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From left,  President Nayib Bukele, Former President Donald Trump and President Javier Milei
From left, President Nayib Bukele, former President Donald Trump and President Javier Milei.Getty Images

CPAC is trying to convince Republicans that authoritarians are 'cool'

Two attendees at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference underscore the Republican Party's effort to rebrand authoritarianism as a good thing.


Authoritarian leaders feature heavily in this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering for Republican voters, media and lawmakers. 

This year, the guest list includes multiple antidemocratic leaders, a sign of the GOP’s drift toward illiberalism with Donald Trump as its standard-bearer.

Two Latin American strongmen, in particular, are slated to speak. 

One of them, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, has referred to himself as the “world’s coolest dictator” and the “philosopher king” as he’s rejected democracy and consolidated power around himself under the threat of violence. Bukele, for example, staged a Jan. 6-style show of force in 2020 that involved him and armed military members entering a congressional building and pressuring lawmakers to fund his controversial gang-crackdown program.

In a dramatic scene, Bukele sat at the seat reserved for the president of Congress, said a prayer and left shortly thereafter. Lawmakers eventually acquiesced to his demands.

Another speaker at this year’s CPAC is Javier Milei, the Argentinian president and self-described “anarcho-capitalist” who wielded a chainsaw during his campaign last year to signal his plans to disembowel Argentina’s government. Milei, whose administration is aligned with violent extremists, is a cult-like figure who’s portrayed as a countercultural icon by right-wingers across the globe. He ran on an anti-government platform and downplayed the death toll of Argentina’s dictatorial regime, which controlled the country from 1976 to 1983. Since his election, he has slashed government programs and agencies, targeted unions, and facilitated a mass purge of government officials

Again, a very Trumpian set of ideals … which don’t seem to be working all that well for Argentina, so far. 

Dictator-types, but ones whose followers and hangers-on try to frame as lovable or kind.

It is noteworthy to me that both Bukele and Milei are speaking at CPAC. Both are aligned with violent extremists yet have been portrayed as just a little quirky. Dictator-types, but ones whose followers and hangers-on try to frame as lovable or kind. We're seeing the MAGA movement deploy that same strategy with Trump, who’s openly discussed being a dictator on “day one” if he’s elected. (He later claimed he was joking.) Whether they’re hawking Trump-branded sneakers to young people or hyping up Trump’s support from rappers, the MAGA movement’s message is clear: Authoritarianism ain’t that bad. In fact, they’d have us believe it’s kind of endearing!

Indeed, it’s a dangerous message. But CPAC is driving it home, loud and clear.