In person, Bukele is 38 and looks, if anything, a little younger. He is one of the youngest leaders in the world and, perhaps, the one with the highest poll numbers outside North Korea. In an era of ethnic nationalists, he’s of mixed Christian and Muslim heritage — his brother is an Imam — and his wife has Jewish roots. And at a moment when the political conversation is full of warnings about the demons unleashed by social media, Bukele is a sort of Old Millennial true believer, who brags that he hasn’t used his phone to make an actual phone call in a year. He’s the most optimistic of the new generation of smash-the-system populists powered by social media, an outsider who looks to the future rather than the past, positioning himself more as Andrew Yang than Donald Trump.
“People don’t realize that social media is not like a cellphone game or something, or some fad, or something young people like,” he said told BuzzFeed News in an interview at the Doha Forum in Qatar. “It wasn’t Instagram who created nationalism. That was inside people’ brains. It was at the kitchen tables … And now everybody is more exposed,” Bukele said. “That’s an opportunity to change society in reality. Because apparently we weren’t as civilized as we thought.”
Bukele, elected in February, is living an experiment with the social, mobile presidency on the road, testing the limits of what it means to be a politician who lives unabashedly through his phone — although it must be said he’s doing this in a country where internet penetration hovers just under 60% of the population. He was, in fact, three weeks into the longest foreign trip of his young presidency, and trying to work remotely. A skeptical television reporter earlier in the day had asked him, he said, “You’ve been three weeks outside your country. Who’s governing?”