It’s No Joke: Bukele’s Authoritarian Language

Bukele has responded to critics with derision, even changing his Twitter bio to “Dictator of El Salvador.” He leaves just enough doubt to say, “I was only joking.” But it’s not a joke.


Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is now facing protests over multiple corruption scandals, a packed court giving him the right to re-election, and a controversial bitcoin rollout. Bukele has responded to critics with derision, even changing his Twitter bio to “Dictator of El Salvador” on Sunday night. Newsweek wondered whether the president’s account had been hacked. Bukele’s profile was hacked, but not in the traditional sense. Instead, his Twitter account, and the state of democracy in El Salvador, has been hacked by a strain of twenty-first century authoritarianism.

Since before taking office, Nayib Bukele has carefully crafted an image of youth and hipness, with a hint of irony, just a regular guy with a backwards cap on his iPhone. Referring to himself as a dictator will leave his supporters nodding and laughing, and his opponents in a rage. He leaves just enough doubt to say, “I was only joking.” The latest change to his bio isn’t Bukele’s first such gesture. Earlier this year he changed his Twitter profile picture to an image of the actor Sacha Baron Cohen from his movie “The Dictator.”

But it’s not a joke. One aspect of twenty-first century right-wing authoritarianism is appropriating your opponents’ insults in order to say what had previously been unspeakable. An infamous example is Hillary Clinton referring to a “basket of deplorables” in reference to supporters of Donald Trump. “Deplorable” specifically meant those with “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it” views. This was as intense a criticism as she could muster, at least publicly.

Before long, the ubiquitous red MAGA hats were matched by t-shirts proclaiming the wearer to be “proud to be a Trump deplorable.” They weren’t bothered in the slightest about being labeled as largely misanthropic. It was a badge of honor to be something that Hillary Clinton hated.

We see a similar context in Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro is criticized for waxing nostalgic about Brazil’s Cold War military dictatorship, so his supporters attend protests in pro-dictatorship t-shirts, or with Bolsonaro in army fatigues. Dictatorship becomes stylish.

Since the end of the Cold War, public celebration of dictatorship and racism has tended to be at the fringes of society, but now it is mainstream presidential rhetoric. Followers who previously felt they had to keep their views to themselves can openly declare what they believe, no matter how violent. Their leaders encourage it.

When he isn’t tweeting furiously about bitcoin, Bukele tweets denunciations of journalists, even posting specific pictures of those he says are attacking him unfairly. It does not take much effort to understand the chilling effect such messages have. Journalists, especially women, report being directly threatened on social media and harassed. Further, in a high-profile move, Bukele expelled Mexican journalist Daniel Lizárraga of El Faro, an important Salvadoran digital newspaper.

Meanwhile, attacks on the opposition FMLN party led its members to hold Bukele responsible and call him a murderer. As the Salvadoran Human Rights Defenders Network put it, Bukele’s harassment creates a context of “extreme hostility,” which leads to “fear and self-censoring.”

Here too we see twenty-first century authoritarians sharing tactics across borders. Like Bukele’s fiercest defenders, Trump’s supporters threaten and physically assault people who Trump singles out. MAGA-wearing thugs were responsible for the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and over years have engaged in a wide variety of assaults on anyone they disagree with. A 2021 poll found that 39 percent of Republicans felt violence was required “if elected leaders will not protect America,” in comparison to 17 percent of Democrats who responded similarly.

In Brazil, journalists who question Bolsonaro can even find their house on fire. Indigenous leaders have called for Bolsonaro to be tried for crimes against humanity because of his encouragement to those who want to log and mine in the Amazon and thereby forcibly push out indigenous peoples who live there. In speeches to his followers, he makes references to coups d’état and threatens the Supreme Court.

When leaders reclaim criticism about violence, dictatorship, and racism as a badge of honor, they move one step closer to authoritarianism. They begin hiding in plain sight. These presidents are unafraid to say that they should remain in power and that violence is a legitimate means of intimidating their political opponents. And that’s no joke.

Dr. Greg Weeks is a professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist, and he is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (2003), Irresistible Forces: Latin American Migration to the United States and its Effects on the South (2010), The Bachelet Government: Conflict and Consensus in Post-Pinochet Chile (2010), Understanding Latin American Politics (2014) and U.S. and Latin American Relations, 2nd Edition (2015).

Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregWeeksCLT.

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