We could be another Portugal!

Some on the right are now aware that it was a bad idea to stage an attempted conservative revolution with a bumbling incompetent as a figurehead leading a mob of stupid mooks. Oops. We need to step back. We need to recalculate. We need to look around for better role models. We need a guy who represents true conservative values.

So over on The American Conservative, Michael Warren Davis (he has a book coming out from Regnery so you know exactly how he thinks) has found his hero. It’s Antonio Salazar, the authoritarian dictator of Portugal for 36 years. He was definitely an intelligent person, he oversaw many improvements in Portuguese life, and he definitely made the nation more stable…by ending all political dissent, staging nothing but sham elections, and ruling as an autocrat. If stability is a conservative ideal, he certainly represented that while he was alive. Unfortunately, once he was dead the Portuguese people had the Carnation Revolution in 1974 to enact civil rights and free elections, which was kind of a repudiation of the Salazar situation. So stability for as long as the strong man has his fist clenched, but once it relaxes in death, upheaval.

He also had some strong views: he opposed fascism, and maintained Portugal’s neutrality in WWII, in spite of sharing a lot of ideals with Nazi Germany (“Deus, Pátria e Família“, “God, Fatherland, and Family”, which sounds awfully familiar). He also opposed socialism, communism, and democracy, though, so that’s a bit of a mixed bag.

On the American Conservative, they’re waiting for our Salazar. Trump wasn’t it. In an essay full of praise for a dictator, Davis concludes that we just need a benevolent autocrat.

Yet Salazar’s example offers a different kind of post-liberal order to those offered by left- and right-wing ideologues. Salazarism, if there is such a thing, is a kind of paternalistic traditionalism. Either a weaker or a more “visionary” leader couldn’t have spared Portugal the excesses of totalitarianism. Salazar was, in his own way, a moderate.

Summing up the spirit of Salazarism, Gallagher incisively quotes the Israeli conservative thinker Yoram Hazony: “Where a people is incapable of self-discipline, a mild government will only encourage licentiousness and division, hatred and violence, eventually forcing a choice between civil war and tyranny. This means that the best an undisciplined people can hope for is a benevolent autocrat.”

Events of the last year may prove Hazony right. If we Americans lack the self-discipline necessary for self-government, if liberalism is off the table, the only alternative to a tyrant like Lenin or Hitler may be a man like Salazar: a paternalistic traditionalist, a philosopher-king.

You should find that chilling. The “smart” conservatives in our country think it would be just fine and dandy to get rid of elections if it allows tradition and paternalism to thrive. They aren’t upset with Trump for attempting a coup, they’re mad because he did it in such a half-assed way an bungled the effort to throw out an election. If he’d succeeded, they’d now be rationalizing the wreckage of our democracy as a conservative triumph.


  1. says

    “Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movements in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced.”
    ― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

  2. says

    While I’m in a Copypasta state of mind…

    “Do you think that I want to live in a communal society with people like that Battaglia acquaintance of yours, sweeping streets and breaking up rocks or whatever it is people are always doing in those blighted countries? What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.”
    ― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

  3. KG says

    An aspect of Salazar’s rule not covered above is the imperialism: he was determined to hold on to Portugal’s African colonies after most British and French ones had achieved independence, and this resulted in prolonged and bloody warfare in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau – hardly “stability” even from a conservative viewpoint. The Carnation Revolution began as a mutiny by colonial army officers, tired of the endless fighting. Salazar was closely allied with the Smith regime in “Rhodesia” and with apartheid South Africa, and the Portuguese withdrawal was the first stage in the dismantling of white minority rule in southern Africa.

  4. PaulBC says

    If they’re looking for a successful authoritarian government that comes with the acceptance (not to say consent) of a large majority of the population (at the expense of some minorities, but what do you do?), combined with economic growth and improvement in standard of living, the obvious model that comes to my mind is China.

    If Trump believed that “quelling” BLM protests (and he or possibly an appointee used the word “quell”) then June 4, 1989 is a perfect example of how it can be made to work and the lasting benefits.

    I am not sure Republicans would be happy with this conclusion. Also, China is a lot better at being China than we’re likely to be. It is not a model am interested in emulating, though I will add that they sure did a better job with the pandemic.

  5. robert79 says

    “a paternalistic traditionalist, a philosopher-king.”

    Okay, I can perhaps see how you might view Trump as paternalistic, perhaps even as a traditionalist (at least he tried to pretend to be so), but a philosopher-king?!?!?!

  6. says

    @4 The Chinese have a long history of merit-based bureaucracy and highly collectivized social structures. It doesn’t seem that there’s very much practical difference between the modern Communists and the ancient emperors.

  7. Akira MacKenzie says

    Conservatives Then: “In 1776 our forefrathers overthrew a monarch so that America could govern itself!”

    Conservatives Now: “Americans can’t be allowed to govern themselves because they might reject our capitalist/religionist/racist/misogynist beliefs! We need a right-wing philosopher king to override the leftist mob!! It’s what our forefathers would have wanted!”

  8. ospalh says

    A bit of odd timing from that rag, a day before a – as far as i can tell from three countries over – rather boring, and democratic presidential election in Portugal. I at first thought the article had to be about that one, but i ges the modern, stable, democratic Portugal is just not the example they want.

  9. Artor says

    Portugal IS an excellent model the US would do well to emulate, just not the fascist Portugal of history. 20 years ago, Portugal ended it’s drug war and decriminalized everything. So they are no longer spending the lion’s share of their national budget to support a police state. They have billions of Euros to spend instead on rehabilitation programs, universal healthcare, education, and infrastructure. After some minor growing pains, the country now has substantially less drug use overall, less crime, less drug use among children, and lower addiction rates.

  10. raven says

    Salazarism, if there is such a thing, is a kind of paternalistic traditionalism.

    Which traditionalism?

    The US has always been a diverse country with a lot of different cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and races. Cultures also evolve rapidly in real time.

    We also have a dismal history that starts with the dispossession and slaughter of the original inhabitants, the Native Americans, followed by the Puritans and their Salem Witch trials. A few centuries of slavery, a Civil War, more racism with Jim Crow segregation, sexism with women not being allowed to vote until relatively recently, the grey years of the 1950’s, the Vietnam war, disco, the Bush Iraq II and Trump disasters.

    So many terrible traditions to choose from!!!

  11. PaulBC says

    Susan Montgomery@6

    The Chinese have a long history of merit-based bureaucracy and highly collectivized social structures.

    With all due respect, I think that’s a glib comparison and smacks of essentialism, though you’re certainly not alone in the Western view of Chinese culture as unchanging and fundamentally different from our own.

    I work with many people from mainland China. One key element I see (aside from “merit” which is there) is a strong sense of pragmatism. I really don’t believe most Chinese people want to go back to Confucianism. Most of what they want is exactly what we want: decent standards of living and a chance to do well in life. I have mixed feelings about China. The oppression of Uighurs, to name just one, is an atrocity that should have the entire world outraged. On the other hand, it is a relatively “free” society on a personal (but not political) level for the majority ethnic population and I have not met one person who wants to go back the Maoism.

    Whatever the reasons, American incompetence and complacency should not be held out as our secret strengths. One problem with Trumpism is it’s authoritarian. The other is that it is absolutely disorganized and incompetent. I am not sure there is a competent fascist movement waiting in the wings that could handle infrastructure and public health, not that I want there to be. That sounds like a lot of wishful thinking on the part of the right, that has so far succeeding only in riling up a mob of idiots.

  12. raven says

    So many terrible traditions to choose from.

    As head of the Ministry of Cultural Traditions, I could go for the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s; peace, love, and do your own thing, minus the Vietnam war.

    Of course, we already know what they mean by tradition.
    Just follow the money, above all, the 1% oligarchies get even richer,
    And white male cis-het fundie xian toads rule everyone else.

    When a fascist like Michael Davis writes about dictatorships (or slavery), you absolutely know that he and his kind can’t even imagine not being the top controllers and beneficiaries of that society.

  13. lanir says

    @KG: Stability is defined as I get to do what I want without being hassled. This includes hassling other people if I feel like it. That seems to be the overriding conservative viewpoint. War in far flung places is as meaningless to their ideas of stability as dust swept under the rug.

  14. lanir says

    I feel like Davis and those who think like him are just blithely unaware that what they’re wishing for is vast and unaccountable corruption. He thinks most people can’t be trusted to decide anything important. He wants one person to hold the reigns. But one person doesn’t make a government, that didn’t even work with monarchies. So where does he think he fits in? If it isn’t some variant on “advisor to the king” then I’ll be amazed.

    So essentially this wannabe-useful-idiot wants to follow the Bill Barr path. But he wants to combine it with an assist on getting the strongman into power. Trump was obviously incompetent – he didn’t recognize those who were helping him unless they were giving him absolute one-way loyalty. This Davis bozo? He just wants someone competent enough to keep the lights on and aware enough to notice the people that helped him get into power. But preferably not smart enough to notice that those same people are the ones most likely to be backstabbing insurrectionists. Good luck with that.

    The deal Davis looks to be cooking up here isn’t “let me hand you a bag of money and then you’ll do what I want you to do” as in traditional corruption. It’s instead “let me hand you an entire government and then you’ll let me tell you how to run it.” Or to put it another way, he thinks he’s got all the qualities to run the government but he doesn’t want to be bothered with the work of oppressing the peons to make it happen. He wants the power but doesn’t want to paint a target on himself.

  15. brucegee1962 says

    “Philosopher king,” eh? So that’s a guy who spouts clever aphorisms while he ruthlessly crushes dissent and tortures his enemies. I guess someone like Chairman Mao — he was pretty famous as an author, right? Plus, one way to be the smartest person in the country is to kill off anybody who might be smarter than you.

  16. PaulBC says


    I feel like Davis and those who think like him are just blithely unaware that what they’re wishing for is vast and unaccountable corruption.

    He’s either lying or delusional. The American right is not actually good at authoritarian rule. What they have done for the most part is outsource the raw exercise of power to corporations. As long as you’re employed, it’s true that you follow largely undemocratic strictures assuming you’d like to stay that way. And if you’re unemployed, you may eventually sink to a level where you’re a “criminal justice” problem. I suppose there is also the military framework of unquestioned authority.

    But they’ve done everything possible to make their base suspicious of any exercise of civil authority at all. The idea that they are going to install a “philosopher king” is entirely laughable even if it weren’t such an entirely democratic idea. They don’t know how to do it.

  17. revmatty says

    Let’s be completely honest here: The destruction of democracy and creation of a Christian dictatorship is the goal of the GOP. Not the far right, not the nutjobs, the mainstream of the GOP voters and a substantial portion of the elected officials.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yesterday’s national election in Portugal saw both the re-election of the “center-right” incumbent president and the continued rise of a basically fascist faction: :

    … the unprecedented rise of ultranationalists … the meteoric rise of the party of Andre Ventura, a far-right anti-immigration candidate who captured almost 12 percent of the vote… The Social Democrats are facing an increasing challenge from the Chega (Enough) party which made history in 2019 by securing the first far-right seat in the Portuguese parliament, which was won by its founder Ventura, a former football commentator. … Ventura, an ally of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, warned after the election: “There will be no government without Chega.”

    No wonder why US conservatives have started breathing heavily at the mention of Portugal.

  19. PaulBC says

    revmatty@23 Call me an optimist, but my feeling is, yeah, let’s see how well that works out. They can’t even control their own ranks, and they are a shrinking minority of American culture. That doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. They are. But they are very far from achieving Gilead or similar dystopia.

  20. mnb0 says

    Good to read that you understand the crucial problem, PZ: Donald the Clown was incompetent, but the next authoritarian candidate for the Republicans might actually know what he’s doing. Now you should take the next step and ask yourself: watcha gonna do about it? Because the guy you recently voted into the White House won’t do anything to prevent an American version of Salazar/Maduro/Poetin/Orban or whatever autocrat you prefer becoming president.

  21. KG says

    Oh, mnb0 is preventing the rise of fascism by whining and lying on this blog; that’s sure to be effective.

    My point was that the imperialism directly undermined the “stability”: part of the elite (professional military officers), and many conscripts, were obliged to fight an apparently unwinnable war, and eventually enough of the former rebelled to bring an end to the Estado Novo regime.

  22. says

    Here’s another feature of fascism rearing its hypocritical head: the “conservatives”/”traditionalists” crying so fearfully about all the present-day turmoil and how “the people can’t govern themselves” are the ones causing all the turmoil and destroying the people’s ability to govern themselves. So the first thind a benevolent philosopher-king-dictator-daddy would have to do is to put his own supporters and coup-plotters back in their place and get back to what was working just fine before they came along.

    And maybe, deep down, that’s exactly what a lot of those yayhoos and QAnon loons want and know they need, whether or not they admit it to themselves: a strong and sensible father-figure to show tough-love and reinforce the rules for everyone.

  23. davidrichardson says

    I passed through Lisbon in 1985 in the company of a very knowledgeable ex-Uruguagan, who’d been sprung out of jail by Swedish Amnesty International. He pointed out to me that Salazar had forbidden any form of maintenance of buildings, so the centre of town in those days was characterised by peeling facades and a general atmosphere of being run-down. The public transport involved vehicles I hadn’t seen since my childhood in England in the 1950s. They were still using busses and trams they bought from England in the 1930s.

    We then flew to Angola to teach some marine biologists on a Swedish aid programme (long story). When the Portuguese colonialists pulled out of Angola, they did everything to trash the country, from burning the plans of the Luanda sewer system to smashing the lightbulbs. I learned the difference between the MPLA (Popular movement for the liberation of Angola) and UNITA (Union for the total independence of Angola) when a group of nuns and several very European-looking people went through the Angolan passport section of immigration. What UNITA meant was that no Europeans should be accepted as Angolans and that the tribalism the apartheid regime in South Africa encouraged should be the norm.

    Salazar held Portugal back for decades – that’s what the Republicans have been trying to do in the US too.

  24. nomdeplume says

    “a people is incapable of self-discipline” – pretty well sums it up. What he mens of course is one where people happily accept black people being slaughtered by America cops; where they don’t bother their pretty little heads about climate change; where huge disparities of wealth are the status quo; where America initiates endless imperialistic wars; where women are considered second class citizens; and where religion dominates every aspect of American social, cultural, and intellectual life.

    Another case where you want to say “you do know you said that out loud don’t you?”

  25. mailliw says

    When I read the title I thought it would be about Portugal’s current Socialist / Communist coalition which has done a remarkable job of reviving Portugal’s economy.

    That would be a good model for the USA.

  26. says

    KG, a number of books, in particular Counterinsurgency in Africa by John P Cann, suggest the reason for the Army’s support for the Carnation Revolution was not the ongoing wars in africa, but rather good, old-fashioned racism.

    Essentially the story goes like this: in a number of small ways Portugese colonial rule was enlightened enough to treat non-white military officers and men in the ultramar as whites for most purposes, including pay and seniority. It was a good technique to ensure loyalty in the colonial forces. However, there was an unexpected side-effect. By the mid-70s mixed-race African officers were coming up the ranks, and because the metropole and ultramar were effectively considered ‘one’ under Salazarism, this means that non-white officers had gained seniority, often in combat, and were on the verge of achieving the highest ranks in the metropole army. The largely whte officer corps of the metropole were not going to stand for this and so, it’s alleged, they supported the Carnation Revolution to hive off the non-white officers and protect their privileges.

    Fun Carnation Revolution fact: the revolution was signalled by the playing of Portugal’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest on the radio. . .

  27. unclefrogy says

    that is what they loudly and solemnly proclaim now that the holly founding fathers set forth a new nation
    at the time in 1776 they gave their full support to the Crown and deplored the revolutionists as traitors.
    They still are in favor of a similar system that existed at the time here and England the only difference I can see is the inherited power and rights are determined by wealth and not a royalty approved title. They do not stress very often that however though it is implied by their revulsion for inheritance taxes.

    “a strong and sensible father figure to show tough love and enforce the rules for the other guy”
    uncle frogy

  28. Pierce R. Butler says

    davidrichardson @ # 30: … Salazar had forbidden any form of maintenance of buildings…

    I just spent half an hour or so on an utterly futile web search to find out the whether and why of that – could you elucidate, por favor?

  29. chrislawson says

    “What we need is a dictator whose own people and rose up against his regime as soon as he was dead…”

    Do I hear the last choking whisper of “consent of the governed” in conservative circles?

  30. chrislawson says

    @33 — I just looked up that song, ‘E Depois do Adeus’. Google Translate tells me it has the following lyric:

    You came in bloom
    I defoliated you

    No wonder it led to a regime change.

  31. Stilgar ou O Druida says

    @32: “When I read the title I thought it would be about Portugal’s current Socialist / Communist coalition which has done a remarkable job of reviving Portugal’s economy.”

    While that may be true, it comes with a twist: Portuguese economy is now essentially tourism-based. There’s been huge gentrification in cities like Lisbon or Porto, with people being forced out of their homes for not being able to afford doubling of their rent in one year. City centers are now tourism hubs with no “real” permanent citizens, just a mesh of corporate tourism industry.
    Also, Portugal is on top of wealth inequality in Europe, so this economic revival is essentially feeding a handful of millionaires.
    Then COVID-19 hit and they’re looking at hundreds of thousands of unemployed because tourism industry doesn’t work without travelling and restaurants.

  32. KG says


    Thanks for that interesting information! I’ll put Cann’s book on my (regretably very long) reading list.

  33. deleted says

    OPPOSED fascism?
    Where on earth did you get that idea?
    Salazar was an absolute, literal, fascist!

  34. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    PaulBC #4 said this:

    “If they’re looking for a successful authoritarian government that comes with the acceptance (not to say consent) of a large majority of the population (at the expense of some minorities, but what do you do?), combined with economic growth and improvement in standard of living, the obvious model that comes to my mind is China.

    If Trump believed that “quelling” BLM protests (and he or possibly an appointee used the word “quell”) then June 4, 1989 is a perfect example of how it can be made to work and the lasting benefits.

    I am not sure Republicans would be happy with this conclusion. ”

    Well, they are already a gerontocracy. And until the populists roiled things up starting with the Tea Party, they were an entrenched gerontocracy, with gerrymandering serving to remove any pressure to change. I think Republicans already fantasize about running their country as absolutely as China does. The only thing they would be unhappy about is the idea of their model coming from a non-white nation. But they would handwave that away by saying their model comes from the bible instead (also non-white sources, but who’s counting).

  35. photoreceptor says

    I love Portugal, go there every summer for my vacation. We befriended an old lady who spoke perfect english, reason being she grew up near London because her father had to flee Salazar-run Portugal or be killed. Doesn’t sound very moderate to me.