that, like the Fund for American Studies with Jorge Galicia, used some foreign threat related to communism or socialism to warn about dangers at home. For example, Edison was a sponsor of the “American Committee for Aid to Katanga Freedom Fighters,” that supported the white Belgium dominated Katanga government that sought to secede from the newly liberated and black African controlled Congo state. Other members of the Committee included fellow TFAS founder William F. Buckley Jr. and Ernest Van den Haag, a controversial figure who publicly advocated for and wrote about the pseudoscience of eugenics.
A member of the executive committee of this group, prominent conservative James Burnham, gives an example of how rightist organizations like this one provided the historical precedent for organizations like TFAS to use deceptive foreign fearmongering to influence politics in the United States. He said that the black Congo liberation movement that was seeking independence wanted “to destroy the power and privileges of the white men; to take over their property, or most of it; and to permit white men to remain only as servants and handmaids.” Burnham also said that “The whites of Africa, like the African (and Harlem) blacks, know well enough the real nature of the African revolt. They cannot afford the Liberal-egalitarian illusions. Their careers, possessions, homes, and quite possibly their lives are at stake.” As argued by Jesse Curtis in the article cited below, the parenthetical connection “(and Harlem)” is a reminder that the Right often did not differentiate between Black people in Africa and in the United States.
The Right of the mid 20th century raised the racist specter of a foreign, black threat to capitalism and white supremacy, sometimes through the race neutral language of Edison and sometimes through the more explicit language of writers like Buckley Jr. or Burnham. Then they used it to try to scare people away from campaigns for civil rights at home, as well as from social welfare policies like increased minimum wages and Social Security; policies that would decrease economic exploitation and help shrink the wealth gap that was the result of generations of white supremacy.
Charles Edison gives us historical continuity for Galicia’s rhetoric, but it is the ideology of William F. Buckley Jr. that crystalizes these arguments’ meanings and importance. William F. Buckley Jr.’s personal history is tightly wound with that of Venezuela. The wealth that supported Buckley Jr.’s political endeavors came from family investments that originated when his father, having been thrown out of Mexico in 1921 for his support of counterrevolutionaries seeking to overthrow President Álvaro Obregón, used oil speculation in Venezuela as a bouncing off point to reestablish the family’s affluence. By the apex of Buckley Jr.’s political activism in the 60’s and 70’s, the Buckley family had diversified their investments outside of Venezuela and were estimated to be worth, according to a New York Times article in 1971, tens of millions of dollars. The wealth that backed a founder of TFAS, who Galicia is sponsored by today, was initially extracted from the material wealth of a Venezuela ruled by an undemocratic military strong man.
Ideologically, William F. Buckley Jr. was an elitist. His rhetoric of “civilization” carried strong racial overtones and informed his thoughts on democracy at home and abroad. In his infamous 1957 article “Why the South Must Prevail,” Buckley asked himself the questions if “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes” …because the White community is… “for the time being… the advanced race.” Buckley goes on to compare the political situation in the South to British colonial actions in Kenya, before stating that “If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened.” Buckley would later walk back on this stance, but the underlying ideology continued to pervade his writings and those of other writers in his National Review, especially with regards to international events. Like Burnham, Buckley prioritized white supremacy and capitalism over democracy.
In 1964, after a Black teenager was shot by a police officer in Harlem, Buckley wrote that “The line between civilization and chaos is at all times, but above all in a revolutionary age such as ours is, narrow and precarious.” Between civilization and order on one side and “wild dark passions” and “mob frenzy and violence in our streets” sat a “Thin Blue Line.” Buckley argued that “the last defense must rest in the rude but disciplined hands of men with nightsticks and guns.” Edison’s word and Buckley’s images hint at what is a larger relation in conservative thought between the ideas of order, democracy, civilization, race, and capitalism. It is a particularly relevant time to underscore that in the white supremacist capitalism of the Right, the armed police officer acts as the enforcer against the rebellious Black protestor.
Charles Edison and William F. Buckley Jr. introduce us to what the authoritarian rhetoric from the Right looked like in the 1960’s,. Today, their ideas have been institutionalized in the organizations they founded, like The Fund for American Studies and are present in the speeches and policies of major Republican actors. In March 2019, TFAS president Roger Ream published an op-ed in the Washington Examiner. Ream described the U.S. backed military coup against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 as the Chilean “military intervening to prevent a communist transformation. While the resulting regime was undemocratic, this turn of events allowed a window of opportunity for the implementation of economic reforms…” Ream’s language holds up through time and generally across the conservative spectrum. If capitalism is at risk, at home or abroad, authoritarianism is acceptable.
Domestically, Pat Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech can act as a small stepping to the modern day. He told a story (that has been disputed) about the riots in Los Angeles that year in response to the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King. Echoing Buckley Jr., Buchanan described a scene where “The troopers came up the street, M-16s at the ready. And the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated because it had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage.” Buchanan, like Buckley, tactfully evokes a faceless mob. The racism is unspoken, but still there. Much more open is the admission that for the Right, sometimes undemocratic methods are necessary to keep power.
Even more recently, there are an abundance of examples from President Trump of racialized endorsements of violence and limitations on democracy, from the demagoguery of his infamous association of Mexican border crossers with rapists to his repeated and backless accusations of voter fraud to his endorsements of Stop and Frisk policies to countless other examples, culminating recently with Trump’s tweets calling people protesting the police killing of George Floyd “thugs,” before writing that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Jorge Galicia warned that social welfare policies were a slippery slope towards authoritarianism, and that we should be wary of progressive politicians who offer proposals like universal healthcare and universal free education. That argument does not hold water. It was the most radical progressives of the 20th century United States who were advocating for civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant’s rights, and social and economic justice while the Right was institutionalizing a philosophy meant to impede the tide of progress in this country. For the U.S.’s Right-wing, liberty and democracy are for some people, but not all of them. From Buckley in the 1960’s to Buchanan in 1992 to Donald Trump in 2016 to 2020 and his supporters at the Riders USA rally Jorge Galicia attended to many political actors in between, the vehicle of authoritarian rhetoric in the United States is not the progressive Left, but the Right.
Placed in this context, Jorge Galicia is serving a similar role today to the American Committee for Aid to Katanga Freedom Fighters 60 years ago. When Galicia describes the Caracazo, as a “too late” point where people had developed a “culture of dependency,” he brushes over the police and military violence against protestors, he minimizes the harshness of the austerity measures, but he evokes the same faceless, greedy socialist mob conjured by Buckley Jr., Buchannan, and President Trump. The culture of dependency is a lie. It shifts the blame from those in power to those being exploited. It hides an uncomfortable truth, that the people in power refuse to take responsibility when the government fails to provide the most basic of human rights, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
After Jorge Galicia’s presentation, Millsaps posted a photo of him on its primary Instagram and Facebook accounts with the caption “Tonight we hosted Jorge Galicia, an activist and asylum seeker from Venezuela, as he shared his experiences under an oppressive regime.” No references were made to Galicia’s U.S. centric political activism. Asked about inviting Jorge Galicia to speak at Millsaps, Dr. Shrader said the Government and Politics Department sought to bring a “broad array ideologically” of speakers to campus.
Should Jorge Galicia have been invited to Millsaps College? Should he have been allowed to direct the narrative of his visit? Does the college have an obligation to properly contextualize its speakers, especially when they themselves are not transparent about their political connections? The conversation about the relationship between free speech and our obligations with regards to the platforms we give to people who may be lying, disingenuous, or harmful is a nationwide and ongoing conversation. It is a conversation that needs to be happening at Millsaps College. Reflecting on Jorge Galicia’s visit to Millsaps is a good place to start.
This article was written using a variety of primary and secondary sources. If you are interested in learning more about some of the historical context or ideas that went into the making of this piece, you can explore the following. As a recent graduate, this is my last article for The Purple and White. It has been a pleasure.
“My Effing First Amendment,” This American Life Podcast, (about Turning Points USA.) https://www.thisamericanlife.org/645/my-effing-first-amendment
“The Spanish Speaking William F. Buckley,” by Bécquer Seguín. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/spanish-speaking-william-f-buckley
“William F. Buckley and National Review’s vile race stance,” by Kevin M. Schultz. https://www.salon.com/2015/06/07/william_f_buckley_and_national_reviews_vile_race_stance_everything_you_need_to_know_about_conservatives_and_civil_rights/
“The Liberal World Order Was Built With Blood,” Vincent Bevins. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/opinion/sunday/united-states-cold-war.html
“The Citizens’ Council and Africa: White Supremacy in Global Perspective,” by Stephanie Rolph. Journal Of Southern History. (Accessible through Millsaps Library database.)
“The Conservative 1960’s” by James A. Hijiya. Journal of American Studies. (Accessible through ILL through Millsaps Library database.)
“Will the Jungle Take Over? National Review and the Defense of Western Civilization in the Era of Civil Rights and African Decolonization,” by Jesse Curtis, Journal of American Studies, May 2018. (Accessible through ILL through Millsaps Library database.)