The Extremist Bolsonaro: the Very Dangerous Face of Populism in Brazil

Never in the history of South American democracies there was an elected politician as close to Pinochet as the new President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro. The first day of 2019 was also the first day as president of a leader that campaigned as fascist and as a result he became the ruler of a Latin American democracy. In fact, Bolsonaro leads the biggest and most populated nation in the region.

The first historical lesson of the Brazilian political earthquake is that the future of democracy in the region is threatened in Brazil and beyond. In less than two weeks in power it is difficult to know whether Brazil will be ruled in the ways of a Donald Trump or as the traditional neoliberal dictatorships that were so pervasive in the 1970s. Will Bolsonaro behave like a new General Pinochet, a camouflaged version of the Latin American past? Will he be a dictatorial leader merely dressed in democratic clothes?

One thing is certain. Jair Bolsonaro is new in the history of populism in the region. And this is of no small importance in the context of the world’s fourth largest democracy. Bolsonaro has often praised dictatorship, campaigned with constant lies and promises of total violence against the opposition but he now says he will not destroy democracy.

If fascism destroys democracy from within, populism debases democratic life without decimating it. This is typical of ruling populists like Trump, Viktor Orban or Matteo Salvini.  Bolsonaro says he will make Brazil an illiberal democracy but will he turn into a dictatorship? If the racist and extreme populism displayed by trumpists and their fellow travelers is uncommon in the history of Latin America, there are precedents for it in its many dictatorships and dirty wars. In Argentina but also in Chile and, of course, in Brazil. Like his admired Pinochet and the Argentine dictatorship, Bolsonaro links political violence to the policies of austerity and neo-liberalism.

Bolsonaro is a military man, an admirer of the Brazilian dictatorship and a leader that says that Brazil and God are above everything and above everyone. He proposes hard austerity measures, privatizations, ideological persecution at the educational level and that criminals are killed on the spot rather than face justice. His model is that of the Pinochet campaign for the 1988 no vote. At that time, Pinochet tried to legitimize his dictatorial power with votes. Bolsonaro may pretend to do the same but, of course, his impressive electoral victory with 55% of the votes does not provide him with a mandate to destroy democracy from within.

Brazil’s new president is characterized by his supposed personification of the feelings of the Brazilian people and his irrational promotion of violence, homophobia and misogyny. Who can vote and then support these things in power? How to explain this support for extreme intolerance in the context of the long history of civility and plurality of Brazil?

It is important to differentiate between the hard core of bolsonaristas and the rest of his current supporters. The former are racists, fascists, populists and conservatives that see in Bolsonaro one of their own. But the latter are the ones that made his victory possible. All in all, most followers of Bolsonaro consider him more an epic hero than a politician of flesh and blood, but in spite of these mythologies, Bolsonaro is novel only if one thinks about him in the Brazilian context.

In global terms, Bolsonaro represents the Brazilian example of anti-political trend and this is not small a reason for a number of voters who claim they are tired of traditional politics. It is clear that most Brazilians still feel there is a crisis of political representation. And yet, they choose and support in big numbers a remedy worse than the disease.

An anti-system leader like Donald Trump, the Italian Matteo Salvini or Orban, Bolsonaro is another example, albeit a very extreme one, of the new far-right populism that increasingly wants to look like fascism. Unlike other historical populisms (think of the right neo-liberal cases of Carlos Menem in Argentina and Fernando Collor de Melo in Brazil in the 1990s and the left-wing Argentine Kirchernerism of the 2000s), the new Brazilian populism follows a logic that brings it closer to Nazi propaganda: “fake news” and lies actually will define how they  engage in policy making.

This process already started. Bolsonaro wants to fight “gender ideology” in schools but there is no such thing. He warns about the danger of migrants when their numbers are minimal in Brazil. He offered Trump to create an American military base on Brazilian soil when there is no serious military problem in the region. The list goes on and on and defines a new government policy that fights deadly battles against phantoms and other imaginary beings.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a modern don Quixote but unlike his literary precedent he can make bad things happen. If the leader pretends to embody the people as a whole, he also ascribes  Images and ideologies to those that he deems as enemies. New realities emerge from this process of turning lies into reality and real people suffer.

Bolsonaro will damage Brazilian democracy. However, for many Brazilians, Bolsonaro in his early presidency will continue to represent an “honest” response to the problems of insecurity and recession. But if previous Latin American history can offer lessons here,  Bolsonaro’s state violence will produce more violence and his neo-liberalism will create more poverty and recession. It is likely that in this context, Bolsonaro will increase his authoritarianism as the only response to the absence of economic and security results, especially in the context of the lack of historical memory about the previous Brazilian dictatorships and their violent political and social outcomes.

Is Brazil heading towards a 21st century fascism? This question acquires paradoxical edges in a country in which populists like Vargas created an authoritarian democracy but also repressed local fascists. Historically in Brazil, but also in other countries of Latin America, populism distinguished itself by reformulating fascism and creating an authoritarian democracy. Vargas, like Juan Domingo Perón and many others, left dictatorship behind and created something new.

But in more recent times, populisms are once again approaching the violence and racism of fascism. They also do it with the inspiration of other dictatorial models such as Pinochet’s regime.

The options are worrisome. Either Bolsonaro destroys democracy from within following the fascist style, or he turns it into an “elected” dictatorship in the style of the failed Pinochetist attempt of the late 1980s, or he simply follows the populist way, degrading democracy without fully destroying it. Until now, Bolsonaro seems to be heading towards the third option and it is up to Brazilian civilian society, the independent press and its democratic institutions to limit his authoritarian desires..

Federico Finchelstein is a historian, professor at the New School for Social Research in New York and author of the book, “From Fascism to Populism in History.”


Photo: Fernando Souza / AFP

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