Rio de Janeiro

These were true believers, camped outside Jair Bolsonaro’s plush beachside home in the nouveau riche resort of Barra da Tijuca, 25 miles from the center of Rio and a stone’s throw from the Olympic village and the Atlantic surf. “He is the messiah! He was knifed, but rather than stay at home or lie on the beach, he is staying on to fight for his country,” said a woman wearing the jersey of Brazil’s national soccer team with Bolsonaro’s name printed on the back where usually you might see that of Neymar or Marcelo. The far-right candidate, now the clear favorite in Sunday’s presidential runoff election, who was stabbed before the first round of voting, now runs his campaign from his Barra da Tijuca condominium with the help of his three sons, two of whom are members of Congress.

The Bolsonaristas were ebullient as their hero’s lead over left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad widened to 20 points. “I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” said José Ruiz Barcellos, who wore an Incredible Hulk T-shirt, his Armani shades reflecting the green and yellow Brazilian flags waved frantically by the assembled Bolsonaristas. The flag says “Ordem e Progresso,” but the Bolsonaristas put special emphasis on order.

“He will fund the police—we can’t go out here for fear of being mugged,” said another woman, who dismissed claims that Bolsonaro is violently misogynistic as fake news, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. A jeep with a “genuinely militarized” sticker was loaded with inflatable dolls of longtime Workers’ Party leader and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a striped prison uniform.

The usual rage was vented against the Workers’ Party and its nonexistent plan to turn Brazil into another Venezuela, though a new enemy had entered the rhetoric: The establishment daily Folha de S.Paulo has now been earmarked for attacks after it exposed an avalanche of disinformation by Bolsonaro supporters on Facebook and WhatsApp. “I know you’re from Folha de S.Paulo; you are powerful, but soon you will lose,” said another woman, bizarrely convinced, despite my faltering Portuguese, that I worked for the Brazilian paper. When Bolsonaro drove by in a black SUV with tinted windows, the crowd went wild and a cacophony of car horns filled the avenue. “Mito, Bolsonaro chegou!” they shouted (“The legend, Bolsonaro, has arrived!”)

Once inside, the candidate made a video for transmission at the Bolsonarista rally that same day in São Paulo, in which he pledged that, once in power, he would “banish the marginal reds [delinquents of the left] from the fatherland; they will leave or be imprisoned,” he threatened, in a “cleansing never seen before in this country.” With a blank expression, his gaze barely connecting with the camera, he then added that former PT president Lula, controversially imprisoned for money laundering, “will rot in jail” and soon be accompanied by Haddad. This is the sort of talk that the Bolsonarista base loves to hear and that has already cost the life of Reginaldo Rosário da Costa, a 63-year-old black capoeira master in Salvador de Bahia, murdered by a Bolsonaro supporter on October 8. That was one of a series of attacks on Afro-Brazilians and members of the LGBT community in recent weeks.

But the hard-core Bolsonaristas are just the beginning of Brazil’s dangerous flirtation with the ex-captain of the parachute regiment. After more than two decades of insignificance, spouting almost comical rhetoric from his solitary seat in a corrupt Congress, Bolsonaro has moved irresistibly, like Brecht’s Arturo Ui, into the hearts if not the minds of millions of disenchanted Brazilians. His supporters are everywhere in Rio, and not just among those well-paid white males enamored of guns or the evangelicals espousing “family vales,” the traditional base of Bolsonaro, himself a gun-loving Christian fundamentalist, baptized in Israel in 2016.

In the past month, Bolsonaro has become mainstream. “I’m voting Bolsonaro,” said a young black woman who served pão de queijo in the bakery across the road from Rio’s breathtaking lagoon, though she could not explain why. “We need jobs and investment and the markets like Bolsonaro,” said a parking attendant in Copacabana who supported tough police action against drug traffickers in the favelas above (a gunfight between police and traffickers broke out nearby just hours afterward). There were even Bolsonaro voters in the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda spiritual center in the peripheral Rio district of Oswaldo Cruz, considered a school of Satanism by Bolsonaro evangelicals. “I’ll vote Bolsonaro; the system is corrupt and I want someone different,” said Rodrigo, one of the counselors who induce spiritual possession with the help of Afro-Brazilian Vodum techniques.

These were not the fanatics of Barra da Tijuca, just ordinary cariocas who have come to believe that the candidate is the last chance to fight a dysfunctional political system and a crime-ridden society. Support for the far-right icon has snowballed in the past three weeks, with millions of Brazilians seduced by what they see as an anti-establishment maverick who offers fast solutions to violent crime, mass unemployment, and endemic political corruption. Most do not approve of Bolsonaro’s violent rhetoric, expressing prejudices so openly that even Donald Trump would blink. But such is the disenchantment with the status quo in Brazil that his outrageous statements appear to make him credible as a politician who will break the system.

Given that Lula’s position in the polls was dominant until he was forced by the electoral authority to withdraw his candidacy in September, it is clear that a significant number of the ex-president’s supporters will now vote for Bolsonaro, an absurd feature of this election, in which confusion and disinformation have undermined logic. The pro-Bolsonaro wave is strongest in the south and center, which are whiter and wealthier, and in the megalopolis of São Paulo and Rio, while the PT hangs on in the northeast, Lula’s homeland, where Haddad is campaigning in an attempt to stem the Bolsonaro tide in the party’s traditional base.

How did this happen so quickly? After all, only weeks before the first-round election on October 7, most analysts expected Bolsonaro to be rejected in a second round, with a pro-democratic vote choosing Haddad as the least of the evils. A powerful last-minute surge before the first round, though, which took Bolsonaro’s vote to 46 percent, changed perceptions in the last week of the campaign. The pro-Bolsonaro wave has only strengthened since then, cresting at around 57 percent of the electorate in the latest polling.

Few expected this level of support for a candidate of such extreme right-wing views—as close to fascism as you will get in the world today, despite a growing number of contenders. To cite a few examples: Bolsonaro’s role model is the Brazilian general Brilhante Ustra, whose army unit tortured dissidents—former president Dilma Rousseff was one victim among hundreds—during the military dictatorship of 1964–85. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo announced at a meeting in July that was filmed and circulated widely this week that “all you need is a soldier and a corporal to close the Supreme Court.” Bolsonaro’s candidate for vice president, retired general Hamilton Mourão, has also defended military intervention to end corruption in the judicial system. Bolsonaro has stated in the past that 30,000 people would need to be killed in a civil war against communists before democracy is possible in Brazil. His misogyny, homophobia, and racism are so openly expressed that even Marine Le Pen called his rhetoric unpleasant.

Since 80 percent of the Brazilian public support democracy, according to a recent Folha poll, Haddad was hoping that a broad alliance of political, civic, and business leaders would help to educate a poorly informed electorate—many of them denied basic education by centuries of subjugation to a privileged elite—about Bolsonaro’s true colors. But as the October 28 election approaches, no such alliance has emerged.

Rather than point out the dangers inherent in a Bolsonaro victory, investors in financial markets have euphorically celebrated Bolsonaro’s meteoric ascent, with bank analysts publicly cheering his commitment to radical privatization, pension “reform,” tax cuts, and the downsizing of the Brazilian state. Bolsonaro’s University of Chicago–trained economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, was eulogized by brokers on Avenida Paulista. The real has strengthened and the stock markets have posted double-digit increases. Instead of rejecting Bolsonaro’s tirades against diversity and freedom of expression, corporate chiefs such as the head of beer-maker Ambev have readily met with Bolsonaro and chosen to warn against the PT’s defense of state-owned companies and plans to rein in the power of private banks.

According to Folha de S.Paulo, leading bank executives from Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Santander are being considered for posts in the Bolsonaro government. This has all helped to give him a more acceptable veneer, even to those who do not sympathize with his extreme views. Markets are watched closely here by an electorate that is punished by every inflationary depreciation of the real and every consequent hike in interest rates.

The intrepid Harvard-trained attorneys of the Lava Jato (car wash) anti-corruption probe lent a hand to Bolsonaro by re-releasing—months after its initial publication, and just as Haddad was gaining momentum before the first round—old plea-bargain testimony from former Lula finance minister Antonio Palocci that was damaging to the PT. Even leading judges appear more concerned about the PT than about the Bolsonaro family, despite the extremist candidate’s scant respect for Brazil’s Supreme Court. Three examples: The electoral authority banned a PT election ad that showed images of victims of torture ordered by Bolsonaro’s hero, Brilhante Ustra (PT polling showed that this campaign had been effective in countering Bolsonaro’s image as the new messiah). Second, Bolsonaro’s fake-news campaign on WhatsApp has been only mildly criticized by judges. Third, the Supreme Court has turned down a request by Folha de S.Paulo to interview Lula da Silva about the questionable charges of corruption against him.

Of the candidates defeated in the first round, only Marina Silva—the environmental champion who is understandably appalled by Bolsonaro’s plans to give carte blanche to Amazon deforestation and to withdraw from the Paris climate accord—has declared support for Haddad, although even that came late. Geraldo Alckmin, the establishment candidate for the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), who took only 5 percent of the vote in the first round, has refused to take sides. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president and PSDB member who supported Alckmin, has criticized Bolsonaro but has not taken the crucial step of endorsing Haddad. Not even Ciro Gomes, former minister in the first PT government along with Haddad, has actively supported him. After taking 12 percent of the vote on a center-left platform in the first round, he went on vacation to Europe, calling Brazil “a sick country.”

After Bolsonaro’s incendiary speeches from his Barra da Tijuca home on Sunday and the support of his son for a corporal-led putsch against the Supreme Court, some in the establishment appear to have finally awoken to the dangers. Two Supreme Court judges condemned Bolsonaro Jr.’s remark as a violation of the rule of law (though so far, none have filed suit against Bolsonaro or questioned the legality of his candidacy). Cardoso said the comment “stinks of fascism.” Cardoso and other PSDB leaders have reportedly agreed to draw up a manifesto in defense of democracy, although without explicitly supporting Haddad.

This is almost certainly too late. And support for Haddad from the discredited political leaders may even strengthen Bolsonaro’s rising wave of support, driven by an effective operation of false news in a country rivaled only by the United States for its addiction to social networks. Anti-PT sentiment is intense among half the electorate, fed constantly over the past five years by politically motivated attorneys who have targeted the PT for corruption, which is endemic across all parties in Brazil.

The news that Bolsonaro is considering appointing Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro—responsible for Lula’s imprisonment—to the Supreme Court will help the far-right candidate, though Moro’s reputation as superhero (he is a fan of Batman and Superman) has faded in the past year, as more evidence has emerged of his political bias. The PT’s disastrous economic mismanagement in the Dilma Rousseff years—before her impeachment in 2016—combined with the failure of her successor Michel Temer’s subsequent policies, is another factor in Bolsonaro’s rise. The austerity program implemented by Rousseff worsened the recession, while opposition in Congress and the media accused her of fiscal profligacy, a disastrous combination for the PT’s credibility, though Temer continued on the same path. At the same time, the steady growth of conservative evangelicalism among the Brazilian poor has fueled a culture war that has detached working-class voters from the left.

The Brazilian elite’s failure to support Haddad is another reminder that keeping the PT out of government is now considered by many of them to be a greater priority than democracy itself. After the collapse of the center-right, Bolsonaro seems to be the only option for those in São Paulo—and Wall Street—who support radical liberalization of the Brazilian economy.

“They will pay the price for this. The PT is the only party fighting fascism. This will give the left the moral advantage in the future, and Lula will be seen increasingly as a Mandela,” said an economist in Rio. Indeed, if Bolsonaro’s pledge to banish “marginal reds” from the country becomes more than empty rhetoric, the coming administration may take the so-far failed strategy to destroy the PT into new, more violent terrain.