Brazil’s Bolsonaro Has Supercharged Right-Wing Cultural Politics

Brazil’s Bolsonaro Has Supercharged Right-Wing Cultural Politics

Brazil’s Bolsonaro Has Supercharged Right-Wing Cultural Politics

The new president-elect is an agent of the world’s most reactionary tendencies, many of them exported from the United States.


Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president-elect, who won Sunday’s second-round vote with a staggering 55 percent of the ballot, is an open fascist, a violent phobe of every decent thing. A misogynist who said he would rather see his son dead than accept him as gay, Bolsonaro is an agent of the world’s most reactionary tendencies, someone who joins fake-news-style social-media manipulation to old-fashioned death-squad repression. The makeup of Brazil’s congress looks grim as well, and the military will have his back—there’s little foreseeable break on what he can do. Markets are soaring. Global proud boys are dancing.

The mega-dozers are revving their engines, and the earth will be pushed to the limits, as Bolsonaro peeled off some of the landless vote by promising he’d remove prohibitions on colonizing the vast Amazon, even as his soy, lumber, mining, and cattle backers will lay waste to far larger swaths than any peasant ax could. “For Canadian business, a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities,” the CBC reported last night shortly after the results were announced, “as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rain forest and privatize some government-owned companies.” “Our Amazon is like a child with chickenpox, every dot you see is an indigenous reservation,” Bolsonaro has said, promising to do away with land set-asides for native peoples.

Brazil is one of the world’s largest economies, so it’s not hyperbole to say the election is a geopolitical Pittsburgh massacre. During the campaign, Bolsonaro’s supporters targeted his opponents for violent hate crimes, including carving a swastika into the skin of a 19-year-old woman carrying an LGBT flag [Ed: see clarification, below]. The crackdown on universities began even before his final victory. Just a week ago, Brazil’s new president-elect pledged that upon winning he would carry out “a cleansing never before seen in the history of Brazil.” Last year, he said he’d “give carte blanche for the police to kill.” Election day wasn’t even over when São Paulo’s new governor said he’d pay for the “best lawyers” to defend police who execute criminals. The targets will be, overwhelmingly, poor urban black boys and men, along with rural land and environmental activists.

There’s a lot to grapple with in Bolsonaro’s win, not least the way it reflects the successful importation of US-style right-wing cultural politics into Latin America, represented by what in this country are often called wedge issues, including abortion, sexual rights, guns, gender equality, prayer in school, and so-called “religious freedom.” Two years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, there was a lot of talk about how he represented the Latin Americanization of US politics, a kind of populist style associated with Third World dictators. But if one were to look beyond form and rhetoric, and get to the content of politics, what is truly worrying is how the influence flows in the opposite direction. The whole world, or at least a good part of Latin America, is becoming, to use Thomas Frank’s famous metaphor on the topic, Kansas.

Starting in the early 2000s, Brazil’s left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) took the presidency four times, as part of a long wave of progressive electoral victories. In 2002 and 2006, trade unionist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won with significant evangelical support—support that declined significantly in 2010 and 2014, in presidential elections that brought Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, to power. In fact, throughout the region, a new electoral left seemed immune to, or somehow managed not to be hobbled by, a politics organized around Christianism, libertarianism, the defense of patriarchy, the demonization of crime, and law-and-order militarism.

Homophobia, misogyny, racism, nativism, free-market morality, and law-and-order militarism—not to mention the kind of conspiracism that helped lift Bolsonaro to victory—are not alien to Latin America. But until the early 2010s—as the region’s ascendant social-democratic left won election after election in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—these impulses remained fragmented, dispersed. Self-identified progressive governments took wildly different stands on social issues—from, in El Salvador and Nicaragua, punitive laws that prosecuted women for abortion to, in countries like Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, tentative advocacy for women’s and sexual rights. Yet whatever the government position, in most places, the return of an electoral left created a space for the weakening of patriarchal control, including the advance of abortion and gay rights.

Meanwhile, Lula, especially after 2008’s global market collapse, strode the world stage, hailed as a moderate socialist who could bridge the interests of the developing and developed world. With commodity prices running high, Lula’s government was able to lift millions of Brazilians out of dire poverty, while steering a fairly independent foreign policy. “That’s my man right here. Love this guy,” said Barack Obama about Lula, shortly after his own inauguration in early 2009 at an international summit. “He’s the most popular politician on earth.”

Less than a decade later, Obama is gone, Trump is president of the United States, and Lula is in jail, on a flimsy corruption conviction. That conviction was precipitated by the “soft” impeachment coup against Lula’s successor, Rousseff, who as a former armed militant and woman served as a lightning rod for the anti-modern moralism of a reconstituting right. The coup against Dilma was led by an increasingly politicized “bullets, beef, and Bibles” coalition, made up of politicians, like Bolsonaro, allied to security forces, large-scale agricultural interests, and evangelicals. It was a full-on revanchist reaction against the PT’s moderate redistributionist and regulatory policies, a backlash that fused the kind of cultural and social conservativism associated with the United States to a nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship—which is really just nostalgia for slavery, which in Brazil ended in 1888, decades later than it did in the United States.

Obama, during his last stretch in the White House, normalized this soft coup against Dilma in more or less the same terms he would use to normalize his own symbolic overthrow by Donald Trump, affirming the resiliency of democratic institutions and the need to accept the ups and downs of electoral competition. But the all-white, all-male, venally corrupt government that replaced Rousseff’s socially diverse administration played John the Baptist to Bolsonaro’s fascist Jesus (Bolsonaro and his supporters often play on his middle name, which is Messias, Portuguese for “Messiah”).

The PT’s affirmative anti-racist policies were rolled back, spending was cut, and welfare programs were dismantled. Even efforts to ban slave labor in the agricultural sector were halted. The state began to repress social movements. As commodity prices tumbled, and some of the most corrupt politicians on the planet shamelessly launched an anti-corruption campaign to destroy the PT and prevent Lula from running for president, a deep disaffection set into national politics: Brazilians are obligated by law to vote, but Sunday’s election saw absenteeism running at 30 percent.

In retrospect, a 2005 national referendum Brazil held to limit access to guns, which took place during Lula’s first term, should have been a warning. At first, polls showed that up to 80 percent of the population supported the ban. Up until that point, there had been no real politicized gun-rights culture in Brazil, or at least not anything that looked like the US’s cult of the Second Amendment. But after the National Rifle Association began pouring money into the campaign, paying for ads urging Brazilians to vote no—to defend their right to bear arms, even though Brazil’s Constitution contains no such right—the referendum lost, with more than 60 percent voting no.

In subsequent years, as the regional left began to lose ground—at the polls in Argentina and Chile, and in US-legitimized coups in Honduras and Paraguay—the various tentacles of the US New Right pushed and probed. The NRA, the mega-churches, and the Koch-funded libertarian Atlas Network, among other groups, are everywhere: in Central and South America, and in the Caribbean. But powerhouse Brazil, the linchpin of any geopolitical vision, is the prize. For instance, Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, which promotes “religious freedom” and opposes same-sex marriage rights, the extension of hate-crime legislation, and laws that protect LGBT people, has a major presence in Brazil, as does the powerful Pentecostal Assemblies of God.

Bolsonaro is their guy. He remains a conservative Catholic even though he was baptized in the Jordon River by a pastor with the evangelical Assembly of God—an apt intersectional identity for the leader of a new trans-theocon coalition whose common hatred of trans trumps theological differences. Where just 10 years ago so-called social and cultural issues linked to US politics had little traction in Brazil, now Bolsonaro’s campaign—replete with white-supremacist conspiracies and racial and religious grievances, for guns and against abortion, LBGT rights, cultural Marxism, taxes, and affirmative action—looked as if it could have been mounted from the deepest cesspools of 4chan. What is specific to Brazil is Bolsonaro’s repeated promise to rehabilitate, and perhaps even restore, the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.

Meanwhile, many of Bolsonaro’s supporters showed up to vote carrying assault weapons, defending what they imagined was their universal right to bear arms. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, who holds a seat in congress, has a “shrine” to the NRA in his office, which includes a tiny plastic fetus; bobblehead dolls of George Washington, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump; and the Gadsden flag’s coiled “don’t tread on me” snake.

It makes sense that Brazil would be vulnerable to US-style wedge-issue divisionism and disinformation, since both countries share a broadly similar sociological history, especially when it comes to the legacy of slavery and race-based property ownership. One key difference though: In Brazil, it’s the geographic south, the region often identified as “modern,” dominated by hyper-urban and hyper-electronically connected industrial São Paulo, that is driving the country to the precipice. Brazil’s rural north and northeast, the region most scarred by the legacy of slavery and dominated by agro-industry, is still a stronghold of the PT—colored red on this map—and fast becoming among Latin America’s last redoubts of the enlightenment. So we might rephrase Thomas Frank’s perennial question: What’s the matter with São Paulo?

Clarification: According to a report in Folha de S.Paulo, a Rio Grande do Sul police investigation concluded that the woman who had a swastika carved into her skin staged the attack herself; her attorney rejected that finding and requested further investigation. More broadly, there were other hate crimes during the election campaign, including the murder of a capoeira master by a Bolsonaro supporter.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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