Some allies insisted that it was an isolated incident, a bit of rash decision-making by an exasperated head of state perturbed by violence in his country. But the 39-year-old Bukele has leaned into the irreverent tough-guy image, and he was rewarded for it in March as the Salvadoran public delivered a landslide victory for his newly founded New Ideas Party. The victory enabled his most alarming power move, the dismissal of all five justices of the country’s constitutional court this month. Bukele stared down the one remaining governmental entity that could act a check on his power, and he won, leaving nothing standing in the way of his authority.
The implications for El Salvador and the region are only beginning to come into focus, but one dynamic stands out. Setting aside hereditary rulers like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Bukele appears to be the first elected millennial autocrat. Unfortunately, he probably won’t be the last. Around the world, ultranationalism festers, the rejection of classical liberalism surges, and reactionary political groups rise — and with every passing day, the Salvadoran leader is creating a model for successors to follow.
In some ways, Bukele’s trajectory is reminiscent of another political bomb-thrower, one who first came to power almost 30 years ago and 6,000 miles from San Salvador: former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The U.S. public these days might only vaguely remember Berlusconi, but they’d certainly recognize his personal and political style: the chest-puffing; the bombastic glad-handing that could turn just as quickly to sneering and name-calling; the sex scandals; the open and unabashed corruption that almost dared a call-out. Berlusconi proved that you could become a popular demagogue and wannabe autocrat without membership in the military or political class — and by embracing scandal rather than burying it.
The similarities between Berlusconi and Donald Trump are comically obvious: The two cut their teeth in real estate and went on to build their empires through TV media, with the former largely behind the camera and the latter in front of it. Italians who watched Berlusconi’s trashy entertainment network were far more likely to support him, not only initially but throughout his time in the political spotlight — and despite credible accusations that he had committed a stunning array of criminal acts. (Allegations and investigations against him have their own Wikipedia page.) He was larger than life, and larger than the law.
Il Cavalieri, as he was known, was an early disciple of the raw power of the attention economy: He understood that attention alone is a currency that can be traded for almost anything, including political power. You didn’t have to overtly suppress the news media; you could make it your public enemy. You could delight in getting down in the mud — to your fans, your supposed transgressions only served as evidence that you were “real,” siding with them against the hated establishment. Berlusconi’s pioneering approach is now recognizable in not only Trump, but other blustery despots such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. It’s not necessarily that these men wouldn’t have come to power without him — but he laid out a road map for them to follow.
Now, we’re watching Bukele rewrite that playbook for a new generation. At first, his youth, magnetic resolve and brisk decision-making thrilled international observers and the domestic electorate alike, who saw in him an end to decades of counterproductive fighting between stultified institutional parties — including a long and bloody civil war. He’d always been something of a wild card, a proud outsider who formed his party after being expelled from the established Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in 2017. An internal ethics investigation determined that he had berated a female party lawyer during a meeting; he claimed the charge was a pretext for the real transgression of not toeing the party line. Voters found this refreshing and relatable. Early in his presidency, many in the Salvadoran media and intelligentsia saw him as a can-do reformer fresh off a well-regarded tenure as mayor of the capital, where he prioritized forward-thinking but practical ideas like restoring the town center. Homicides fell sharply in the months after he was sworn in. Even as they elected him to shake things up, his boosters thought he’d do it within the confines of the legal framework.
When those same observers were horrified by his political aggression, Bukele burnished the strongman image with stunts like having gang members’ cells welded shut. His base of supporters relished the violence; when he tweeted pictures of the mistreatment of prisoners, many replied with affirmation. After critical coverage by the investigative news site El Faro, Bukele lashed out on Twitter and announced a baseless money-laundering investigation into the outlet. His skirmish with the constitutional court began when it ruled some of his early, heavy-handed coronavirus restrictions unlawful, leading him to blame the court for causing the “death of the people” at a time when the country had no cases. After the justices were dismissed (arguably illegally), Bukele tweeted, “And the Salvadoran public, through its representatives, said: DISMISSED!” adding several clapping-hands emoji. The tone seems more appropriate for tweets about bitcoin or sports, not the disbanding of a branch of government, but that jokey approach has helped keep him popular.
Bukele enthusiastically broadcasts almost all of his doings to social media. He has an outsize presence on Twitter (2.5 million followers), Instagram (3 million) and TikTok (1.7 million), where he’s just as prone to post about his family as about the erosion of civil liberties. These posts tend to be his primary form of communication with the public, as he gives very few interviews to news outlets, preferring to speak with YouTube influencers and other sycophants. In a representative Instagram post, he wears his trademark backward ball cap and aviators while standing next to his wife and young daughter, who feature prominently in his feeds. He often portrays himself as a loving family man simply forced to take decisive steps to secure their future: In that post, he writes that he hopes when his daughter grows up, she will see how the island they visited eventually transformed into an economic engine.
Bukele combines that earnestness with standard Internet trolling. His most recent TikTok, for example, shows him being driven around to conduct a military inspection, set to the reggaeton song “Bichota” and captioned with a helmet emoji and hashtags including #feelinggood. The militarism here isn’t really meant to be threatening; it’s meant to be cool, ironic, meant to make the in-group chuckle and rile everyone else. His persona derives its power precisely from being attacked and derided. For those Salvadorans indifferent to this shtick, he offers more standard popular reforms, including government distribution of food and the rapid adoption of coronavirus vaccines. The joint approach has brought his approval rating to about 90 percent, almost unheard-of in modern polling.
While Berlusconi and his ilk relied on a carefully manicured public image projecting raw masculinity, Bukele may be more dangerous in that he’s more disarming. Berlusconi and Trump derived power and allegiance from being, to an extent, aspirational: Their supporters saw rich and powerful men and wanted to be them. Bukele, with his bomber jackets, baseball caps and affinity for emoji, draws his influence partly from being familiar. Many of his supporters basically think he is them, and his subjugation of his enemies feels, to them, like their personal victory. By extension, his supporters also take any criticisms of Bukele personally, or dismiss them as the feeble complaints of an indistinct mass of haters.
That approach is not radically different from, say, Trump’s — but it does mark an evolution. Bukele’s is a digital-native and more contagious variant (if you will) of this populist autocratic style, mixing actual popular policy prescriptions like the food distribution with a trollish strongman attitude. In Bukele’s online profile, we can see the cynical logic of Internet memedom brought to bear on the deadly serious business of governing — and no one has quite figured out how to effectively combat it. El Salvador is a small and relatively homogenous country of about 6.5 million people, which concentrates the potency of this approach. Still, young would-be populists everywhere are probably taking notes and considering how to adapt this approach to fit their own constituencies. Bukele’s flair may one day be readily identifiable among the Gen Z demagogues of tomorrow.