El Salvador’s Millennial Dictator

El Salvador’s President Bukele updated his Twitter photo to this photo of him with laser eyes, a popular meme in the online cryptocurrency community, in June. 

If you made a style magazine with the last century’s dictators, you’d realize that they all have basically the same taste: big chandeliers, big furs, big statues, bigger portraits. Everything in their palaces is gilded and built on a scale better fit for giants than humans. This style is so consistent that a journalist wrote a book on Dictator Chic. (The January 6th Insurrection suddenly makes a lot more sense when you see this.)

Dictators are clearly rich and intent on proving it, with varying levels of gaudy success placing them on a spectrum somewhere between Louis XIV and a Jersey crime boss. But times change, and wealthy Millennials are exchanging the old trappings of power for a new aesthetic. The dress code is now Silicon Valley billionaire casual, NFTs have replaced diamonds as status symbols, and wealth is tastefully hoarded in bitcoin rather than gold bars. 

Trailblazing the path of the Millennial dictator is El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, who recently changed his Twitter bio to “dictator” and started selling off the country’s national reserves so he could buy bitcoin. The surprising thing is he’s extremely popular. 

Who is Nayib Bukele?

Bukele has served as El Salvador’s president since 2019, when he ran on an outsider platform to root out corruption, quell gang violence, and increase everyone’s wages as “There’s enough money when no one steals.” In the process, he eschewed normal politics and parties, offering a glimpse into a purely identity-based future of campaigning.

When Bukele began his run for president, he was expelled by his left-wing party, only to run with the conservatives before deciding that “left and right are outdated concepts” and that he would form his own party. He refused to take part in regular debates or answer journalists’ questions, instead campaigning directly through his very active Twitter and Facebook profiles. Ignoring the political content, his social media profiles could be any young person’s. He makes memes, references Game of Thrones, and posts about Fortnite. His former attorney described him as “an adolescent with power, incapable of maintaining a conversation about the most important matters without checking his cell phone.” His campaign had less to do with politics than personality, and he’s continued that into his rule. 

What’s wrong with Bukele?

Bukele’s rise would be funny if he weren’t a threat to democracy. Last year, he ordered the military and police into the legislature to intimidate lawmakers into approving his request for funding to fight gangs. The president of the assembly described Bukele’s actions as an “attempted coup.” On the first day his party had a supermajority in the legislature, they fired the judges on the constitutional chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court and replaced them with loyalists in a “presidential self-coup.” Already, his friends and family occupy powerful positions throughout the government. Bukele is rapidly centralizing power and well on the path to becoming a dictator if he isn’t one already.

Bukele’s memes, state-backed bitcoin purchases, and apparent disregard for procedure aren’t just a part of his personality, they’re a part of his appeal. An article in the Journal of Democracy, labeled his style “millennial authoritarianism: an innovative political strategy combining traditional populist appeals and classic authoritarian behavior with a youthful and modern personal brand built on social media.” Unfortunately, the gambit is working. The Millennial dictator is extremely popular, with approval ratings consistently above 75 percent and sometimes reaching into the 90s. 

Millennial dictatorship is a new problem, and it’s likely to get worse. With traditional power brokers like party machines and established media outlets losing their authority, ambitious outsiders like Bukele can turn politics into pop entertainment and meme their way into the presidency. It might be democratic, but it won’t stay so for long. Bukele’s renegade status and widespread condemnation of politics as too slow and boring propelled him to victory while also seeming to guarantee the country’s slip into authoritarianism. Bukele’s terrible success is turning heads, and we can be sure that he won’t be the last authoritarian to manipulate internet culture into a political opportunity. 

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Narration: Writing & Policy Associate James Lewis

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