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The American Right’s New Authoritarian Squeeze
Its lust for overseas strongmen shows that it has no love for its own country’s political ideals
There’s a newfound enthusiasm in corners of the American right with importing ideas from foreign countries. It’s a weird intellectual volte-face.
For decades, a fascination with the foreign was primarily the province of the American left. Center-left and social democratic thinkers insisted that Britain’s National Health Service, Sweden’s lavish welfare state and Iceland’s generous taxpayer-funded family leave policy were programs America should emulate. The hard left went even further, sympathizing with or even enthusing over various communist projects. Americans on the right pushed back with a variety of economic, social and political arguments; the common thread was, “We’re America. We do it differently here.”
Now corners of the America First right have found a new hotness: Salvadoran president and emerging caudillo Nayib Bukele. In the past month, Bukele has picked up endorsements from a motley crew of hard-right misfits and grifters, including Roger Stone, Michael Flynn and the top officers of the New York Young Republicans Club, who penned a glowing encomium to Bukele in Newsweek. This enthusiasm moved quickly into the realm of serious publications like The American Conservative and influential thinkers like U.K. political strategist Dominic Cummings.
Bukele, elected El Salvador’s president in 2019, burst onto the norteamericano scene shortly thereafter, “investing” over $100 million of the country’s treasury in Bitcoin, which is now worth a fraction of what it was at the time of purchase. In 2021, he pushed a bill making Bitcoin legal tender throughout the country—a controversial idea—and requiring every business to accept crypto. It does not seem to be going well, as cash continues to dominate the Salvadoran economy. Earlier this year, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed a bill allowing the issuance of “Volcano Tokens” to build a “Bitcoin City” where mining would be powered by volcanic energy—and I swear I am not making this up.
Unlike many of the emerging authoritarians who are, to borrow from Jay-Z, “loud as a motorbike but wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight,” Bukele’s words are matched by deeds; he has taken up the mantle of law-and-order while sharply curtailing the rule of law in El Salvador. As the Manhattan Institute’s Daniel Di Martino explains, Bukele’s party removed and replaced a third of the country’s highest court with pliant justices who, in contravention of the plain text of the Salvadoran constitution, ruled that Bukele could run for reelection—a race he will probably win.
What put Bukele on the map of the America First set was the opening last month of a new prison, said to be the largest in the Americas, holding some 40,000 prisoners. Bukele released a slick video of himself touring the facility; the video was apparently broadcast nationally, but its real audience was Twitter.
And Twitter is where Bukele shines. With 4.9 million followers in a country of 6.3 million people, it seems safe to assume that most of his followers are not Salvadorans. When Bukele tweets in English, which is much of the time, it’s frequently in the argot of the based-and-redpilled crowd; much of it uses slang or references to figures and memes unknown to normies. His audience is not primarily his constituents.
This is just the latest odd but concerning fascination in corners of the American right with strongmen abroad. The national conservatives have had a long-running infatuation with Hungary and the country’s illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orbán, with CPAC even grifting (sorry, “organizing”) a conference in Budapest last year. As president, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Trump and nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted giant rallies for one another during state visits. (It’s only a matter of time until the America First crowd discovers 21st century Hindutva.)
So why are America’s ostensible “conservatives” praising foreign leaders and wanting America to adopt the policies of other countries? Three hypotheses seem worth considering.
First and most obviously, it’s because these overseas strongmen are adopting policies that their American stans believe can deliver results. I’m not an expert, but my general impression is that large parts of El Salvador have been ruled by rival gangs for decades now. This problem can plausibly be fixed by Bukele’s program of mass incarceration (now at some 2% of the country’s adult population), including detention without due process—human rights, cost-benefit analysis and long-term consequences be damned. (There is some evidence that rather than crushing the transnational gangs responsible for El Salvador’s violent crime, Bukele has cut a deal with them.)
Of course, America’s crime problem is in no way comparable to El Salvador’s, but that’s just a minor detail to the Americans lusting after caudillismo.
And what’s more, most of the strongman policies don’t work; Hungary has created massive subsidies for motherhood, but they have barely budged the country’s sub-replacement fertility rate. This is where the logic of “but he fights” leads: expensive, illiberal and failed policies.
Second, many of these policies are popular where they’re implemented, and America’s caudillismo contingent thinks they could be popular here as well. Bukele is wildly popular among the Salvadoran electorate, while Orbán and Modi have made dissent from the government’s policies much more costly, thus creating at least the perception of unanimity.
But again, America is not El Salvador, Hungary or India, and it’s mad to think that what polls well there would be popular in America. Why some conservatives believe this I cannot tell you, but I think it has something to do with media bubbles and epistemic closure.
Third, the American far right likes these ideas because they’ve run out of policy ideas of their own. Perhaps the purest distillation of this comes from post-liberal tub-thumper Sohrab Ahmari, whose great idea for addressing the scourge of drag queens in libraries is to hold congressional hearings so that, as Reason magazine’s Peter Suderman observed, quoting Ahmari in part, “sympathetic conservative senators such as Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton would ‘make the head of the Modern Library Association or whatever sweat.’” I suppose having senators yell at librarians counts as an “idea” in the most generous sense of the word, but it’s not a “policy idea” in any remote sense of the phrase.
To the extent that the NatCons and their fellow travelers have actual policy ideas, they basically boil down to taking things away from those outside their coalition and giving them to the members of their in-group—that is, the same thing that has animated much of the last fifty years of progressivism. Indeed, they own up to this; as one frequently cited formulation has it, national conservatives believe, “The right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power. And it should emulate the Left in using them to reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).”
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riots—now being retconned as “mostly peaceful protests”—I wrote, “Today, ideas are far from the animating force of politics. Indeed, it’s hard to name a single original or even newly refreshed idea that animated the 2020 election.”
The nationalist right accuses market liberals of being out of ideas. Hardly. The truth is that it’s the post-liberal right that has nothing new to say—at least nothing new rooted in the American political tradition, which is why they’re outsourcing their policy formation to foreigners who are willing to do the jobs that Americans aren’t.