Tucker Carlson broadcasted his nightly Fox News program from an autocracy last week, Viktor Orban’s regime in Hungary. Carlson praised the dictator for cleaning up the place; muzzling or replacing his irresponsible critics in government and the media; keeping out the riff-raff at the border; and promoting an ugly Orbanized nationalism and nativism. Carlson seemed to frame Hungary as an example of what Trump was trying to do—will do?!—here.
My ongoing research for an upcoming Duke University Press title, The Dictator Stands Alone: United States Cold War Policy and the Trujillo Regime in the Dominican Republic, 1946-1961, a sequel to my 1998 book The Dictator Next Door, gives Carlson’s Big Adventure a sense of déjà vu.
If you substitute a few names and places, you have a similar scenario to a subplot of the book. Take out “Viktor Orban of Turkey” and plug in “Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.” Substitute “Tucker Carlson of Fox News” for “the right-wing press and its political allies.” And most weirdly, make the owner of Mar-a-Lago not the Celebrity Guy, but über-lobbyist Joseph E. Davies, close confident of presidents: FDR, Truman, and Ike, alike.
My prying into recently declassified materials shows that Mar a Lago Joe Davies orchestrated a successful public relations campaign in the United States for the benefit his employer, the dictatorial Trujillo. “The Goat” had gunned his way to power in 1930, then earned international infamy in 1937 by ordering the Haitian Massacre, arguably the first genocidal event of WWII.
Davies’ efforts, run out of a new Dominican Tourism Office on 5th Avenue, NYC, cleansed the reputation of the mass murderer and ushered in a tourist rush to “Ciudad Trujillo,” the ancient city formerly known as Santo Domingo. Within a decade of Hiroshima, the Dominican Republic had become the major tourist destination in the Caribbean, with regular passenger service on three steamship lines; jet airliner connections on both Pan American Airways and KLM; a chain of fourteen modern hotels, beginning with the flagship Jaragua in 1946; new highways connecting them; and inordinate cleanliness, imposed by the Marine Corps discipline the dictator learned during his tutelage with the US Occupation, 1916-1924.
In 1955, Trujillo hosted a grandiose World’s Fair of Peace and Brotherhood. By then, Joe Davies was too old and sick to attend, confined to his king-size bed at Mar-a-Lago. As Davies faded and died in 1958, so did Trujillo’s public relations/tourism foreign policy strategy. By 1960, Trujillo was the pariah of the Western Hemisphere, soon to be assassinated, and thereafter grieved by few.
Eric Paul Roorda is the author of The Dictator Next Door and, more recently, editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is also Professor of History at Bellarmine University. Save 30% off The Dictator Next Door with the coupon code E98RORDA. Read the Introduction to The Ocean Reader free on our website and save 30% on the paperback using the coupon code E20RORDA.