NY Times Columnist Ross Douthat Defended Murderous Dictator Pinochet in His Harvard Days

By: Ben Norton | December 19, 2018
Douthat Pinochet
NY Times columnist Douthat defended Chilean dictator Pinochet in a 1998 article

Right-wing New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, back in his Ivy League college days, wrote an op-ed defending US-backed ultra-capitalist dictator Augusto Pinochet — whose military junta murdered and disappeared thousands of leftists, and tortured tens of thousands more.

Intellectual historian Timothy Barker dug through columns that Douthat penned for Harvard University’s right-wing student newspaper The Harvard Salient between 1998 and 2002.

Barker found a slew of bigoted articles in which Douthat echoed explicitly racist talking points that are popular among the so-called alt-right today, including the idea that white Europeans are “vanishing” and being replaced through immigration by supposed “barbarians” like Turks, Africans, and Arabs.

The future New York Times columnist attacked gay people, warned of “the evils of strident feminism,” and insisted that US “whites, too, suffered because of slavery.”

Already a big conservative with an even bigger ego, Douthat declared in a 2001 profile, “Coming to Harvard, I now have a new sense of the power and success that is at our fingertips – I know I will be one of the 25 richest writers of the future.”

But most striking of all the Douthat articles uncovered by Barker is a November 9, 1998 column titled “Reassessing Pinochet.”

Barker noted that the front cover of the issue advertised this piece with the teaser “Free Pinochet.” (The conservative publication later joked of a “Rally for Justice” to “Free Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet!”)

Douthat: Chile Was ‘Fortunate’ to Have Pinochet

In his 1998 column “Reassessing Pinochet,” Ross Douthat demonized Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, and rationalized the 1973 military coup that ousted him and replaced the Chilean republic’s fledgling socialist democracy with a murderous capitalist dictatorship.

It is noteworthy that Douthat studiously avoided mentioning the role of the United States in propping up Pinochet, and specifically of the CIA in helping to orchestrate and carry out the bloody coup.

Writing defensively of the capitalist autocrat, Douthat claimed “Pinochet’s crimes pale in comparison to those of Soviet apparatchiks who faced no courts after the end of the Cold War — or African despots sunning themselves in Saudi Arabia — or Chinese leaders with whom with [sic] West concludes trade pacts.”

All in the international community agree “that Augusto Pinochet was a villain,” Douthat lamented. “And therein lies their mistake.”

“Were innocent socialists executed for fictional communist sympathies? Yes,” the future New York Times columnist conceded. “But the fact that Pinochet’s government ordered punitive measures against leftists who had plunged the country into chaos is not grounds to charge him with ‘genocide,'” he exclaimed.

Douthat downplayed the staggering human toll of the Pinochet regime, stating, “three thousand executions after a period of civil strife seems rather tame in our bloody twentieth century, especially when set against the record of Communist governments that Pinochet opposed.”

Douthat romanticized 1998 Chile as “one of the most stable and prosperous countries in South America,” and maintained that the country was “fortunate” to have been ruled for nearly two decades by Pinochet.

“Chile had Pinochet, but other Latin countries were not so fortunate,” Douthat maintained.

The future New York Times columnist concluded his article condemning Western critics of Pinochet (while once again glossing over decades of US support for him) and insisting that this kind of right-wing authoritarianism was necessary to stop socialism:

It is easy for a country like the United States, where the radical Left never took power, to castigate men like Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses. But imagine a United States where Students for a Democratic Society held the presidency, where Black Panthers sat in the Cabinet and the Weathermen controlled foreign affairs, where the Port Huron Statement was made the law of the land — imagine this, and it becomes easier to understand how three thousand Chileans died, and why the West has no business trying Augusto Pinochet as a salve to our offended sensibilities.

US Media’s Whitewashing of Pinochet

Pinochet’s US-backed regime infamously supported a torture colony called Colonia Dignidad, a secretive German enclave in Chile, founded by a former Nazi, where children were systematically sexually abused. Top ministers in Chile’s current right-wing government, which is led by billionaire oligarch Sebastian Piñera, were unabashed supporters of Colonia Dignidad.

In fact Piñera echoed some of the same rhetoric employed by Douthat in a speech he gave back in 1998, in which the contemporary Chilean president defended Pinochet.

That a prominent US pundit once carried water for this regime is even less shocking when one looks at the obituaries corporate media outlets published for Pinochet upon his death in 2006.

The Washington Post applauded the dictator for leaving “behind the most successful country in Latin America.” The Financial Times whitewashed him as “the man who paved the way for Chile’s economic prosperity.” The Telegraph wrote that he “saved his country from Communism and created the most successful economy in Latin America.” And NPR described the despot simply as “villain to some, hero to others.”

Former Democratic President Barack Obama likewise refused to apologize, in 2011, for the US government’s staunch backing of Pinochet.

From Pinochet to Bolsonaro

Ross Douthat’s past praise for Pinochet has contemporary parallels. It specifically echoes the support Brazil’s fascist President-elect Jair Bolsonaro has received today from conservative media outlets.

Bolsonaro, a far-right extremist from Brazil’s former military dictatorship, is himself an admirer of the Chilean generalissimo — his only complaint was “Pinochet should have killed more people.”

Bolsonaro’s ultra-capitalist finance minister Paulo Guedes even taught economics in Chile under Pinochet’s military junta.

The Brazilian fascist’s neoliberal capitalist economics is the main reason why he has enjoyed endorsements from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Examiner, along with kind words from Canada’s CBC.

Douthat’s own newspaper has a history of whitewashing Bolsonaro. In 1993, the New York Times published an article titled “A Soldier Turned Politician Wants To Give Brazil Back to Army Rule.” This report noted Bolsonaro was already calling for the restoration of the right-wing military dictatorship, a mere eight years after Brazil had become a democracy. And the US newspaper of record portrayed the Brazilian fascist as a national hero with widespread support, who in just a matter of time would ascend to power.

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Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.