Jair Bolsonaro And The Populist Crisis In Brazil

Felipe Silva/Pico do Jaraguá, Brazil

Establishment parties, the corporate press, and the major banks of Brazil are in a state of panic. The reason is not the financial and political disaster that has afflicted the country since around 2015, but the insurgent candidacy of a colorful outsider and the possibility he might win. After Duterte, Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Kurz, Salvini and Abe in Europe and Asia, this global phenomenon should by now feel familiar; but in each new case, calcified institutions and their spokesmouths react with the same surprise and outrage. The latest and, for America and the Western world, the most instructive example is this summer in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro stands a good chance of becoming the next president.

The convulsions Brazil has experienced over the last few years are unprecedented—at least since democracy was reestablished in the 1980s. One president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. Her predecessor Lula da Silva—a figure who for the Brazilian left and also for much of the international left was almost as significant in Brazil as Obama was in the United States—is now in jail. Eike Batista, just a few years ago one of the wealthiest men in the world, an Elon Musk-like futurist who was preparing to revitalize many old neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, now has a negative net worth, stands convicted of bribery, and is looking at a thirty-year sentence. The economy is in its worst recession—really a depression—in Brazilian history.

As an on-and-off resident of Rio for some years, I can see how the downturn is felt in day-to-day life, by both rich and poor. The famous Maracana stadium was, at the depth of the crisis, turned into a “ghost” shell of itself; the elegant Theatro Municipal in downtown Rio is mostly shut down for lack of funds, as are many of the city’s other landmarks. Long-established businesses have closed with nothing to replace them; shuttered storefronts, empty bars and restaurants, are a common sight. Worst of all is the crime and lawlessness. The chief driver of criminality has been lack of pay for police, which for a while almost abandoned the streets of even middle-class neighborhoods; the military was invited instead to provide security in the city, as well as for other parts of Brazil that have experienced police strikes. In the better neighborhoods, the situation is not as bad and the danger is often exaggerated, but people live in fear: the streets are empty after 10 PM and many businesses have had to either shut down or shift their hours as a result. The few who can turn to private security firms.

After Rousseff’s impeachment, supported by the vast majority of Brazilians, there was little hope that Michel Temer, the new president, could fix any of these problems. His government pursued a textbook neoliberal reform program of austerity with unfortunately familiar results; he currently enjoys an approval rating in the single digits, and his administration has also been caught up in corruption scandals. Given the severity of the economic and political crisis since 2015 and the failure of Temer’s government to do anything at all about it, it shouldn’t be surprising that people are desperate for something new. Jair Bolsonaro, a nationalist and populist congressman long regarded by the international left as the “most hateful” politician in the democratic world, might be the next president.

Bolsonaro’s background and his views are alarming and possibly confusing to the establishment, but familiar, encouraging, and reassuring to middle-class Brazilians. He is a military man and known as such: trained in a military academy, then a parachutist and captain, he had according to many a distinguished and even brilliant career in the army; he became known nationally after he stood up to the top brass during the 1980s transition period when the new democratic regime was trying to purge the military.

In the early 1990s, he was elected to local government in Rio de Janeiro and then to congress, after which he remained a perpetual maverick and outsider, focused on the corruption of the new Brazil, on the defense of the military against the new left, and on matters of law and order. Law and order, and the problem of criminality, have since at least 1990 been a crucial concern of the Brazilian working and middle classes. To Brazil’s new liberal elite, promoted by the civil educational system and by multiple NGOs—many supported by the United States State Department—it is Bolsonaro’s connection to the military that is most troubling.

The legacy of military rule in a country like Brazil is thoroughly misunderstood in the Anglo-American world. Its fall is seen as a moral story about the triumph of freedom and liberal democracy over tyranny and irrational repression. This view was promoted especially by the new democratic regimes not only in Latin America, but also in Spain, which legitimized themselves almost entirely through the demonization of their predecessors: movies like Live Flesh from Spain, and dozens of others from Latin America including the award-winning The Secret in Their Eyes from Argentina, and Four Days in September from Brazil itself, promoted specifically the image of a liberal and democratic world of freedom and possibility emerging after the end of rule of uncool and stupid authoritarian generals like Franco.

Such movies and other media efforts come off as relatively crude political propaganda, but they found a ready and believing audience in the developed world. The main—and probably the most innocent—reason for this reception was the lack of an independent military tradition in the Anglo world: for better or worse, veterans and the military have never formed a self-conscious political force in England or its colonies, unlike in Iberia, Latin America, and to a large extent also France and Germany; the entry of the military into politics is seen as dysfunctional. Then also, popular theories from European emigres such as the idea of an “authoritarian personality” functioned as a form of propaganda explicitly intended to ridicule military and more especially anti-communist tendencies. These types of theories were further reinforced by the left-leaning orientation of much of the press and entertainment industry in America and England, which found fatigue-wearing communist rulers like Castro romantic, but Pinochet and the pro-American Brazilian generals backward and repressive. Such attitudes were eventually assimilated into the general population.

But this isn’t how most middle and upper middle class Brazilians remember military rule. And the same goes for Spain and much of Latin America. Contrary to the stereotype of a repressive, static, backward society, it was during the rule of the generals that Brazil experienced an amazing 10% per year growth rate, unprecedented at the time and unequaled since. It was also during this time that much of the iconic Brazilian art and music that charmed the world was produced: it was the age of bossa nova, and the high tide of Brazilian fashion, cinema, and visual art. A confident and empowered middle class, not the military regime—which merely protected it—decided the character of the country at the time: photos of Rio de Janeiro show a city at its heights, elegant and, compared to today, clean and safe.

That the “Brazilian miracle” took place under military rule isn’t all that surprising, given that it was in the military, and especially in the middle ranks—captain, major, and colonel—that the drive for modernization and professionalism in developing societies was strongest. Samuel Huntington is better known for his later work, but possibly his best book is the early Political Order in Changing Societies, which describes these dynamics in detail. The military regimes in the Third World were, as Huntington emphasizes, professional and eager to make modern reforms, but they were weak. They had weak institutions and weak roots in society. Unlike totalitarian regimes based on the Soviet model, military dictatorships were not based on mass or Party mobilization of society: their authoritarianism was sporadic, inconsistently applied, and transient. They left traditional private society intact as it had existed and protected it: indeed, that was the very reason they existed.

Bolsonaro, with his associations to the military and his implicit nostalgia for the time of military rule, therefore represents one thing to the Brazilian elite and their counterparts abroad, but a very different thing to the Brazilian working and middle classes. To the former, his program appears to be an irrational pastiche of the worst and most retrograde ideas. He seems a monster out of nightmares: he is a social conservative, opposes feminism and gay rights, he praises the military and the police but advocates for free gun ownership, he is pro-business but the big banks and financial institutions hate him, and so on. A recent article in Foreign Affairs is a good example of cosmopolitan elite alarm at his policy positions, dismissed as “extreme rhetoric.” But in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s main positions are seen as responding to immediate, urgent, and concrete problems faced by the middle class. I will address briefly two positions that may seem unusual: his support for gun rights and his social conservatism.

Brazilian gun laws are currently some of the most restrictive in the world, and some of the most useless. Anyone can buy a gun in a matter of hours: in America, I would be somewhat at a loss about where to get a gun illegally, whereas in Brazil, everyone knows where you can get one fast and cheap. The same networks that traffic in drugs traffic also in guns. The problem is that if you get caught with a gun, you go to jail for three to five years, and this is a serious deterrent to middle class Brazilians, who have their freedom and livelihood to lose. They are also somewhat more likely to be searched by police, as they are less likely to resist and will not be defended in media by politicians and lawyers.

This has always been a problem, but in recent years guns have become ubiquitous among criminals, who buy them with ease and face no real penalty for being caught with one. Security in the nicer beach neighborhoods of Rio used to be dealt with sometimes by locals: local youths practiced martial arts and would patrol their own streets at night, keeping drug dealers, petty robbers, and others out. For some years this has stopped because all the criminals are now armed, whereas the locals can’t be.

Given that there isn’t enough money to pay police, and that, even if there were, there isn’t enough police at the moment to deal with the magnitude of the problem, universal gun ownership is a logical solution to a danger that affects the daily lives of the middle classes to a greater degree than anything else, and that, indeed, presents a real threat to the life of every resident of Brazilian cities. There are few other effective proposals on the table at this point, as life is devolving to the law of the jungle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that, contrary to the wishes of the liberal elite, Bolsonaro’s proposal is very popular among middle class Brazilians.

Bolsonaro’s social conservatism is motivated by similar protective and practical concerns. It is misunderstood and feared by leftists who believe it is connected to an “evangelical resurgence” and motivated by theology. But this isn’t why most Brazilians support his statements against feminism, gay rights, and “immorality.” The image foreigners have of Brazil and Brazilians as pleasure-loving and laid-back is accurate. But this doesn’t mean that working Brazilians with families want to have their children enticed, entrapped, or corrupted by foreign sex tourists with purchasing power far above that of locals during a crisis. They despise the ubiquity of prostitution, the intrusive, aggressive turn that gay rights activism has taken, and especially of drugs and drug culture. Most of all, they despise and are harmed by the effect these have on criminality in general—Trump’s controversial proposal for the death penalty for drug traffickers was applauded with enthusiasm by many in Brazil, who look forward to Bolsonaro doing the same. Beyond a certain point, which is yet unknown in American discourse, the problem of “social conservatism” becomes inseparable from the problem of law and order. Beyond this point, private deviance from social and moral norms spills over to become a problem of public social order. Brazil has long passed this point. Concerns about vulgarity in Brazil are real and immediate, and not, as among many establishment American conservatives, a matter of affect or a matter of class identity-performance.

There is, then, a huge disconnect between how the Brazilian elite, including the media, remembers military rule, and how the Brazilian people, especially the middle classes, remember it. The return of military rule isn’t on the table—despite all the hysteria, Bolsonaro isn’t and hasn’t proposed anything of the sort—but this disconnect over the meaning of the real Brazil or whether Brazil needs to be made “great again,” has much to do with the Bolsonaro phenomenon.

One of the episodes that revealed this elite-popular divide most vividly took place in 2007 when the movie Elite Squad came out, which dramatized the story of a militarized police unit fighting drug traffickers.

The movie was widely condemned as fascist both in Brazilian and international media. But in Brazil itself, audiences broke out in applause at the punishment dealt out to criminals, and especially at a scene where a crime-enabling, community organizing NGO leader in the favelas is met with a grisly end. The reaction to this scene especially shocked journalists worldwide, because it showed what the Brazilian middle class felt about a foot soldier of elite institutions and elite opinions. The differences between the two are irreconcilable. Accordingly, very little can be learned from official organs—government or mainstream press—about why someone like Bolsonaro has become so popular.

It’s impossible to know if Bolsonaro will win in the end. He will almost surely advance to a run-off, but he would thereafter face very serious challenges. Brazilian law apportions media coverage to heavily favor incumbents. His biggest obstacle, however, is voter fraud. Since voting is mandatory and therefore nearly universal, voter fraud is very common in Brazil on many levels. The impoverished north and northeast of the country, which are the base of the Brazilian establishment, will heavily favor Bolsonaro’s rival. Due to the backward infrastructure, these areas are also where voter fraud can be carried out most easily. In 2004, I myself was present at a meeting where the owner of a bakery chain was selling several thousand votes to a candidate for state congress. Bolsonaro is a one-man show and would have few allies in congress in the event of massive voter fraud; or, if he wins, once he is president.

For America and Europe, however, this year’s election in Brazil, is significant because Brazil represents what many want, or fear, for the future of the United States. A popular narrative on both sides about the issue at hand is that Trump-like candidates are propped up by a majority of white voters who fear becoming minorities, or who are making a last desperate reaction against multiracial society. The claim is often made that if white voters become a minority, these sorts of reactions, and populist demogogues like Trump, will become impossible, the left having achieved a “permanent majority”.

But Bolsonaro should demonstrate, for both sides, that the likelihood of a Trump-like candidate appearing will not be lessened by demographic change. As in the case of Duterte, the current populist and nationalist reaction against established elites isn’t dependent simply on the specific demographic situation of America, or on specific complaints like bungled adventures in the Middle East.

The issue at hand has to do fundamentally with the fitness of the post-war liberal order—specifically the elites promoted through the educational and electoral system—to manage modern economies and modern states. Closely related is the struggle that began during the Cold War, but that is nowhere close to being over. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s impeached former president, was a communist terrorist in the 1960s: she participated in kidnappings, torture, and possibly murder. In Brazil, as in the United States and Europe, the social movements and uprisings in the 1960s had a profound effect on the political direction of society. The generation involved in these revolutions, the “’68ers” as they are known outside of America, have captured the state and most institutions to become the dominant elite. This is true in America as well as across much of the Western world. But in Brazil, things are much more explicit—as if Bill Ayers, rather than merely Barack Obama, had become president in America.

This ideological element is a reason for a much wider disconnect between the elite and the middle classes than would otherwise be the case, and for corresponding distortions in public life and the media that reach far beyond a simple technocratic elite vs. tax-paying commons divide. The legacy of this ideological transformation of Western political institutions, finance, and media remains largely untouched in analyses of the multiple crises of our time, or in understanding the character of the reaction on the part of the middle classes and the ascent of men like Duterte, Bolsonaro, or Trump.

It’s amusing to note that, polls aside, in the mode of Thomas Friedman, I myself have tried to do an informal query of various Brazilians about whom they might support in the election this October. I’ve been surprised to find that not a single person I asked—of whatever social-economic class or occupation—has been for any of his opponents, and only two out of maybe a hundred said they didn’t entirely support him. The only exceptions were a delivery boy and my landlord. Both said they don’t like Bolsonaro because he’s too much “a man of the people,” and that Brazil is much too far gone for any one elected man to fix. They don’t like his populist antics. “I much prefer General Geisel, or someone like that,” said my landlord. “General Geisel, it’s who we need. He was Brazil’s greatest president.”

Costin Alamariu holds a PhD in political science from Yale University.