Last weekend, Michael Warren Davis sang the praises of the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar in a piece for The American Conservative. It’s called “Waiting For Our Salazar” and, per the subheading, it suggests that “Portugal’s 20th-century philosopher-king may be the ideal model of a leader for our times.” (At least it did before the subhead was changed to something slightly less fawning.) The piece — ostensibly a review of a new biography by Tom Gallagher — is ahistorical and amoral in equal measure. It elides and airbrushes the brutality of Salazar’s Estado Novo regime by playing fast and loose with the historical record. I’m not familiar with Mr. Davis or his work, but I find it puzzling that TAC would publish a piece like this given that the author is so clearly unacquainted with facts that any Portuguese schoolchild would know. It’s rather embarrassing to read.
At the beginning of the piece, the author writes that “Salazar rarely used his secret police to suppress political dissent. When he did, it was limited to the militant communists who tried to blow him up in 1937 as he made his way to church.” This is . . . not true. The Polícia de Vigilância e de Defesa do Estado (PVDE), established on the model of the Gestapo and later reorganized into the PIDE, terrorized the citizenry of Portugal for the entire duration of Salazar’s reign. The foreign correspondent Dennis Redmont, who lived and worked in Salazar’s Portugal, wrote first-hand about their omnipresent brutality in a 2015 piece for Politico:
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.
Redmont’s reporting on Salazar’s colonial adventures is also unlikely to endear him to Davis’s paleoconservative readership, or, really, to anyone with a conscience:
Another item that had apparently infuriated the government was an article I wrote about Portugal’s “secret” colonial wars in five African “territories.” The smoldering guerrilla conflicts in 1966 were killing more young drafted soldiers than Americans in Vietnam at the time.
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.
One can’t really discuss the Salazar regime in this respect without mentioning the hellscape of Tarrafal, a prison camp built in the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde in 1936 to hold the dissidents who defied Salazar. Thirty-two people died in Tarrafal, which had a reputation for particularly depraved forms of torture.
Davis also fails to mention the widespread censorship of the press that occurred in the Estado Novo. Salazar’s government also sent supervisors to every local newspaper with a view to stonewalling any coverage of internal dissent or of unrest in the colonies. One certainly hopes that Mr. Davis’s failure to mention this, much less condemn it, is born more of ignorance than of admiration. (Christian charity dictates that this should be my assumption throughout.)
There are certainly interesting conversations to be had on the right about the prospects of the liberal order and whether or not there are any viable alternatives. But a certain threshold of basic historical learning must be met by those who wish to take part in it. Mr. Davis, from all appearances, has a long way to go before he clears this bar.