November 27, 2018

How Bolsonaro Came to Pass

Esther Solano Gallego

Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidential election with more than 55% of the vote. With only eight seconds of television campaign advertising and an unknown party, this result in itself would be considered historic, but the Bolsonaro wave doesn’t end there.

Bolsonarismo has conquered not only the Presidency but also the Congress and some of the highest political positions in state governments. In parallel to the presidential elections, Brazil also chose new state and federal representatives, senators, and governors. Brazilians have given several strong messages at the polls in this process, but perhaps the clearest of all was: we want renewal.

The old party bosses of Brazilian politics finished without a seat for the first time. The great names of Brazil’s national polity disappeared from the map, including the emblematic Romero Jucá (from the Brazilian Democratic Movement, or MDB)—deputy leader of the Senate during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration (1995-2003), leader during the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff administrations, minister under current President Michel Temer, and current president of the MDB—who lost his bid for re-election as senator in the northern state of Roraima. Also paradigmatic was the case of the candidates from the famed Sarney family in the state of Maranhao, who also did not obtain a single seat. This was an unexpected blow for one of the most important political dynasties of Brazil’s northeast and a paradigmatic symbol of the old-style feudal politics.

Also notable was the defeat of Dilma Rousseff, whose candidacy to become senator for the state of Minas Gerais was frustrated, leading to another bitter defeat for the Workers’ Party (PT). This negative result mixed with the explosive symbolism that surrounds the former president, who was a victim of a very controversial impeachment process that many have described as a “soft coup.”

The Senate and the House of Representatives will each see its greatest turnover in decades, and it is a renewal that comes about through Bolsonaro’s party. The Social Liberal Party (PSL) went from a negligible total of 8 seats to 52, making it the second largest bloc after the Workers’ Party and including some of the most popular Brazilian politicians: Janaina Paschoal, the lawyer who filed the petition for impeachment against Dilma Rousseff, was elected to the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo with more than 2 million votes, and Eduardo Bolsonaro, with no special distinction in his political background besides being the son of Jair Bolsonaro, was the most voted federal representative with more than 1.8 million votes.

The new governors of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, two of the most important states in Brazil, are also very emblematic cases of this process. In Rio de Janeiro, former judge Wilson Witzel of the Social Christian Party (PSC) took 59.87% of the vote against Eduardo Paes (MDB), who was mayor of the city of Rio for eight years. In Minas Gerais, Partido Novo businessman Romeu Zema won an impressive 71.80% against historic Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate Antonio Anastasia. Both new governors were totally unknown, but both had the blessings of Jair Bolsonaro.

The Promise of Change

One of the issues that comes up most consistently in the interviews I do with Bolsonaro voters is that he represents “someone different,” an anti-establishment outsider, someone capable of confronting a totally corrupt political logic. The idea of “hope” is presented on numerous occasions in his conversations with voters. He would promise to be a different kind of politician, honest and authentic, strong enough not to let himself be led by the logic of the politically correct. Bolsonaro’s marketing managed to transform the longtime member of Congress into an anti-establishment figure capable of capturing the protest vote of frustration and anger against the political system. The traditional political parties are viewed by many Bolsonaro supporters as being basically all the same. This strong anti-partisanship leads to the possibility for party innovation that, in this case, would be satisfied by Bolsonaro’s PSL.

Corruption is at the center of the arguments of contempt against the system. Not only are the professional politicians dirty and corrupt, but political activity itself arouses negative sentiments of shame and rejection. At the heart of this rejection of politics as an eminently corrupt activity is the role of the “Operation Car Wash.” Bolsonaro supporters are often fervent enthusiasts of this criminal investigation, though not so much from the institutional point of view as from what I call messianic justice.

Judge Sergio Moro—in charge of prosecuting the crimes identified in the operation—is a hero for many, “a savior with a task,” “an envoy who will clean Brazil” of corrupt politicians, those who represent evil in this moralistic and dualist vision of justice. The show of the criminal process, with the figure of the activist judge, alongside the anti-corruption operations as a dramatized form of the criminalization of politics, prevail over a punitive logic in which criminal guarantees are a dispensable accessory. This way of understanding political judicialization obviously weakens the importance of politics as a collective task in the eyes of public opinion and favors the receptivity of outsiders who present themselves as non-political.

Bolsonaro’s campaign has been so demagogic that many people voted for a certain “illusion of the new” without having real knowledge of what his administration would mean in practice. All electoral propaganda has been about moral issues, presenting the PT as the great enemy and Bolsonaro as the anti-establishment antidote. Everything was extraordinarily appealing.

Meanwhile, hardly a word has been said about the economy. The business establishment is mostly happy with Bolsonaro, or rather, with his economic adviser Paulo Guedes, a well-known neoliberal who in the 1970s studied economics at the University of Chicago. He was one of the founders of the Instituto Millenium, a think tank dedicated to propagating neoliberal ideology in Brazil. Coming from the private market, one of the main criticisms of Guedes’ detractors is that he has no experience in public management. Another more controversial point in his biography is his time spent in Chile as a university professor during the Pinochet regime.

Bolsonaro has stated on several occasions that he does not know a thing about economics and that he will leave all decisions in the hands of Guedes. He has also repeated that he wants to reduce the size of the state apparatus and the federal bureaucracy. Toward this end, he has expressed intent to merge the Ministries of Economy, Finance and Planning, and Industry and Commerce, with Guedes acting as “superminister.” Guedes defends a strong privatization agenda and a radical tax and pension reform. It remains to be seen if Brazilians who have voted with such faith in Bolsonaro continue to be satisfied when these implacable measures are applied.

The Death of the Traditional Parties

The biggest loser in this election was the party that traditionally represented the center right in Brazil, the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), which fell from 49 to 29 representatives—from the third most important parliamentary group in the country to the ninth. The party that once represented Brazilian social democracy, which has among its founders such emblematic figures as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has been rebuffed by the voters. At the presidential level, polarization has always been between the PT and PSDB, but this time, the tucano¹ candidate Geraldo Alckmin finished the first round with a ridiculous 4.76% of the votes. The center right has been swept off the map.

A new polarization is underway, PT versus PSL—that is, center left versus extreme right. The most solid candidate of the PSDB, João Doria, former mayor of São Paulo and newly elected governor of the state of São Paulo, represents a strong ideological shift, having totally distanced himself from the social democratic tradition to approach a line much closer to the far right. Doria’s campaign seemed much more like that of a PSL candidate than PSDB, so much that he came to be called BolsoDoria and even used the image of Jair Bolsonaro in his electoral advertising. The election of Doria, the newest big name of the PSDB, has caused huge internal friction in the party, to the point that after his victory neither Cardoso nor Alckmin called to congratulate him. Both knew how easily Doria could ideologically destroy the PSDB and transform it into a satellite party in Bolsonaro’s orbit.

A similar destiny has befallen another formation of the political establishment, the MDB. The party of current President Michel Temer lost a number of regional leaders in the recent election and declined from 66 to 34 members of Congress.

The result of all this is a deeply fragmented Congress, with a projection of at least twenty political blocs with thirty parties represented. This fragmentation, in the context of a coalition-based presidential system like that of Brazil, does put the new President in a difficult negotiating situation that will present challenges to his cabinet and political program.

The Fate of the Workers’ Party

After President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 and the imprisonment of Lula da Silva in 2018, and with a massive antipetismo² bolstered by Bolsonaro’s candidacy, many gave the PT up for dead. However, petismo has managed to stand back up again. Fernando Haddad got 44.87% of the votes in the second round and the PT will be the largest block in the Congress with 57 representatives. Already in the first round, the PT managed to place three governors in the northeastern states of Bahia, Piauí, and Ceará. Looking at maps of the election results, it is very clear that the middle and upper classes of the country have voted for Bolsonaro, and that the popular classes, mainly in the northeast region, voted for the PT.

Despite losing the presidential election, the PT is emerging from such a dark period that there might actually be opportunity for it to regain some of its lost ground as a leader of the opposition. The data shows that the PT, with 47 million votes, has the capacity to act as a tough opposition to the new government, for example by leading its supporters into the streets when Bolsonaro tries to pass unpopular measures.

There also remains potential for Haddad to bring a breath of fresh air. It is worthwhile to remember that Haddad became the PT’s presidential candidate only after Lula was finally denied the right to participate in the election on the basis of a corruption conviction that many believe was politically motivated. Haddad was Lula’s subsequent choice, endorsed less than a month before the general election. At the time, the former mayor of Sao Paulo was practically unknown at the national level, and with so little time to prepare it proved impossible for him to move beyond the shadow of the imprisoned former President. Now there remains some chance that he might further develop his role in the party, even while still faces difficulties, especially to be accepted by the broader PT leadership.

More broadly, it remains to be seen if PT leadership is able to do what is necessary to recover its dialogue with the people, and to re-approach the peripheral and popular sectors and even the middle classes. Indeed, the PT has moved away from its popular social bases and no longer represents the movement party that it was in its origin. It is evident that many things must change in the internal composition of the party if it is to regain its vitality, reconnect with these social bases, and increase its capacity for popular mobilization. And while it remains unclear if the bureaucratic-professional machine of the party will be capable of a renewal, this period of four years in the opposition could be an opportunity to reconfigure itself and become the engine of a democratic front, bringing together various political forces against the extreme right.

The Other Main Players

Evangelical churches in Brazil are an undeniable political actor, but in this election they acquired special relevance. Countless pastors of various Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal denominations preached that the faithful should vote for Bolsonaro because, according to their interpretation of the Bible, being a Christian is simply not compatible with being a leftist.

One of the most important moments of the electoral campaign was when Bishop Edir Macedo, leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and former supporter of Lula and Dilma, publicly extended his hand to Bolsonaro, offering even his powerful communication channel, the Rede Record. This presented an interesting paradox, as one of the pillars of the PT during its origins in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the Catholic Church, especially its grassroots communities. However, now other churches (of the evangelical persuasion) not only reject the PT’s religious past, but also demonize the party as if it were synonymous with anti-religion and moral chaos. Evangelical representatives in the Congress, the so-called bancada da Biblia, will certainly form part of Bolsonaro’s support base.

On the other hand, the increasing presence of the military in Brazilian politics is one of the most outstanding elements of this election. Bolsonaro is a former captain of the Brazilian army; his candidate for vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, is a former general. Some of the possible ministers for Bolsonaro’s government are also senior military officers, including former generals Augusto Heleno (Defense) and Osvaldo Ferreira (Transport, Ports and Civil Aviation). In addition, the representation of police and military in the Congress, the so-called bancada de bala, has considerably increased: previously without senators, it will now have 18 starting in 2019. Among the 52 PSL representatives, 20 are either part of the military or linked to the military or civil police.

One of the issues that Bolsonaro’s supporters are continually repeating is the prevailing need for “order” in the face of political, economic, and social chaos. This order would come thanks to the recovery of military values ​​such as hierarchy, discipline, and authority. The militarization of public and political life would be the only possible way to restore stability. The armed forces and the church are the institutions that Brazilians trust the most. At the opposite extreme are the political parties and the congress, both institutions that inspire total distrust.

There was considerable outrage following the comments made by Bolsonaro and his entourage praising Brazil’s dictatorial period as a symbol of economic prosperity and security for citizens. Many people question whether Bolsonaro’s government will have an authoritarian military character or if, on the contrary, the new government will play along with the traditional Brazilian policy of negotiation and conciliation between forces.

Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies have been evident throughout the campaign. When referring to the PT, which he harshly attacks, Bolsonaro said during a campaign event that Haddad should end up in jail or in exile, and during another rally he said that petistas should be machine-gunned. Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the new President, said months before the election that the Supreme Court could be closed down by only one soldier, a phrase for which he received a severe rebuke from the judges of the country’s most important court. Celso de Mello, the justice with the most years on the court, attributed the words to those of a putschist. On election day, Supreme Court President José Antonio Dias Toffoli issued a public reminder for the new President to honor the Constitution, and warned that authoritarian excesses would not be tolerated.

Antipetismo, Anti-leftism, Anti-intellectualism

One of the most interesting facts of this campaign at a symbolic level has been the resurgence of anti-communism in Bolsonaro’s electoral propaganda. The rabid antipetismo so present during pro-impeachment demonstrations transformed into an even broader form of anti-leftism. It must be remembered that Bolsonaro’s core support comes from white, middle and upper-class voters. During the pro-impeachment demonstrations of 2015 and 2016, several researchers captured how the antipetismo present there had much to do with anti-egalitarianism and the rejection of social programs serving the upward mobility of the poorest, in a clear example of class-based resentment. Bolsonaro obtained up to 75% of the votes in medium and high-income municipalities, but did not reach even 25% in the most impoverished districts, which remained loyal to the PT. Fernando Haddad prevailed in 9 of the 10 poorest municipalities.

The vote difference defined by economic class is also observed when we look at racial demographics. Bolsonaro won in 9 out of 10 districts with a white majority, while Haddad prevailed in 7 out of 10 with a non-white majority. There is a very distinct social issue in a country as unequal as Brazil, without which we can understand practically nothing: contempt for the poor.

The PT governments were best known for their affirmative action and redistributive public policies—such as the famous Bolsa Familia program of financial assistance to poor Brazilian families—which together helped bring more than 30 million Brazilians out of poverty. Millions were able to buy their first washing machine and refrigerator, and even had the audacity to frequent shopping malls, airports, and universities—spaces that the inhabitants of the peripheries and favelas had never occupied. The percentage of black students in federal universities (which were always associated with the country’s elite) doubled from 5.5% in 2005 to 12.8% in 2015, thanks to the racial quotas programs in public higher education. It turned out that the middle classes had not forgiven this transgression.

Furthermore, the idea that the PT is the most corrupt party in Brazil, and thus the guiltiest for the economic crisis, was ruthlessly exploited by the Bolsonaro campaign. The anti-leftist electoral rhetoric reached Cold War levels, including the invocation of an actual red scare. If before the enemy had been the PT, it has now expanded to include the entire progressive field. The left thus becomes a polysemic category, bringing together activists, academics, protesters, would be “bandits,” and those who “suck from the teat of the state because they do not work.”

One of the questions that defines the new right worldwide is its frontal attack against identity movements. The advances in the political, social, and cultural fields during the last decades by the feminist, LGBT, and black movements are undeniable. The nostalgic masculine ideal of a heteronormative and patriarchal traditional family is being challenged. It is crucial to remember that the largest opposition to Bolsonaro has been the #Elenão (not him) movement, mainly composed of the female public that felt challenged and assaulted by Bolsonaro’s misogynistic comments and attitudes.

Brazil is a country with a highly patriarchal politics. However, the power of feminism in the streets and on social networks is becoming more intense, and in this electoral year it actually became the vanguard of the democratic struggle. In this sense, the surprising numbers of women and LGBT people who voted for Bolsonaro stand out. It is worth explaining these cases better. Among these voters there is a clear minimization of the misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic speech of Bolsonaro. Freedom of speech is taken as an inalienable right against a supposed dictatorship of the politically correct. On the other hand, these groups reject identity movements, characterizing them as exaggerated and even violent, exhibitionists and troublemakers. In their view, the collective struggle does not guarantee rights; what rather matters is personal effort and individual work.

WhatsApp-ification of Politics, Memeification of Hate

For the first time in an election, WhatsApp became a primary tool for the dissemination of political information and fake news. The virtual war reached its climax on October 18, when the newspaper Folha de São Paulo revealed a scheme involving millions of campaign messages in favor of Bolsonaro being sent via WhatsApp and financed by various corporations. This constitutes an electoral crime and resulted in an unsuccessful attempt by the Workers’ Party to suspend Bolsonaro’s candidacy

The result was that an army of online trolls with non-random flows were organized in a systematic way to successfully viralize a huge stock of information. The vilification of the political enemy was the modus operandi of this online campaign. This vilification was not so much programmatic as it was moralizing and infantilizing. This moralization/infantilization of politics was central to Bolsonaro’s campaign.

In addition of the harmful effects of this anti-democratic strategy, also on display was a radical change in informational and cognitive models. Politics are presented as a dogma, an absolute truth. Whoever questions them will be expelled from the group. Opinion gains status of information in a fundamentalist and hyperpersonal dynamic of knowledge acquisition. In this sense, the university becomes a priority enemy because it represents the reflective and scientific model of knowledge formation.

Anti-academicism, rejection of scientific thought, and demonization of academics are part of this pre-illuminist process. The university must not be the locus of critical thinking but rather a tool of technical, “useful,” “neutral,” and “non-ideological” education. This has led to an inquisitorial attack and a witch hunt against critical thinking. A logic of hatred, intolerance, physical annihilation, and silencing of the enemy is established in everyday life. Hate is politicized and becomes an essential electoral element. Otherness is an enemy. The result is a fascistization of life through the supposed impossibility of coexistence with others who think or are different, and must as such be excluded from the public sphere.

But this hate speech is peculiar. The new right does not present itself to the public using the same sort of austere, traditional language of the old right. This new right draws its strength from the online world, and adopts a body of aesthetics that is playful, youthful, and trivializing, exploiting even the political ridicule that its shenanigans produces. This is the absolute trivialization of hatred, the memeification of hatred.

Bolsonaro: Another Brick in the Wall?

Bolsonaro not only won at the polls. The Bolsonarization of the public sphere in Brazil, with all the elements described above, suggests that this is not only an electoral phenomenon but actually a socio-political phenomenon of great importance. This presents an immense reflective and political challenge that leftist groups must now face with urgency.

The first step, without a doubt, is to study and better understand this penetration of the extreme right into public life, which has taken place not only in Brazil but also at the international level. Many say that Bolsonaro is the Brazilian Trump, but there are important differences between the two presidents: Bolsonaro does not have Trump’s economic machine and he does not walk under the banner of a traditional political party. The role of the military in Bolsonaro’s government is also different, as is his tendency to exalt military dictatorship as an exemplary form of government. In a country with such recent memories of military dictatorship, this exaltation and its implications draw a stark contrast with Trump.

At the same time, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy plan will be to draw closer to Trump and other representatives of the international far right. Within Latin America he has already given priority to a direct confrontation with Venezuela that, once in government, could lead to the possibility of military intervention, likely with the support of the US government. As with many of these new right forces, Bolsonaro is also far more skeptical of international cooperation and dialogue, and has already announced plans to distance himself from the MERCOSUR and BRICS projects, while also voicing skepticism of the role of the United Nations.

Indeed, in spite of their differences, there can be no doubt that Trump and Bolsonaro are two representatives of a movement of right-wing populist leaders that is gaining prominence in the world and will continue to win destabilizing victories. Steve Bannon himself has already declared on several occasions his satisfaction with Bolsonaro’s victory as part of the internationalization of this new extreme right. As a continental power, Brazil’s political decisions have regional and global implications, and Bolsonaro’s role in the current international moment should not be underestimated. If Trumpism is an emerging phenomenon beyond the borders of the US, so too must the world stand guard against a broader Bolsonarization of the political sphere.

1. Translator’s note: Members of the PSDB are called tucanos because the party mascot is a blue and yellow colored toucan.
2. Translator’s note: Anti-PT sentiment, or antipetismo, refers to a political movement that has been active for several years and is organized entirely around its complete rejection of the Workers’ Party.

Solano Gallego is a sociologist and professor at the Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil. She is the editor of Hate as Politics: The Reinvention of the Brazilian Right, an investigation into the Bolsonaro phenomenon and the rise of the far right in Brazilian politics.

Translation and editing by Mariana Fernandez and Ethan Earle.