The Brazilian Trump?
Bolsonaro’s inflammatory rhetoric leaves the country polarized, its future uncertain
If Donald Trump’s electoral victory hit some in the U.S. like a runaway truck, Brazilians are experiencing a process that feels more like a slow-moving steamroller crawling gradually but inexorably towards electoral triumph and—it is not hard to imagine—the subsequent crushing of hard-won rights and democratic institutions.
The steamroller is Jairo Bolsonaro, a former army captain, who matches and sometimes exceeds Trump’s racism, misogyny, and authoritarian inclinations, and whose election now is all but assured. After dominating the first round of voting, he holds a seemingly insurmountable lead over his competitor Fernando Haddad, who only recently inherited the nomination of the leftist Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT). While few polls predicted Trump’s victory, and while Bolsonaro’s candidacy once seemed to be an even longer-shot than Trump’s, they now foretell a political tidal wave delivered in slow motion.
Watching the process unfold two years after Trump’s election can feel a bit surreal. There is the right-wing populist and self-styled outsider stoking hate and violence. There is the leftist party that remarkably and severely underestimated the anger directed towards it. And there is vitriol and disinformation being traded on social media and in the press. Last week, a mini-scandal broke when the Folha de São Paulo published a story about companies planning to illegally flood the popular social media platform WhatsApp with anti-PT messages. It remains to be seen if anything will come of this, but it is clear that misinformation has already played a significant role in the election. Discussions of “Fake News” are ubiquitous.
So are heated opinions.
A few days ago at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, a Brazilian woman in her fifties could be overheard explaining the finer points of real estate acquisition to a German visitor. The lesson, delivered amid a throng of travelers packed into a small gate area, soon turned to politics. There would be money to make, she exclaimed, clasping her hands and looking upward, as long as Bolsonaro gets elected! The PT, she explained, was a den of thieves, but Bolsonaro would fix everything.
She then veered to a topic that both helps explain Bolsonaro’s popularity and is a prime reason so many fear him: the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and whose mantle Bolsonaro proudly carries. The dictatorship, the woman explained to her companion, was nothing like the murderous regime that—there is, in fact, no doubt—it was. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had the gall to criticize Brazil, but, she said with a “pffft,” the Russians killed many thousands more than the Brazilian dictatorship.
As the German looked on in silence, mouth now slightly agape, the woman punctuated the sermon by attacking Lula (Luiz Inácio da Silva). In the 1980s, as a labor organizer, Lula helped bring down the dictatorship, eventually becoming synonymous with the PT and going on to serve two terms as Brazil’s president (2003-2010). His successor, Dilma Rousseff (also from the PT), was removed from office in 2016 in a thinly-veiled political coup couched as impeachment. Lula planned to run again this year, and for a while was far ahead in the polls. But he now sits in prison, convicted of dubious charges and barred from participating in the election.
While in power, Lula, Dilma, and the PT achieved some remarkable things, including significant progress towards addressing inequality, and one of the most far-reaching and audacious affirmative action laws anywhere. But export prices, which had peaked in 2011, came crashing down in 2016, just as a massive crackdown on government corruption entangled the PT.
Anti-PT sentiment now comes from many sectors (including a broad section of a disenchanted Left) and is inspired by, among other things: frustration with an economy that fell disastrously along with export prices; a general sense that the political system is broken; and a reactionary blowback against Lula, Dilma, and the glass ceilings that they both smashed. Lula was born poor and ascended to the presidency despite having no schooling after second grade. Dilma, the nation’s first female president, joined the armed resistance during the dictatorship, and was captured and tortured. When Bolsonaro, then a congressman, cast his vote to impeach her in 2016, he dedicated the act to Carlos Ustra, the notorious military officer known to prisoners as “the god of life and death” and convicted by the Brazilian Truth Commission for overseeing torture and helping create a regime of violence. With Ustra as the devil-god on his shoulder, Bolsonaro has repeatedly praised the dictatorship while campaigning, calling its rule “a very good period.”
Bolsonaro’s violent, vitriolic rhetoric is multiplying and morphing among his supporters, including the woman at the airport. Completing her diatribe, she almost shouted, “I hope [Lula] dies in jail!”
This strain of devotion, comparable to the anti-Hillary mania that helped drive Trump to power, is part of a larger set of forces behind Bolsonaro, who counts for support an alliance of the BBB—Beef (boi), Bible (bíblia), and Bullet, (bala)—a loose coalition of agro-business, evangelicals, and those who want an ever-more forceful (violent) state. To counter violence, Bolsonaro promises simply to add to it by supercharging an already hyper-militarized police and razing firearm regulations, placing, as he put it, “a gun in every house.”
For all the sinister parallels to the U.S., there are even more sinister echoes from Brazilian history. Like Trump, Bolsonaro promises to restore Brazil to former glory. But while Trump’s fanciful past is intentionally vague, Bolsonaro wants to make Brazil “great again” by recreating a very specific era: the dictatorship. His vice-presidential candidate, general Hamilton Mourão, has been in the military since the dictatorship. During Dilma’s impeachment hearings, he suggested that the military might need to step in if the judiciary did not act as he thought it should, a sentiment echoed in a different context by Bolsonaro’s son. During the campaign, Mourão has suggested, among other things, that Brazil’s native peoples bequeathed the country with “indolence,” and that blacks are lazy and dishonest.
Though Bolsonaro lacks many concrete policies, he has threatened to dismantle crucial safety nets and institutions, and to reverse important gains made over the last few decades by, among others, indigenous populations and quilombos (communities descended from runaway slaves). His inflammatory rhetoric has already translated into tragedy. On October 7th, a Bolsonaro supporter stabbed to death a 64-year-old black capoeira teacher, Mestre Moa do Katendê (Romualdo Rosário da Costa), an act that a police investigation confirmed was politically motivated.
The death of Mestre Moa drives home in the starkest and most awful terms what is at stake in this election. Unless there is a miracle, Bolsonaro will soon take the presidency. He will be joined by a congress that, though divided, continues to swing right, and a judiciary that oversaw Dilma’s impeachment and Lula’s imprisonment.
This is not to say that there is no opposition. To the contrary, resistance is already widespread. The hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim) has gone viral, not only online but also via graffiti and handmade signs.
Nonetheless, the victories and rights secured over the last thirty years now hang in the balance. There is no sugar-coating the current moment. These are frightful, depressing times.
Marc Hertzman is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois. He is the author of Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil and has a forthcoming book on Gilberto Gil’s album Refazenda.