When Donald Trump was arrested this week, most world leaders stayed silent. But Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, tweeted about it immediately.
“[J]ust imagine if this happened in any other country, where a government arrested the main opposition candidate,” Bukele wrote. “The United States ability to use ‘democracy’ as foreign policy is gone.”
Such a development would be convenient for Bukele, who has emerged as one of the most prominent — and flamboyant — elected autocrats on the global stage. In the span of roughly a year, the 41-year-old leader has declared a state of emergency, suspended civil rights protections, detained tens of thousands of citizens indefinitely without charge, built a new mega-prison made up of cells that cram 100 people in each, and packed the country’s highest court with his picks — who then promptly changed electoral rules to allow him to run again in 2024.
Salvadoran human rights advocates are sounding the alarm about democracy’s death, and the Biden administration has sanctioned key members of his government.
The response on the American right has been strikingly different. The authoritarian rhetoric, brash right-wing policies, and loud social media presence have captured the imagination of a small but influential group of American conservatives. In the past year, leading figures in MAGA world — including Tucker Carlson, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone — have praised Bukele, and even instructed Americans to learn from his example.
Among the things Bukele’s new right-wing fans like most about him are his harsh criminal justice policies. The Salvadoran murder rate, once one of the highest in the world, has plummeted during Bukele’s time in power (though it should be noted it was already falling before he came into office). The gangs that have long brutalized El Salvador’s civilians, most notably MS-13 and Barrio 18, seem weaker. Polls show that Bukele is stratospherically popular, with independent surveys showing favorability ratings in the 80s and even 90s.
For this, some on the American right — like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) — have cheered him on, largely ignoring his attack on the country’s democracy:
I just returned from #ElSalvador where government officials are been sanctioned by the Biden Administration for rounding up gangs that have extorted,mutilated and murdered people for decades pic.twitter.com/Cp8uanXlBO
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) April 3, 2023
Conservative commentators’ praise for Bukele has been even more effusive.
“‘He’s ‘authoritarian’? He’s wielding authority to do good, to get the bad guys and help the good guys. We should be doing that too,” the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles said in a late February monologue. “‘Authoritarian’ is just a word that liberals use when conservatives wield political power.”
The conservative attraction to Bukele is primarily concentrated among very online right-wingers like Knowles — not yet approaching the widespread Republican admiration for Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán. “They’re the useful idiots for Bukele’s worldwide PR campaign,” Daniel DiMartino, a fellow at the center-right Manhattan Institute, says of Bukele’s American fans.
But his rising popularity does illustrate the way that the ideas of the post-Trump conservative movement, including its obsession with crime and public disorder, create a very natural on-ramp to outright anti-democratic politics. And it should serve as a warning to liberals.
El Salvador isn’t the only country where an elected authoritarian has become stratospherically popular by launching a crackdown on crime that shreds civil liberties. Attacking liberal rights as a hindrance to enforcing public order is a style of politics that has proven effective around the world, and one that is often bound up with an attack on democracy itself.
Illiberalism has a constituency. Liberals need to take that reality seriously, and not be complacent about liberalism’s popular appeal.
The bitcoin dictator
The American right’s love affair with Bukele started with bitcoin.
After Bukele won El Salvador’s election in 2019, the first president in 30 years who did not hail from either of the country’s two major established parties, he set about turning the country into a haven for cryptocurrency use.
In 2021, this culminated in a law that legalized the use of bitcoin as legal tender. He even proposed building something called “Bitcoin City,” an entire new town shaped like a coin built at the base of a volcano, in order to power bitcoin mining with geothermal energy. He has continued to push crypto even after the crash in November 2022, which did real damage to the Salvadoran government’s balance sheet.
The bitcoin obsession demonstrated that he was extremely, extremely online. His active Twitter account used an image of him with laser beams coming out of his eyes as his profile picture — a common meme, especially in crypto circles, but one that probably would seem odd to his constituents who weren’t scrolling through Twitter and Reddit all day.
Daniel Rothschild, the executive director of the libertarian Mercatus Center, sees this as the origin story of Bukele’s popularity on the American right.
“If you’re locked into the right Twitter circles, he’s been one of those people who has been a consistent presence for the last four years,” Rothschild tells me.
As Bukele’s crypto fan club was growing, his attacks on democracy were becoming more brazen.
In February 2020, Bukele asked the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly — then controlled by opposing parties — to grant him over $100 million to purchase new equipment for the Territorial Control Plan, an anti-gang initiative. When the legislature refused, he sent in military and police forces to occupy the parliament building.
In a speech outside the building, he made the message of the act quite explicit. “If we wanted to press the button [and evict legislators by force], we would press the button,” Bukele told supporters.
About a year later, Bukele’s party won the country’s legislative elections and gained a two-thirds majority in its Parliament. He wasted little time in securing power: In May of 2021, his party voted to remove the country’s attorney general, who was investigating Bukele’s party for corruption and clandestine negotiations with gangs, and all five judges on the Constitutional Court. All were replaced with Bukele allies.
An open letter issued at the time from 100 Latin American civil society organizations warned that “the illegitimate capture of judicial authorities connected to political power and the consequent disappearance of the principle of separation of powers are a dangerous precedent for democracy in the hemisphere.”
This warning proved prescient. In September 2021, the pliant Supreme Court ruled that Bukele could run for reelection despite an explicit ban on a president serving more than one term. Predictably, Bukele later announced that he would be competing in the 2024 presidential contest.
The abolition of term limits has proven to be a consistent predictor of when an elected president in a weak democracy is moving to install himself in power for life. Political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright warned in a 2022 op-ed that Bukele’s behavior could be a “red flag” for democracy in El Salvador, one that typically suggests “a leader’s intention to stay in office by subverting rules established to curb executive power.”
But if you were to read only Bukele’s supporters in the American crypto world, you would be forgiven for getting a different impression of his government. Balaji Srinivasan, a leading crypto figure and anti-woke commentator with nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, repeatedly promoted El Salvador throughout 2021 and 2022 — praising the country as a “freedom jurisdiction” that was offering “strong pushback” against the “wokes,” and crediting Bukele personally for working “to add El Salvador to the ranks of ascending world countries.”
And in the last year or so, Bukele’s profile has only grown.
Tough on crime, tough on freedom
El Salvador has long had one of the world’s highest murder rates. UN data shows that, despite a multi-year decline, the country still had one of the highest global murder rates at the beginning of 2022.
March 25 and 26 of that year were unusually violent even by Salvadoran standards: 76 people were killed in that span, roughly as many as were murdered in the entire month of February 2022. On March 27, Bukele announced a state of emergency (also called a “state of exception”) and a new crackdown on crime. Per the US State Department, the crackdown suspended some of the most basic civil rights in a democratic society.
“Security forces were empowered to arrest anyone suspected of belonging to a gang or providing support to gangs,” the State Department explained in a 2022 report on Salvadoran human rights. “In addition, the state of exception suspended the rights to be informed immediately of the reason for detention, to legal defense during initial investigations, to privacy in conversations and correspondence, and to freedom of association.”
A year into the crackdown, there’s clear evidence that murder rates have continued to decline. But the extent to which Bukele’s crackdown contributed is debatable. Previous harsh crackdowns in El Salvador had temporarily led to declines in gang violence, only for it to pick back up.
Yet experts say there are some reasons to believe this one might be different: Bukele hit the gangs fast at a time when they weren’t prepared for it, potentially creating a leadership vacuum that might make it hard for the organizations to fully recover. It’ll take time to know just how effective it was.
The consequences for human rights, however, have been undeniably dire. Tens of thousands of Salvadoran citizens have been arrested and imprisoned. An October 2022 report from the International Crisis Group found that “El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, at around 2 per cent of the adult population.”
And yet the years of gang violence have been so painful, and so sustained, that many Salvadorans have welcomed the crackdown — hence Bukele’s currently high approval ratings.
The fact that the people approve of his behavior does not make it less autocratic. Latin American dictators often start out with popular support while consolidating power — see Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Eliminating basic protections, including rights against unlawful arrest and protections for press freedom, are so dangerous to liberal democracy that they should worry any observer regardless of how popular they might be in the moment.
But his attacks on liberal freedoms are precisely what has earned Bukele a new following on the American right.
It certainly helps that, on Twitter and in public appearances, Bukele has proven himself fluent in American right-wing argot. Take his Tucker Carlson interview, which aired in November 2022. In that conversation, Bukele speaks extensively about bitcoin, but transitions seamlessly into a harangue about the alleged malfeasance of the American liberal elite.
“I’m from El Salvador, a third-world country in Central America, and I myself see cities here [in the US] and say, ‘I wouldn’t live here,’” Bukele told Carlson. “The demise of the US has to come from within. No external enemy can cause this much damage.”
The following tweet from Bukele, seemingly an attempt to encourage Americans to emigrate to El Salvador, is another good example. Look at the image’s 1950s trad aesthetic, the way it presents a white family watching an old-timey TV excited about “no fentanyl crisis” and “USD and Bitcoin as legal tenders” in “The New Land of the Free”:
This PR campaign, which includes striking videos showing Bukele’s new mega-prison and mass arrests, has captured the imagination of many on the American New Right and extended MAGA universe.
Gavin Wax, the president of the New York Young Republicans Club, writes, “Americans could … look to El Salvador, a small but proud nation, as a blueprint for governance and public safety.”
Rod Dreher, one of Viktor Orbán’s biggest boosters in the American media, wrote a piece titled “Nayib Bukele: Serious about Saving Civilization,” in which he argued, “[W]e are going to need a politician like that to de-wokify the US Government and, to the extent that it is legally possible, American society.”
Right-wing Twitter is replete with New Right types praising Bukele’s war on crime. Here’s Jack Posobiec, a conservative influencer with 2 million Twitter followers, calling for Bukele to be named “Man of the Year” and gushing over images of hunched-over and shirtless prisoners:
Here’s Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, praising a video allegedly depicting prisoners being made to destroy gravestones of gang members:
The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, sends out teams of prisoners to destroy any tombstones with gang symbols.
His reforms to end violent crime in his country have been so effective that his approval sits above 80%. pic.twitter.com/cCyInbaZt3
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) March 2, 2023
Bukele enthusiastically promotes all of this stuff on his own Twitter feed, either by retweeting it directly or repackaging it into his own propaganda videos. One such video, for example, begins with a series of right-wing American talk show hosts praising Bukele’s crime crackdown in English:
There is no attempt in these encomia to reckon with his attacks on democracy, like literally sending the armed forces into the National Assembly. If the consequences of the crime crackdowns for civil liberty are mentioned, it’s only to dismiss them as the whining of human rights-obsessed liberals who are unable to take crime seriously. They look at his heavy-handed response and abuse of civil liberties as the basic building blocks of a model to be imported to the US.
This “lusting after caudillismo,” as Rothschild put it in an article in the UnPopulist, is what worries him and people on the right like DiMartino. After the Trump experience, they certainly should be worried.
But conservatives aren’t the only ones who should do some soul-searching.
The worry for liberals is that Bukele’s popularity — and the popularity of his brand of illiberalism — is real, as confirmed by international surveys. The crime crackdown is the biggest reason why, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of Salvadorans crediting his policies with the reduction in violence.
The Salvadoran strongman is not the only authoritarian-inclined leader in the world to ride illiberal anti-crime politics to popularity. It’s a common pattern in Southeast Asia in particular, a kind of politics that political scientist Tom Pepinsky terms “democracy against disorder.”
This is a mode of politics wherein democratic politicians gain support by promising ultra-harsh, or even illegal, measures against crime and criminality. The key is the elevation of “order above law,” arguing that maintaining social cohesion and safety is a value above the law itself. It’s a political style that has paid dividends for the former leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, as well as politicians in Thailand and Indonesia.
And now it is paying off for Bukele. The American right is watching and taking notes.