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Portugal’s bookish dictator

At least in the eyes of his supporters, António de Oliveira Salazar succeeded in making Portugal great again

Artillery Row

Despite their obvious disparities in wealth and scale, it is possible to see Portugal a century ago as comparable in some ways with the United States today. The country was fractured, chaotic, ill-governed and spiritually moribund. There was an aching desire among many in the nation to put aside the partisan squabbles of a bankrupt republican regime with its meaningless liberal slogans and seek a different path. In Portugal’s case this meant a readiness existed to look beyond the lawyers, soldiers and full-time politicians to see if an outsider could pacify the nation, cure its financial ills, and embark upon reconstruction.

At least in the eyes of his supporters, of whom there were many in the 1930s but far fewer by the 1960s, Salazar succeeded in making Portugal great again

The outsider emerged from an unexpected direction, just as Donald Trump with his background in the leisure and hospitality industry and reality television came from nowhere to snatch the American Presidency in 2016. António de Oliveira Salazar and Trump were both outsiders who were placed in power due to intense weariness with lacklustre establishments. Their early years in charge were punctuated by regular and sometimes violent challenges to their authority. Salazar rode these out  with a combination of guile, firmness and a capacity to rally strong allies behind his conservative nationalist cause. Trump may yet confound many of his critics by stoking, and benefiting from, a backlash against his currently inflamed liberal and radical opponents and winning a second presidential term this November. Yet it is an uphill task for him. Despite being slammed in many quarters as a tyrant-in-the-making, he lacks the sway over the media and educational sectors which Salazar soon acquired as his power grew. More importantly, it is widely assumed that his temperamental flaws are likelier to make him a highly controversial transitory figure rather than the architect of a major reset in American politics. 

Salazar was a low-key Catholic economics professor who proved good at getting his way by calm persuasion and occasional charm, as well as via the distribution of patronage. Trump on the other hand has been shown to have a jarring personality which has helped his enemies to mobilise and has often repelled potential allies. At least in the eyes of his supporters, of whom there were many in the 1930s but far fewer by the 1960s, Salazar succeeded in making Portugal great again. As a political entrepreneur, he was adept at using diplomacy and soft power. He won respect in Europe for being someone who was a hard negotiator but whose word could be relied upon. NATO flags would fly at half-mast in  Brussels headquarters upon news of  his death in 1970 at the age of 81. By contrast, Trump is seen as irascible, unpredictable and not to be trusted. His support is confined largely to one sizable wing of a fractured American political landscape and he does not have the well-wishers that the right-wing but nimble Salazar acquired in sometimes surprising quarters. 

Next month I have a biography coming out of the man who hailed from a non-descript village in the rolling hills of central Portugal to become Europe’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Unlike Trump he lacked a commanding presence or a powerful speaking voice. It is doubtful if he would have regarded him as a kindred spirit despite their placings on the political right. While maintaining good ties with Portugal’s chief ally Britain even as it moved left after 1945, Salazar acquired deep-seated distrust for most of the Americans whom he encountered. They were in his eyes, according to one British ambassador, ‘nouveaux riches, followers of mammon, amoral in all respects’ and totally incapable of ‘grasping the intricate problems of Europe’.

For his part, it is unlikely that Trump would have much time for a bookish European intellectual who adored flowers, read the classics of literature and was drawn to the music of Bach. But he might have respected him for his political agility and  formidable will. This quietly-spoken civilian sent the military back to barracks and removed people who revelled in agitation from national influence. He brought the curtain down on a century of liberalism which failed to be the basis of stable development in a mainly agricultural country with a large but poorly-governed overseas empire. 

However much of a disappointment he ultimately was to many, Salazar was a European who managed to make order and authority the basis for his limited version of freedom. It was no small achievement to hold aloof from the fascist dictators and stay in power for nearly forty years during an era of resurgent liberalism. His disdain for the claims of liberalism as a progressive force associated with harmony and toleration never left him.

The lesson of the liberal republic in existence from 1910 to 1926 was clear. It could not uphold political liberty. Salazar became convinced of this upon being elected to parliament in 1921. After just one session, he vowed never to return. He abandoned a Christian Democrat outlook in favour of a nationalist autocracy. He had been influenced in particular by Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, first published in Paris in 1897 and frequently reprinted. The masses, Salazar felt, were too prone to be led astray by demagogues for democracy to be viable especially in Latin countries like Portugal. Only in exceptional countries like Britain and Switzerland did the conditions exist for advanced liberty. 

(Photo by Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

In 1938, a year after he visited Portugal as a guest of the government, the poet T.S. Eliot warned: 

‘By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified … Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.’

In 1917 Lenin had dubbed Lisbon  where ‘a socialist and profoundly anti-clerical government, ruled as the second-most Marxist capital in the world.’ This was a huge exaggeration. Compared with some contemporary liberal left movements in  Anglo-Saxon countries which have bold plans to sweep away national loyalties and traditional group attachments in favour of a borderless world full of experiment, the Portuguese First Republic was a broken reed.

Under Salazar, Portugal enjoyed a rare period as an independent actor in world affairs. He kept Portugal from being dragged into the Spanish Civil War or World War II. But he chose to resist the post-1945 democratic wave across the North Atlantic world. It remained his contention that political freedoms were only a small part of those which allowed people to lead fulfilled lives. He was very much in the footsteps of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that peace could only be preserved by a ruler who had a firm control over ‘opinions and doctrines’. This was a heretical position in the 1950s. Nevertheless, Portugal was regarded as being sufficiently mainstream to be invited to become a founder member of NATO and enjoy good ties with the emergent European Union.

Much later, in the 1960s, Salazar become a virtual outcast in different quarters when he refused to join in the retreat from Africa. He argued that the overseas territories had been an integral part of Portugal for many centuries and that their retention was vital for Portugal’s survival as a nation. In the past they had been badly run and there had been stark abuses. But his by now torpid regime got a fresh lease-of-life by resolving to defy the winds of change until it was finally replaced by the army in 1974, four years after his death. 

Salazar was plunged into a duel with the Kennedy administration which believed African nationalism could forestall communism. It was a very personal one: ‘Either the Americans succeed in killing me or else I die,’ he said in 1963. ‘Or else they will face years of struggle in order to put me under.’ 

In 1969, after he had been debilitated by a stroke, the anti-Americanism of Salazar still shone though. When he was given a seventy-minute interrogation by Dr Houston Merritt, an American neurological expert, the doctor was surprised at the answer he got when he asked Salazar: ‘What do you think of President Johnson?’ 

When asked to move his legs as if to give a kick, Salazar joked, ‘In truth, the U.S. have been receiving quite a few kicks. And they’ll receive many more!’

‘That he is a good man, [but] not enough’, Salazar replied. ‘One must know in depth the history, the culture and the politics of Europe, of Asia and of Africa. The Presidents of the United States do not know them.’ Then, when asked by Merritt to move his legs as if to give a kick, Salazar joked, ‘In truth, the United States have been receiving quite a few kicks. And they’ll receive many more!’

Salazar would have abhorred the ostentation of Trump. Even some of his foes have conceded that as well as being ascetic and honest, Salazar was hard-working and disciplined and saw himself as the servant of the nation rather than its arbitrary strongman.

The 50th anniversary of his death on 30 July coincides with an ongoing backlash against political liberalism for having hurtled leftwards, embracing a borderless world and much of the outlook of technocratic capitalism which now invests heavily in identity politics. Those who argue, like Salazar before him, that intensifying strife is the logical result of abandoning the politics of prudence in favour of angry emotion, are not hard to find. But few conservative nationalists seem ready to abandon political pluralism as he did.

Naturally, Salazar’s traditional outlook is completely at variance with radical forces in the West who have the ear of the media, the backing of corporate business, and the endorsement of many women, previously the bulwark of social conservatism. Today, in an age when middle-class radical youth protest against white privilege and patriarchy, Salazar appears to embody much of what they are against. For many of them, colonialism is perhaps the worst sin of white patriarchy and Salazar was the most stubborn and implacable 20th-century European colonial leader. Preserving the national identity, which many devotees of radical identity politics are keen to sweep away, was always a primordial need for him. His Constitution upheld the family, which contemporary radicals see as a curb on the requirement to be experimental and nonconformist. He believed in fostering elites in order to guide society and would surely have been horrified by their vilification of successful individuals. He had no time for income guarantees, believing in the necessity for able-bodied people to work for a living. He also believed the economic victimhood that was a feature of communist doctrine was based on a false conception of humanity. And it is unlikely that he would have been impressed by an even bolder definition of victimhood encompassing not just classes but a range of minorities defined by gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

Trump is very much a sui generis type. Salazar is a more recognisable symbol of conservative order who may enjoy continued respect in some quarters but is unlikely to be emulated. While opposed to intensive transnational cooperation, he believed in elites, censorship and technocracy which, in our own age, ironically are attributes of the political left and not the right. He has now ceased to polarise opinion in Portugal fifty years after his death. It may take much longer than that before Americans are able to accept a more detached view of Donald Trump.

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