Conservatives should abandon their fantasies of savior strongmen.
It’s hard to reason people out of positions that they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. One of the great services that the postmodern turn in philosophy did for us was to show that many of our convictions are, at bottom, instinctive aesthetic preferences upon which we overlay a patina of rational plausibility after the fact. This skeptical account of belief-formation can only ever be a partial one, to be sure, but it seems to be particularly salient with respect to the “post-liberal” authoritarians one encounters so often on the Internet (and so rarely anywhere else) these days. The abundance of logical leaps, lacunae, and non sequiturs in their writings combined with their stock-in-trade paeans of praise to a vaguely defined lost civilizational “grandeur” reveals them as incurable aesthetes of a particular deluded stripe who find the spectacle of political power bedecked in pomp and circumstance pleasing to their sensibilities.
Earlier this year, I wrote a brief response to a characteristically thoughtless essay from just such a post-liberal writer who had taken it upon himself to eulogize António Salazar, the dictator of Portugal who ruled his country for the better part of the last century (all while dubiously claiming not to be a fascist). Just this week, another pro-Salazar piece has appeared in American Greatness, a publication most notable for its disdain of everything historically great about America, from the Ivy League to Hollywood to New York City to Silicon Valley to limited and sober constitutional government (as opposed to South American–style rule by a Queens-born caudillo) to overeducated coastal intellectuals (a class of people that counts among its number almost all of the nation’s Founding Fathers) to immigration and internationalism. I could go on. But American Greatness’s veneration of Salazar still calls for a rebuke, because the sooner the proliferation of Salazar revisionism can be checked, the better.
I invoked aesthetics at the beginning of this piece simply because any sober and disciplined application of moral reason by someone raised in a sane and civilized country such as the United States would make a riposte like this redundant. Only a seductive and beguiling aesthetic attraction to naked power wrapped in the garments of a person’s own pre-rational sensibilities could blind otherwise intelligent people to the disqualifying atrocities perpetrated by Salazar against his people and, especially, against the people of Portugal’s African colonies.
Let’s briefly examine Antonio Salazar’s credentials for the position of role model for the American Right. It’s true, as Salazar’s advocates never tire of repeating, that he was more humane than most other 20th-century European dictators. But there is scarcely a lower bar for statesmanship in the whole history of human affairs than the track record of a Hitler, a Mussolini, a Franco, or a Stalin. What’s more, Christopher Roach, the author of the pro-Salazar piece in question, appears to tout Salazar’s obstinate refusal to declare war on Adolf Hitler as one of his better traits, enthusing about the way in which “Portugal maintained its independence and neutrality even under the immense pressures of both the Allies and the Axis during the Second World War.” Even for a nationalist paleoconservative, retrospective Nazi-neutral World War II isolationism in 2021 is a somewhat shocking rhetorical position from which to mount a revisionist defense of Salazar (or, really, of anything).
Indeed, for all Salazar’s distaste for the “pagan” spirit of Nazi Germany, the police state he set up in Portugal resembled Hitler’s approach to law enforcement much more than it did Calvin Coolidge’s or Winston Churchill’s. The Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado (PVDE), Salazar’s secret police, was established self-consciously on the model of the Gestapo and, after being reorganized into the PIDE, terrorized the citizenry of Portugal for the entire duration of the dictator’s reign. Anyone who is interested in what life was like under Salazar ought to read this 2015 retrospective by the reporter Dennis Redmont, who lived and worked in Portugal under the Estado Novo regime. Here is how he describes his experience:
My mail was steamed open. My phone conversations were meticulously recorded and translated. A squad of eight goons tried to grab me on Praca Da Alegria (Happiness Square) at my Associated Press office in Lisbon, before I found refuge at the U.S. Embassy. Later, I was personally interrogated by the head of Portugal’s political police (PIDE), which had assassinated some of its opponents and jailed and tortured others.
He also recounts the story of two students imprisoned and tortured by the PIDE, one of whom attempted to commit suicide by swallowing her eyeglasses and the other of whom succeeded by jumping out of a window. His are only the first-hand reports of a single journalist. Countless similar crimes of the Salazar regime could be recited ad nauseam. Attempting to sand down the sharp edges of Salazar’s policies, Helen Andrews, another Salazar-curious conservative, can only meekly submit that ‘by the standards of the twentieth century, PIDE was not among Europe’s most fearsome secret police.” Again, there has hardly ever been a lower bar.
This is to say nothing of Salazar’s colonial exploits, which are his most nakedly brutal atrocities. The colonial policies of the Salazar regime went underreported and undiscussed for the most part for decades after the regime fell in 1974. It wasn’t until Radiotelevisao Portuguesa aired a groundbreaking documentary series in 2008 chronicling Salazar’s colonialism that Portugal began to reckon with its colonial past. Contrary to the image that Salazar’s apologists render of a humble, temperate, devoutly Catholic shepherd of his people, uninterested in the troublesome meddling that comes with internationalism, Salazar was a zealous and brutal warlord when it came to his colonial possessions. Far from what one might expect from the very model of a modern major Integralist, Salazar saw his colonial dominions as guarantors of Portugal’s Cold War status, according to her an outsized amount of geopolitical heft. At one point he ordered the paranoid cri de coeur “Angola e nossa!” — “Angola is ours!” to be broadcast over loudspeakers on Portugal’s beaches.
Meanwhile, the military actions Salazar’s armed forces took against native insurgents in the colonies make the American prosecution of the Vietnam War look like a model of decorum. The severed heads of natives were impaled on trees as a warning to any would-be resistance fighters, prisoners were tortured and executed, and napalm was rained down with profligate cruelty on entire forests full of dissidents. The documentary series that chronicled these atrocities became a smash hit in Portugal when it aired, drawing more than 1 million viewers in a country of 10.6 million. It would do American post-liberals a world of good to watch it from beginning to end.
If there is a kernel of serious thought to be drawn from the recent spate of pro-Salazar polemics, it probably has to do with the innovative model of corporatist government he put in place in Portugal. Salazar was a practitioner of the kind of “stakeholder” politics that’s quite in vogue on the post-liberal right today. Portugal’s legislature was purely advisory during Salazar’s reign, with all authority residing in his own person, but, as his biographer Tom Gallagher writes, he nevertheless brought “various functional interests drawn from agriculture, commerce, industry, the military, the church, the universities, and various ministries and municipal authorities” into an upper chamber. True to the traditions of post-liberal integralism, Salazar was keen to resist the financialization of political power and its concentration in the hands of capitalists.
The inevitable failings of this mode of governance should be predictable by anyone with even a smattering of historical knowledge, but the aesthetic revulsion with which post-liberals tend to view industrial capitalism has blinded them to the shortcomings of its corporatist alternatives.
One of the great virtues of free-market capitalism, conducted in a political context where the government limits itself primarily to enforcing contracts, is the way in which it ensures that the capitalists themselves are the last people to get paid. Before entrepreneurs or business owners can turn a profit, they have to cover overhead costs and pay their employees. The fruits of their ingenuity are not vouchsafed to them until they fulfill their obligations to others. The most obvious example of this is Amazon. Founded in 1994, it did not turn a penny of profit until 2001. Only after all the operations and personnel costs were met over the course of the first seven years of the company did Jeff Bezos finally move from the red to the black. A well-regulated free-market economy vitiates corruption by forcing those most willing and able to attain wealth and status to serve their neighbors before being gratified. Far from being a “trickle-down” system, the market is much more like a trickle-up system in which the bounty enjoyed by economic elites is a delayed reward of their service to heir customers as well as their employees. Moreover, the incentives toward innovation that free markets engender grows the “pie” of an entire economy, delivering humanity from the zero-growth, zero-sum Malthusian trap in which our species had previously been caught for millennia, when the advantage of one really was the injury of another.
Corporatism tends to reverse this process wherever and whenever it is tried. By allocating privilege and power to groups and individuals using the force of arbitrary law, it creates an incentive for people to pursue elevations in status and station by licking the boots of those on the rung above them on the corporatist ladder. Government patronage, rather than innovation and the service of one’s neighbor, becomes the path to preferment, and innovation is consequently replaced by lobbying and supplication for special status. Not surprisingly, economic growth slows to a halt in neo-feudal conditions like these, and politics becomes a matter of doling out a stagnant reserve of diminishing resources — resources supplemented only by colonial violence and the zero-sum plunder of the weak.
This is precisely the course that events took in Salazar’s Portugal. As Joshua Tait wrote recently in Reason magazine,
The Estado Novo deteriorated into a bloated state characterized by inefficiency, nepotism, repression, and poor education. Internal critics condemned it. Commissions compiled massive public grievances and were summarily buried. One British diplomat noted in the early 1950s that “the rich were only moderately so”; the middle class, although growing, was “sustained not by agriculture or industry, but by the accumulation of war profits, the remittances of Portuguese citizens…and the produce of the African colonies”; and the poor “were miserable and destitute.” Stable but stagnant, the Estado Novo left Portugal with what Gallagher calls “one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world.”
All the historical data I’ve cited above — from Salazar’s Nero-esque impaling of his enemies in the jungles of Africa to the calamitous legacy of economic indigence and stagnation he bequeathed to his successors — are easily accessible matters of public record. One of the chief reasons for attributing his veneration in certain circles of the American Right to a warped aesthetic sensibility is that the alternative would be to accuse his champions of outright, self-aware barbarity. To call them thoughtless aesthetes is about the nicest way of characterizing their position.
What, then, is the nature of the aesthetic temptation to which Salazar’s defenders have fallen prey? Reading the recent pro-Salazar apologetics, along with similar encomia of Francisco Franco, Viktor Orban, and Vladimir Putin, it becomes clear that the conduct of such strongmen wouldn’t be held in such high regard by American post-liberals were the caudillos in question not considered to be, in some sense, fides defensor. (This, of course, ignores how poor these politicians actually prove as bulwarks against secularization; in Hungary, for instance, Christianity is declining at the tenth-fastest rate of any nation on earth.) Indeed, many of America’s prominent post-liberals are Christians of a particularly sacramental and liturgical disposition. I have nothing to say in criticism of this disposition, since it is, apart from anything else, my own. But the political temptation that tends to beset people of a sacramental sensibility is certainly aesthetic at its core, often because aesthetic considerations play a big part in their conversion to faith in the first place.
A similar aesthetic weakness has afflicted the admirers of Salazar. The vision of a holy Catholic integralist Portugal helmed by a devout, nigh-on-ascetic strongman, who resists with Samsonesque strength the twin abominations of gaudy capitalism and gulag-ridden communism, too closely resembles their political fantasies for them to resist its aesthetic allure. Reason, in both its moral and its historical permutations, trails behind the aesthetic intuitions of these men and is never permitted to catch up. This might help explain why, for example, these strongmen apologists pay their political enemies the unintentional compliment of elevating them to the level of bloodthirsty 20th-century communist revolutionaries. The plain fact of the matter is that violent leftist revolutionaries of the kind that Salazar promised to extirpate in Portugal are nowhere to be seen on the American political landscape today. To suggest otherwise is nothing short of political hypochondria.
It seems to me that we are forced to adopt the aesthetic account of belief formation outlined above in this instance if we are to avoid labeling Salazar’s admirers as simple moral monsters, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be that uncharitable. It’s more likely that their greatest sin is their woefully bad taste concerning political and theological aesthetics, which they then allow to run away with their saner senses. They will tolerate much as far as mortal sin is concerned if the outward forms of their preferred sacramental polity are preserved. In this respect, their guiding light appears to be not Christ but Diocletian, who breathed one last expiring breath into the sacred political order of the pagan Roman Empire by divinizing the polity in his own person with the help of outlandish garments and elaborate theater — what today we would call “drag.”
But the aesthetic predilections of the post-liberal Salazar apologists still don’t constitute any kind of moral excuse for their acquiescence to the casual recrucifixion of Christ in the form of every tortured dissident and napalm-soaked corpse of a blameless native villager. Even so, charity prohibits us from attributing malice to others in cases where blindness and distraction account for their behavior at least as plausibly; and in that spirit, what can one really say about those who defend this regime other than that they have been blinded by a diseased pre-rational sensibility that occludes from vision the form of the crucified God? The alternative — that they know what they do — is too terrible to contemplate.