There are many causes or “Origins” of totalitarianism, but one constant is that totalitarian governments emerge because they fill a need, and do so better than non-totalitarian governments. The primary need totalitarianism satisfies is the need for meaning. In a world plagued by metaphysical loneliness and the loss of purpose, totalitarian regimes offer the masses membership in a movement and a cause; they provide coherent fantasies of national or racial greatness that are more adequate to the human desire for a meaningful life than is the true chaos of our world. And just as totalitarianism fulfills a need, so too does populism. The rise of populist dictatorships around the world today suggests that populism is filling a need that is not being met by democratic and liberal governments. While fantasies of national belonging are part of the populist playbook, so too is the basic desire for a strongman to take care of us. There is a deep human need to be taken care of, and liberal democratic governments are failing in that task. Francisco Toro argues that the model populist strongman today is Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Toro looks to Bukele’s incredible popularity to help understand the underlying factors driving the populist revolution.
The most dangerous political experiment in Latin America is underway in El Salvador. A strange breed of populism is tipping the scale in the region’s age-old tug of war between authoritarianism and democracy. Rather than dividing the country, like populism usually does, it’s uniting it solidly behind a new consensus. More than anything, though, it’s succeeding, and doing so in the kind of impossible-to-miss way that turns heads up and down the hemisphere.
At the top of it all is the self-described “coolest dictator in the world,” the startlingly energetic Nayib Bukele. Having rounded up tens of thousands of suspected gang members in a series of police and military actions that don’t even pay lip service to due process of law, Bukele has become something of a national hero, with approval ratings now north of 90%. Under his watch, one of the most violent countries on earth has become considerably safer: a startling transformation that nearly all Salvadoreans seem profoundly grateful for.
It's not the first time a charismatic but brash young leader has come to power vowing to take radical steps to root out crime in their country at the expense of basic human rights. Most often, such leaders fail, leaving behind a pile of ruined lives and an unstable political system. But once every great while, you get a leader like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew: ruthless, authoritarian, but so successful at building a stable, prosperous society that their far-from-pristine human rights record gets rinsed out of the historical record, becoming a footnote on page 4 rather than the headline. This is the model Nayib Bukele has set out to follow—explicitly.