Far-right Bolsonaro cashes in on Brazil’s rapidly changing mood
The Brazilian electorate will on Sunday almost certainly vote in the journeyman politician and former army captain Jair Bolsonaro as the country’s next president. Bolsonaro’s widespread appeal, considering his lack of substantive achievement in 27 years in politics and his often racist and sexist language, has come as a surprise to those who thought he merely embodied a protest vote. As things stand, though, he is poised to become the most undistinguished president in the 30-year history of Brazilian democracy, and — in keeping with the recrudescence of right-wing populism in major democracies — the first from the far right.
But “far right” also has an unusual resonance in the Brazilian case. It applies not just to Bolsonaro’s hawkish positions on social values, crime and economics, but on how far — and fast — the Brazilian electorate itself has moved. Only four years ago, after all, the broad ruling coalition headed by the left-wing Workers’ Party won its fourth election in a row, voting in Dilma Rousseff for a second term in office (she was controversially impeached for corruption in 2016 and has all but disappeared from view).
So how did things change so fast? Persistent corruption scandals involving almost all of the major politicians and parties in Brazil; an economic crisis that has left one-eighth of the working-age population jobless; middle-class opposition to the sometimes radical social agenda and expensive welfare state envisaged by the Workers’ Party; and a steepling crime rate (Brazil is the world’s homicide capital, with more than 60,000 such deaths a year) have all been presented as enablers of the rise of Bolsonaro — and they are.
Right-wing politics in the world’s major democracies — the US, India, now Brazil — has no moral compass, no capacity for self-critique, and therefore no defense against self-harm.
But, as the statistics show, there is more to it than that. Bolsonaro has grown a giant base of his own. Evidence of the defiant new conservatism can be gleaned from many sources, including dating websites. “Recently, I saw on a woman’s Tinder profile picture the words “Eu sou de direita” (I am from the right),” a writer said to me in Rio de Janeiro. “Ten years ago, you’d never find a young person who would say that so openly.” The center has fallen out of Brazilian politics, leaving behind two giant armies of partisans on the left and the right, each determined not just to defeat but to demonize the other.
Suddenly it is quite cool to be right-wing in Brazil. The new mood has many aspects. One is revisionist nostalgia for the military regime that ruled between 1964 and 1985. The generals repressed press freedom and civil rights and — although not to the barbaric extent of the parallel military regime in neighboring Argentina — tortured and murdered hundreds of dissidents. Crucially for their place in history, an amnesty law passed in Brazil in 1979 still prevents anyone from going on trial for the human rights abuses of the pre-democracy era.
So the military regime gave way to democracy, but without its nastiest deeds ever reaching the scrutiny of the public sphere. With a majority of young Brazilians having no memories of that time, the taint of authoritarianism that long hung around the phrase “right-wing” has gradually eroded. Bolsonaro himself plays up his army background and consistently extols the merits of the military dictatorship (his trademark pose for the cameras involves cocking his hands in a gun-shaped salute). No genuine democrat would accept such an interpretation of the past; only a populist would.
Two other points are worth bringing up in contemplating Brazil’s swing to the right. The first is the vast impact of social media and its ugly offshoot, fake news, on democracy in this decade. Social media allows thinkers and schemers of a certain ilk to bypass traditional media, which is painted as a handmaiden of corruption and lies, and generate cults of personality centered on retweetable rhetoric and sinister threats. On this count, if not in his actual politics, Bolsonaro is very much a man of his time: He has arrived at the perfect moment to take advantage of a post-truth and post-civility world.
Finally, some of the responsibility for the rise of the far right in Brazil (and elsewhere) must be laid at the doors of the traditional right. There was once a right-wing politics that stood for something meaningful and principled: A respect for traditional values, for individual responsibility and agency (which included self-restraint), for a small state and a faith (however problematic) in markets for solutions for societal issues. But, as with the ideological zealots of the old communist states, increasingly right-wing politics in the world’s major democracies — the US, India, now Brazil — has no moral compass, no capacity for self-critique, and therefore no defense against self-harm. Even when demagogues speak the catchphrases of the right and bait the left, they must be boosted.
In Brazil, this phenomenon of the takeover of right-wing politics by the radical fringe takes the form of an especially interesting parable. Although part of the Rousseff coalition government, the country’s center-right politicians were so focused on defeating the left at all costs that, when they sniffed a chance, they brought down Rousseff. They seized power with a graceless new conservative agenda that had no ratification from the electorate. Having enjoyed power for two years without having won an election, the right has found itself catastrophically outflanked by Bolsonaro in the current season — “collateral damage” in the Bolsonaro campaign, as one commentator put it.
And it is the rabid new face of the right in Brazil that will take over the reins of Brazilian democracy on Sunday. In an address to his supporters this week, Bolsonaro promised a purge of “red outlaws” when he takes office. Given that the Workers’ Party remains the largest party in Parliament, this amounts to a declaration of civil war. Part of Bolsonaro’s appeal stems from his promise to crack down on crime, but apparently merely not supporting his politics is soon to become a crime in Brazil.
• Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in Bloomberg View and Foreign Policy.