On November 7, several hours after the main broadcast networks, Fox and CNN on cable, and the Associated Press had all called the 2020 US Presidential Elections for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and huge crowds of happy Americans were still celebrating in the streets, Donald Trump tweeted, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT.”

Three days later, despite an array of world leaders having congratulated his replacements, amid senior voices from his own party acknowledging their victory, Trump tweeted, “WE ARE MAKING BIG PROGRESS. RESULTS START TO COME IN NEXT WEEK. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” Then again, “WE WILL WIN.”

By that point, like everyone else, I was bored of Trump’s irrational antics, but his social media barrage kept giving me acute déjà vu. The lame-duck’s monumental obduracy – that extraordinary degree of refusal to accept the facts – resonated uncannily with what I was reading: Tom Gallagher’s new, highly adept Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die (Hurst Publishers). It’s the story of another larger-than-life political figure who stands out in world history for his epic denial of the obvious.

To be sure, there are significant differences between the two. António de Oliveira Salazar was cautious and conservative with genuinely historic achievements to his credit. Sheer competence skyrocketed him from provincial obscurity to unrivalled power. For a sizable portion of his 36-year reign, Portugal performed an outsized global role that it hadn’t managed since the Age of Exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries – and never enjoyed again after his posthumous regime collapsed in the 1974 Carnation Revolution.

Reaching the goal

And yet, the similarities cannot be denied. Just as the American trumpeted, “I alone can fix it”, his Portuguese predecessor felt the same way. On April 28, 1928, the day he assumed high office for the first time as finance minister, Salazar said, “I know quite well what I want and where I am going, but let it not be insisted that I shall reach the goal in a few months. For the rest, let the country study, let it suggest, let it object, and let it discuss, but when the time comes for me to give orders, I shall expect it to obey.” Even from his wheelchair in his last months of life – with the fact he was no longer in charge being kept from him by fearful aides – he kept repeating, “I cannot go. There is no one else.”

These comparisons must have loomed omnipresent for Gallagher as he researched and wrote this book. Earlier this year, he tackled them head-on in The Critic. He wrote:

“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…fractured, chaotic, ill-governed and spiritually moribund. There was an aching desire among many in the nation to put aside the partisan squabbles [and] 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.”

To his supporters, Gallagher writes, “Salazar succeeded in making Portugal great again”.

Gallagher is an admirably scrupulous biographer, but also rather interestingly sceptical about liberalism. In the same essay for The Critic, he writes with distinct approval about “Salazar’s traditional outlook”.

He writes, “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, Gallagher says, was a “primodial need” for the Portuguese leader.

 “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.”  

Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die is at its best when tracking the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the talented boy from Santa Comba Dão in northern Portugal. “He would use the indomitability which had marked his family’s story to define Portugal’s relationship with the rest of the world, and especially with the great powers,” Gallagher writes. “He would show the spirit of self-belief and critical awareness that was present in the couple who nurtured him and prepared him for adulthood…It is far from fanciful to argue that this tenacity, staying power and sense of self-belief were the products of experiences that he absorbed during his formative years.”

It’s true that the particulars of this personal life couldn’t be more different from Trump. Salazar was frugal and punctilious, and the record shows that he left Iberia exactly once in his life, to whistle-stop through France to Belgium and straight back again. He was happiest in Santa Comba Dão. Gallagher says that “only major crises prevented him from being back in the autumn for the gathering-in of grapes or the bottling of the wine on his small estate”.

But seething behind this ostentatious austerity was rampant cronyism. His successor Mario Soares pointed out that he “left that clique of vultures uncontrolled [and able] to go on creating and inextricable web of political and economic connections”.

Timing is everything in life, and it’s also the crux of legacy. António de Oliveira Salazar burst into the historical frame at the crucial juncture his country needed precisely his bent, convictions and skill set. In just one year, he balanced the budget and stabilised the escudo. Then – an unquestionably great feat of strength, guile, and statecraft – he navigated Portugal’s neutrality through the conflagrations of World War II.

But then came irresistible winds of change, which he failed to recognise and refused to believe. The same characteristics which were once his strengths proved his country’s undoing.

Gallagher surmises that Salazar was possibly “simply too old to shed his paternalistic and at times racist approach to empire”. Certainly, even by the standards of the time, the dictator was shockingly ignorant about the world beyond his Iberocentric ambit, including the citizens of Portugal’s own African and Asian territories.

In one meeting with Jorge Jardim, his former Secretary of State who became an entrepreneur in Mozambique, he disrupted proceedings by constantly referring to “little black folk”, In his first encounter with the elegant Maria de Lourdes Figueiredo de Albuqerque in 1965, the Goan – who later sat in the Portuguese parliament – was surprised to discover he believed most of her compatriots had European blood.

I was disappointed to find very little about Salazar’s back-and-forth with Nehru in Gallagher’s book – and in one of the handful of mentions he manages to misspell the names of both Dadra and Nagar Haveli, two tiny bits of the ancient Estado da India centred in Goa until 1961.

When I wrote to Gallagher to ask why, he responded that our part of the world did not seem important in his study, but “after completing the book, I wondered why Salazar had not been more alert about Goa as the British were withdrawing from India in 1947. He doesn’t seem to have raised the issue with London when he could have used the alliance to urge Britain to request Nehru to respect Portuguese claims there. Overall, I don’t think Goa figured very much in the Portuguese consciousness.”

That is an eminently fair point, however it is also true that – across two decades of back-to-back-to-back lowlights – it is Salazar’s abysmal miscalculations in Goa that best reveal his delusional Trumpist megalomania. While always losing, he absurdly claimed victory. Instead of negotiating with dignity, he preferred to burn the house down.

At this point in the US 2020 elections cycle, we don’t yet know what cost that country’s political system will pay for the incumbent’s intransigence. But history has already spoken about the Portuguese dictator’s inability to handle the inevitable: it was the first domino to topple in waves that led straight back to Lisbon, and by far the biggest loser were the Goans.

Misreading the signals

It is not as though there hadn’t been enough warning. By 1950, there were as many as 200,000 Goans in independent India (those who stayed behind were just double that number) and there was huge support for decolonisation building both within and outside the territory. This could easily have been resolved the Pondicherry way, where municipalities voted for merger (there were no such rights in Salazar’s India) and a general election resulted in the peaceful transfer of territories.

But that was anathema for the Portuguese dictator, who instead argued in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1956 that “Goa is the transplantation of the West onto Eastern lands, the expression of Portugal in India…and the Goans have no wish to be freed from Portuguese sovereignty.”

But by that point Salazar had already received the secret report of the academic Orlando Ribeiro, who testified, “I have visited all the Portuguese territories in Africa, starting from Mozambique, and have studied Guinea and the islands of Cape Verde; I have spent four months in Brazil and observed its deep recesses. I had thus acquired a good preparation to initiate my research [and] Goa appeared to me as the least Portuguese of all the Portuguese territories I had seen so far, even less than Guinea, which was pacified in 1912!”

Ribeiro concluded, “The predominant relationship is of distance and suspicion, when it is not an outright or camouflaged antipathy. I had witnessed a near total ignorance of our language, the persistence of a society, not only strange and indifferent, but even hostile to our presence, our limited influence, encrusted as a schist in the body of renascent Hinduism, all this has left me very disillusioned about Goa.”

By this time, almost a decade after “freedom at midnight”, New Delhi’s initial attitude of indulgence was steadily hardening. The Indian national defence establishment – which had many Goan officers – was keen to act. Nehru, who referred to Goa as “the pimple of the face of Mother India”, was growing impatient. Non-violent protests were met with brute force, which turned the local population firmly against the colonial regime. Salazar became a laughing stock. But still the stubborn old man refused to see what everyone else had realised long ago

When Indian troops began to mass in preparation for hostilities, Salazar was informed by his ministers that resistance would be “a suicide mission in which we could not succeed”. But he ignored them, and instructed Governor Vassalo e Silva to destroy the airport and bridges, completely raze the gorgeous 500-year-old Palacio Idalcao in Panjim, and send St Francis Xavier’s remains to Lisbon (happily, Silva did none of those things, in a remarkable act of conscience that earned him years of disgrace on his return).

And then Salazar issued another pronouncement, that’s full of empty bluster and bankrupt, fact-free grandiosity, and really reminds me of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.

“You understand the bitterness with which I send you this message. It is horrible to think that this may mean total sacrifice, but I believe that sacrifice is the only way for us to keep up to the highest traditions and provide service to the future of the Nation. Do not expect the possibility of truce or of Portuguese prisoners, as there will be no surrender rendered because I feel that our soldiers and sailors can be either victorious or dead. God will not allow you to be the last Governor of the State of India.”

Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die (Hurst Publishers).

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.