And so it has finally happened. After an election campaign that proved akin to watching a bloody car crash in painful slow motion, last night the people of Brazil elected far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro to the highest office in the land, with the fringe senator winning fifty-five percent of valid votes, over ten points ahead of his opponent, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party. It is a political storm of terrifying consequence that is no less harrowing for how predictable it has proven to be. When the fifth most populous nation on Earth elects a fascist there is scant comfort to be found in analysis, but nevertheless the question hangs heavy in the air, and so we must ask ourselves, honestly and critically: How did it come to this?
Perhaps it’s best to start with where exactly it is that we have ended up. Who is Jair Bolsonaro? Where does he come from, and what does he represent?
Jair Messias Bolsonaro is a six-term federal congressman from Rio de Janeiro and a member of the Social Liberal Party—a small, obscure party that began life in the mid-90s with policies relatively true to its name. Bolsonaro, a former army officer and Rio city councilor, did not start out in the Social Liberal Party, however. A member of the Social Christian Party since 1990 when he was elected a federal congressman under their banner, he only jumped ship to the SLP in January of 2018. Bolsonaro’s time in the Brazilian Congress was marked not by legislative success but by angry rhetoric and fiery counter-establishment sentiment. His joining of the SLP led directly to the resignation of most of the party’s liberal and progressive cohort, with the remainder aligning itself with Bolsonaro’s brand of far-right chauvinistic nationalism. Bolsonaro’s move to the party would also be used to announce the beginning of the congressman’s presidential campaign. His slogan: ‘Brazil above everything, God above everyone.’
Brazil’s system of government is complex. The country is a federal republic consisting of 26 states plus the capital-housing federative unit that is the District of Brasília. Each state has its own legislature and governor. The national legislative body is the National Congress, itself composed of the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate. The country has thirty-five political parties, and the number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies allocated to each state is based on that state’s population, with the members for each state being elected by proportional representation. It is through this legislative morass that Jair Bolsonaro crawled his way to the top. His rise, however, would have been impossible were it not for a series of factors that bear striking similarity to the ones that allowed someone like Donald Trump to become President of the United States, and that are enabling a wave of emboldened right-wing political movements across the globe.
Broadly speaking the factors are:
1) An angry, desperate disaffection with a status quo that is designed to empower capital while reducing the agency of labour to a minimum.
2) An at-best toothless and at-worst complicit political ‘alternative’ represented by, for example, the Democrats in the U.S.
3) A cynical rerouting of that anger towards the most marginalized and vulnerable by extremist right-wing movements tapping into anti-establishment rhetoric.
4) A compliant media providing uncritical coverage and tacit support to these extremist movements.
5) A clever manipulation of the internet and social media by the extremist movements.
It varies from place to place, but in each country that has elected a right-wing extremist in recent years—whether it be Bolsanoro in Brazil, Trump in America, Orban in Hungary, Salvini in Italy, Duda in Poland, or Duterte in the Philippines—the situation has roughly followed those steps. These authoritarian strongmen do not emerge from a vacuum. Like the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich in the 1930s, they are movements tapping into very real economic anger, and using that anger to seize power by blaming a variety of marginalized communities for their country’s woes. They whip up endemic social diseases like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and any and all others in order to create a climate of hatred and fear which helps bolster their support as they convince people that they are the only viable solution to their nation’s ills.
Like most of Latin America, Brazil’s present-day situation is impossible to untangle from the centuries of colonial subjugation it suffered at the hands of a European power, as well as from the more recent decades of neo-colonialism and Chicago school economics practiced by the United States and supranational financial organizations like the IMF and the World Bank that it has been subjected to. Spain and Portugal brought with them onto the continent not just organized European religion, but a pseudo-feudalist, hyper-exploitative, extractive capitalist system which utilised native indigenous labour as well as forcibly imported African slave labour in order to fund economic booms back home in Europe, and which in the process also deeply entrenched class divides into the New World, with fault lines of privilege running starkly alongside racial delineation. Latin America remains a profoundly racist place. Brazil is an incredibly ethnically diverse country, with just under half of its population being classed as ‘pardo’—a rather broad umbrella term for people of mixed heritage—but there can be no mistake as to where the power lies. As with the majority of Latin America, in Brazil the politics, industry, and the media are all overwhelmingly white enterprises.
Despite this ethno-hegemony, however, there have been remarkable strides made. Under the leadership of the immensely popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known popularly as ‘Lula’) the Workers’ Party of Brazil (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or just ‘PT’) used its time in power in the 2000’s to achieve some truly remarkable transformative changes. Millions were lifted out of poverty, advancements were made in LGBTQ+ rights, and indigenous causes made headway. Lula’s hugely popular first administration would be succeeded by a more fraught second one, and then by one headed by his Chief of Staff, Dilma Vana Rousseff. Her leadership would see further championing of progressive causes, but it would also see—as did Lula’s second term—mass protests at a perceived lack of action on a variety of issues, from economic inequality to social unrest and violence.
Because Lula and Dilma, popular and effective as they were, had two huge challenges to face. It is arguable that despite the gains they made they did not ultimately rise to meet these challenges, with the end result being Bolsonaro’s catastrophic victory. The first was the task of rooting out historic and systemic corruption within the Brazilian political system. The systems and inequalities left behind by colonisers and military dictatorships have a habit of sticking around despite best efforts to get rid of them, and people’s memories are much shorter than are the lifespans of these intransigent systems. ‘Corruption’ was one of the key words utilized by Bolsonaro’s highly effective campaign against his Workers’ Party rival, much the same way as Trump’s ‘swamp’ analogy. The second challenge came from the finance world. Lula and Dilma did not go far enough in keeping the forces of Brazilian and international finance and industry from interfering with the country’s politics. Diplomatically, and foolishly—especially from Lula’s second administration onwards—they tried to meet finance and industry in the middle, assuming that they would be met in good faith. Finance and industry meanwhile could of course not countenance compromising with a party which had a strong socialist streak running through it. The elites would obstruct, sabotage, and run roughshod. Over the decade and a half of PT’s stewardship of Brazil, these grievances against the party’s compromises and failures—some perceived, some legitimate—would lead to a wave of discontent with PT rippling through Brazil.
The most immediate cause of Bolsonaro’s victory, however, was not one that could be laid at the feet of PT, but rather the capitalist, oligarchic sectors of Brazil. In 2016, with PT’s popularity at an ebb and sensing an opening, right-wing senators launched impeachment proceedings against President Rousseff that amounted to an illegal, nakedly opportunist judicial coup. (It should also be noted here that had former president Lula been allowed to run against Bolsonaro, it is overwhelmingly likely that he would have won. This despite the wave of discontent against PT and the endless right wing campaign against him. It was made sure however that he would be in prison on corruption charges and so unable to run.) Rousseff was removed from office and a right-wing technocrat called Michel Temer was installed in her place without an election (Temer faced questions over very similar impropriety accusations to the ones that were used to depose Rousseff but who was nevertheless the establishment’s man when it was needed and thus it wasn’t a problem for his presidency). Left-wing commentators at the time called it what it was: A capitalist coup that would send the country down a dark path. Sure enough, Temer would preside over a country of rapidly escalating violence and crippling government-imposed austerity and neoliberal economics and his popularity would plummet. In 2017 his approval rating was at 7%. The country had had enough. Much the same way as the United States was—after decades of cross-party neoliberal consensus—primed for a populist candidate, so too was Brazil in 2018 just waiting for someone to rail against the establishment.
Here the similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro continue. Both were, by most measures—wealth, connections, careers—members of their country’s establishment, but who had been just enough on the fringes of the dominant political establishment that they could semi-plausibly rage against said establishment. In times of desperation, semi-plausible is often enough. Bolsonaro, with his colourful rhetoric, had been a guest on talk shows. His voice was seen as a worthwhile addition to national discourse. The hosts have since publicly said they regret giving him such a platform. As previously mentioned, both Trump and Bolsonaro couched their campaigns in anti-corruption rhetoric, but in order to bolster their support they also relied on far more incendiary, hateful rhetoric so as to rile up the ever-present hatred of ‘the other’ that exists in society. Here, though, Bolsonaro makes even the hateful and dangerous Trump seem like a man carefully measuring his words. Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. That regime, due to the scale of its brutality not quite comparing to something like Pinochet’s Chile, is often not talked about quite as much, the horrors of its years de-emphasised with the passage of decades. Despite that whitewashing, it was an awful and regressive, murderous, regime, the scars of which are still very much visible in Brazil. Dilma Rousseff was an activist during the dictatorship and she was famously imprisoned and tortured continuously for days on end by the regime. One of Bolsonaro’s key talking points is his fondness for the days of dictatorship. The others sit at the crossroads of nationalism, authoritarianism, violence, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-environmentalism.
This is just a selection:
“I am in favor of a dictatorship, a regime of exception.”
- Open session of the Câmara dos Deputados, 1993
“The pau-de-arara [a torture technique] works. I’m in favor of torture, you know that. And the people are in favor as well.”
- Câmara Aberta TV program, May 23, 1999
“Let’s shoot all the PT members here in Acre [Brazilian state].”
- Campaign event on September 1, 2018
“Pinochet should have killed more people.”
- Veja, December 2, 1998.
“What historic debt do we have with blacks? I never enslaved them. The Portuguese never set foot in Africa. The blacks were delivered by blacks.”
- Programa Roda Viva, July 2018.
“I have five children. Four were boys, on the fifth I got weak and had a daughter.”
- Speech at the Clube Hebraica, Rio de Janeiro, April 3, 2017.
“Through the vote you will not change anything in this country, nothing, absolutely nothing! It will only change, unfortunately, when, one day, we start a civil war here and do the work that the military regime did not do. Killing some 30,000, starting with FHC [then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso], not kicking them out, killing! If some innocent people are going to die, fine, in any war innocents die.”
- Câmara Aberta TV program, May 23, 1999
“God above everything. There is no such thing as this secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change, if they can. The minorities will have to adapt to the position of the majority.”
- Speech at the Aeroporto João Suassuna, February 8, 2017.
“I will not fight nor discriminate, but if I see two men kissing in the street, I’ll hit them.”
- Folha de São Paulo newspaper, May 19, 2002
“I would be unable to love a gay son. I won’t be a hypocrite here: I would prefer that my son die in an accident rather than appear with a moustache. For me, he would be dead.”
- Playboy, 2011.
“I’m a rapist now. I would never rape you, because you do not deserve it… slut!”
- Speaking to Congresswoman Maria do Rosário, November 11, 2003
For those interested in knowing a bit about Brazil’s likely future president, his latest speech, with English subtitles pic.twitter.com/ssb1hgT4rA— Octávio Luiz Motta Ferraz (@octavio_ferraz) October 25, 2018
You probably read about how @JairBolsonaro, in 2014, told a female colleague in Congress she was too ugly to "deserve" his rape. That was the 2nd time he told her that. Here's the first time - & he pushed her & called her a "whore" for good measure. Watch (with subtitles): pic.twitter.com/puEvCyseOL— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) October 23, 2018
On his way to electoral victory, Bolsonaro has succeeded in harnessing three very powerful forces of social conservatism in his campaign: faith, family, and tradition. He has preyed on the hatred in some sectors of Brazilian society of the advances made by LGBTQ+ under PT. He has mobilised the term ‘corruption’ and expanded it to cover not just its initial financial connotations, but also—in a still widely religious society—societal corruption. He has promised to do away with this corruption by any means necessary. What that translates to is force. Brazil has one of the most out of control crime problems in the world right now, but few would say that this is due to the police force not being heavy handed enough. Indeed Brazil’s police is almost cartoonishly militarised and brutal. Dissidents know this, the residents of the poor favelas know this. Bolsonaro is using quite specific language. Listen to it carefully if you want a taste of what is to come: A broadening of the police’s powers, further militarisation and the brutality that comes with it, and the expansion of its abuses from just the favelas into all walks of Brazilian life. There are already resistance movements on the ground. Women’s groups in the Brazilian favelas have been reported to be building literal trenches, to at least slow the tide that they know is coming.
Because Bolsonaro has been elected into the presidency from such a small political party, he has no political infrastructure to take with him. As such, his administration will see the further weaving of Brazil’s military into the fabric of power and the legislature. On top of that Bolsonaro also sees his family as something of a political dynasty, so he will stack key positions with members of his clan—again, echoes of Trump. What will emerge in the fifth most populous country in the world over the next months and years is a violently repressive authoritarian regime. It will actively target dissidents and people of alternative views, both in the public sphere and in the private domain. Some of the work will be indirectly outsourced, as violence against women, people of alternative sexualities, ethnic minorities, and left-wing activists will soar as people feel emboldened to act against these groups. These acts will be at best tolerated and at worst encouraged by Bolsonaro’s administration, and they will largely remain unpunished. In addition to all this, Bolsonaro will be a complete and utter disaster for the environment. His campaign has been one of angry opposition, and as such it has lacked in concrete policies. One of the few policies that has been announced repeatedly, however, is his disdain for environmental regulation. He intends to pull out of the Paris agreement as soon as possible, and he has pledged to open up the Amazon rainforest—one of the most vital bulwarks against climate change—for unfettered exploitation. He promises that historic indigenous rights to the forest will be a thing of the past.
So then. Jair Bolsonaro is a monster. That much is clear. But monsters cannot thrive without the right environment. There are lessons to be learned from Bolsonaro, as there are from Trump. Yes social media proved an invaluable tool in spreading both men’s message, and yes hatreds like misogyny and racism were harnessed to increase their momentum. But these would have limited power and fringe appeal if they were not lashed to a critique of the establishment. Neoliberal politics has fragmented society and it has brought so much despair to the vast majority of the world that people, desperate and out of options, are hungry for change. Any change. Some will vote for a figure like Bolsonaro because they too are misogynists and racists and they wish to see those groups punished. But many more will cast their vote as they would throw a Molotov cocktail. They would rather see the establishment burn than legitimise it by accepting more of the same. It is easy for commentators and people with privilege to denounce this attitude, but history has shown time and time again that this will keep happening. Lacking a credible left-wing alternative, in times of crisis people will turn to the strongman. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are a tired, hackneyed comparison. They are also, however, painfully apt. Not only did they surf the rise of discontent into power and terrible brutality, there was another angle to the story. During Bolsonaro’s campaign we saw a particular trend occurring. As it became likelier that he would win the presidency, stock markets rallied. Businesses rejoiced. Business journals endorsed him. This despite all the horrific stuff that he was on record as saying and believing.
As Europe smouldered in the aftermath of World War II the international community decided to hold those responsible to account. The Nuremberg trials were convened in order to put Nazi officials and officers in the dock to answer for their crimes. The Nazis would, however, have never risen to power had it not been for the big industrialists of the day, the champion capitalists of the time, providing sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit, often material support. Until the crimes against humanity became so monstrous—and in some cases ever after—much of business both at home in Germany and around the world looked on Hitler and his fascists rather fondly. When the Nuremberg trials were being planned, it was briefly proposed that the key capitalists who had facilitated the rise of the Third Reich should stand trial alongside the Nazis. This was shot down with alacrity by the U.S. and its allies. Business was allowed to walk away scot-free. This will keep happening while capital and ‘pragmatism’ are held to be more important than humanity. Jair Bolsonaro must be opposed with all the might in the world, but so then must be the capitalism that enabled him. If it isn’t, fascism will keep rising. Brazil’s fate hangs in the balance. With the capitalists lusting after the spoils of the Amazon rainforest and the world already on the brink of climate breakdown, so too does the future of our existence on this planet. It is the same story around the world. We are close to catastrophe. A mass, worldwide, grassroots, proactive socialist movement that does not flinch and does not compromise is our only hope at turning the tide before it’s too late.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, The Street, Twitter, WSJ