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Is Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro really the ‘Trump of the Tropics’?

6 November 2018

3:40 PM

6 November 2018

3:40 PM

Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election has stoked fears around the world that ‘fascism’ is on the rise. In Brazil, of course, that word has a particular resonance. The former army captain sees the years of military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 as benign ones. The only mistake the generals made, he has said, was in not killing enough dissidents—another 30,000 would have done the trick. His pick for vice-president thinks that the country should be back under martial law, and repeats the line whenever he is invited to withdraw it.

Bolsonaro has been dubbed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, a moniker he seems happy to accept. Both men are disrupters. Both like to be seen dealing with a strong right arm and appeal to an angry base. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has successfully cast himself as a political outsider (in spite of having held a seat in congress for twenty-nine years). Like Trump, Bolsonaro says the first thing that comes into his head; and, like Trump, it tends to be divisive: his views on women, gay people, minorities, the environment, dictatorship and the rule of law are now notorious. But the comparison should not be drawn too tightly. Brazil is different.

A key thing to understand about Bolsonaro’s success is that this is a middle class insurgency. When Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters gave a concert in São Paulo recently and broadcast an anti-Bolsonaro message to his audience, they booed him roundly for a quarter of an hour. He had miscalculated: fans wealthy enough to afford a ticket for his show would be Bolsonaro voters. Brazilians feel that only they can understand the peculiar afflictions of their country and there is irritation that others should see fit to give them a homily. Hard times call for strong measures. The country has made its choice, and it has voted for military discipline over a corrupt leftwing regime with no answer to the gang-violence of its streets. It has been easy to play on voters’ fears: the homicide level in some Brazilian cities is high enough to meet the UN’s criterion for low-intensity civil war.

If the challenge to liberal democracy in Brazil comes now from the right, its recent home has been on the other side. What Simon Jenkins called ‘the boring modalities of democracy’—regulating elections, curbing censorship, taming extremism, fighting corruption—are the guarantors of the social contract. In its duty of care for these, PT (the Workers’ Party) failed catastrophically. The party was in power from 2003 to 2016, when president Dilma Rousseff was removed in a soft coup. During that period it oversaw the worst recession in Brazil’s history and the largest government corruption scandal in the history of any country, anywhere. Roughly one third of the Senate is under criminal investigation. Despair has been steered into a generalised anger at the left, in which PT, in reality a moderate social democratic party, is held responsible for all of Brazil’s ailments and seen as part of a continent-wide communist network.

Corruption, so conspicuous in a country which sorely needs the cash, is the issue which has decided this election. When Bolsonaro makes his telecasts on social media (like Trump, he understands the value of Twitter) he sits in his modest front room, at a table next to a plastic jug of water. Sometimes he holds a biro. Such things are noticed by his base; the touches seem authentic, his presentation not spun, only home-spun. His opponent, Fernando Haddad of PT, took the stump by private jet, pleading for donations while sporting an eye-wateringly expensive designer watch.

For Bolsonaro – and Brazil – time will tell how his presidency unfolds. The hope is that his rhetoric has been aimed at stoking the electorate and will now be moderated by being in government. Bolsonaro has certainly made some credible choices for his top posts so far. Markets have been reassured by his pick for minister of economy, the Chicago-trained neoliberalist Paulo Guedes. It is also true that the president of Brazil is not gifted the same scope for executive action as his counterpart in the United States.

But Bolsonaro’s authority will be increased by the ready-made coalition in the legislature; the three blocks of Beef, Bible, and Bullet (Bancadas do Boi, da Biblia e da Bala). ‘Beef’, the parliamentary group representing aligned corporate interests, not only ranchers but loggers and miners, cheers his determination to open up the Amazon and destroy indigenous reservations. The ‘Bible’ block, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front, shares his hostility to abortion, gender equality and homosexuality. While the ‘Bullet’ block, comprised of former military men nostalgic for dictatorship, is delighted that one of their own has taken the presidential palace. This makes for an uneasy pact with the electorate. The middle classes are vastly relieved that PT is ousted; they have stopped packing up for Florida or Portugal, for now. But they know they have voted in a man whom they hope will not enact all of his election pledges.

James Willoughby is a historian and writer currently living in Brazil

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