Rio de Janeiro—While many in the West lamented Jair Bolsonaro’s stunning ascension to the presidency of the world’s fifth most populous country in 2018, the election outcome was sealed roughly a year earlier. That was when Brazil’s two-term center-left president, Lula da Silva, who had been legally barred from a third consecutive term in 2010 despite an 86 percent approval rating—and who was leading in all the polls for a comeback in the 2018 presidential race—was convicted on dubious corruption charges and then declared ineligible to run. With his primary obstacle out of the way, Bolsonaro cruised to victory.
The stench of those events intensified greatly when Bolsonaro appointed the judge who’d found Lula guilty, Sergio Moro, to the newly enhanced position of minister of justice and public security. Even Moro’s closest allies in the sprawling anti-corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato in Portuguese) were outraged by this blatant quid pro quo, which they realized would forever tarnish their legacy.
Bolsonaro’s victory—propelled in large part by widespread anger toward the ruling class and its neoliberal ideology, as well as the multiple crises plaguing the country—was a major blow to progressive hopes across Latin America. Brazil had been a leader in democratizing the region since 1985, when popular protests forced the country’s military rulers—who had savagely wielded power following a 1964 coup in which the generals deposed a democratically elected president—to return to civilian rule. Ever since, it has been not just taboo but illegal for anyone to praise the dictatorship, which exiled, tortured, imprisoned, and killed thousands of artists, dissidents, journalists, and activists.
But during the 28 years that he was a member of Congress from Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro—who’d served as an army captain during the dictatorship—defied that taboo with abandon. He has always maintained that military rule was a superior form of government to democracy, urged the return of the most repressive military decrees, criticized Brazil’s military rulers for not killing enough people, and vowed that he would close the country’s Congress if he were president.
In May 2019, I was contacted by an anonymous source who told me he had hacked into the phone data and chat logs of Brazil’s most powerful officials, including Judge Moro and the lead prosecutors who imprisoned Lula. Our reporting, beginning with a series of exposés in The Intercept in June 2019, proved that there was widespread corruption among the Car Wash leaders. Our revelations paved the way for the release of Lula from prison in November 2019 and, on March 8 of this year, the nullification of Lula’s convictions. As a result, Lula’s political rights have been restored, meaning he will almost certainly be eligible to challenge Bolsonaro in 2022. That showdown has enormous consequences, not just for Brazil or Latin America but for the future of the entire planet.
It’s not just that Brazil has oil. The country’s massive oil reserves, including much of the planet’s so-called pre-salt reserves, are of particular geostrategic and environmental importance. “Pre-salt” is a geological designation for oil that is extremely old and thus buried far deeper in the earth than standard petroleum, usually under a layer of salt. That makes its extraction more difficult and expensive, but it also provides far more potential in terms of volume than most of the world’s remaining reserves. Brazil’s Petrobras discovered the massive pre-salt reserves in 2006, but it is still unknown just how large they are. What is beyond doubt is that the oil is of immense value to a world still dependent on fossil fuels yet whose reserves are dwindling.
Beyond the sprawling, untapped pre-salt petroleum, Brazil controls the vast majority of the environmental asset scientists around the world agree is the single most important natural resource, by far, in averting catastrophic climate change: the Amazon rain forest. The Amazon’s primary value lies in its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. As a comprehensive Associated Press article about the region explained, “Currently, the world is emitting around 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. The Amazon absorbs 2 billion tons of CO2 per year (or 5% of annual emissions), making it a vital part of preventing climate change.”
The context for that AP article—and thousands more like it from around the world—was that in mid-2019, the world looked on in horror as the Brazilian Amazon burned. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke for much of the world when he posted the following tweet: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest—the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen—is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 summit, let’s discuss this emergency first order in two days! #ActForTheAmazon.”
These Amazon fires, largely the result of ranchers and farmers illegally clearing the land, were so globally alarming precisely because they signified serious regression at a time when radical progress is most sorely needed. As the AP article detailed, “Fires in the Amazon not only mean the carbon-absorbing forest is disappearing, but the flames themselves are emitting millions of tons of carbon every day.” It cited the Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre, who warned that “we’re close to a ‘tipping point’ that would turn the thick jungle into a tropical savannah.”
The fires underlined Brazil’s importance to the world, largely because so many realized that they had ignited not due to natural causes but as a direct result of policy and ideology. Specifically, the policies and ideology of one man: Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro has long railed against the protections accorded to the Indigenous tribes of Brazil and to the Amazon territory where they have lived for centuries. Along with his defense of all forms of military and police violence, the aggressive exploitation of the Amazon is one of the few core beliefs Bolsonaro has championed consistently throughout his decades as a politician. For that reason, his presidential candidacy was supported by the nation’s extremely powerful, and very rich, agricultural and logging industries long before he was viewed as a viable contender. Indeed, they were eager to find a president who would unleash commercial interests without the slightest regard for the environmental value of the Amazon or the survival of the Indigenous tribes.
Nobody paying close attention to Brazil was surprised by the Amazon fires, which were caused by the very industries that now compose such a crucial part of Bolsonaro’s base. As Nobre explained, the cattle ranchers and farmers who set the fires “think law enforcement won’t punish them.” The AP report continued, “Bolsonaro has decreased the power and autonomy of forest protection agencies, which he says get in the way of licensing for developing land and accuses of being ‘fines industries.’”
Bolsonaro all but made deforestation an explicit goal of his administration; his choice for environment minister, the previously obscure Ricardo Salles, once touted bullets as the “solution” for Indigenous tribes, environmental and homeless activists, and “the left” generally. In his short stint as a local environmental official in the state of São Paulo, Salles was convicted of administrative improprieties for the forged maps for proposed environmental protection plans published by his office and was barred from seeking elective office for three years. Two weeks later, in December 2018, Bolsonaro appointed him environment minister. That a resource as vital as the Amazon is now in the hands of these two fanatics would itself be sufficient reason for the world to pay attention to Brazil.
Even in his support for the Amazon’s destruction, Bolsonaro is following the ethos of the military dictatorship that he admires. Thousands of Indigenous citizens were killed during that era by a regime intent on developing and exploiting the Amazon, regardless of the human, cultural, environmental, or other costs. Indeed, the leaders of the 1964 coup frequently spoke of Brazil’s Indigenous population with a level of contempt only slightly less explicit than Bolsonaro’s.
But an eagerness to destroy the Amazon for short-term profit is just one of the attributes that make Bolsonaro so dangerous. He is as unhinged in his comportment as he is neofascistic in his ideology. Far more chilling than Bolsonaro’s adolescent and reckless behavior—such as his mockery of the physical appearance of Macron’s wife in response to the French president’s viral tweet—are his core beliefs, which had for years relegated him to the role of sideshow clown rather than that of a legislator of any significance.
Bolsonaro was expelled from the army in 1988 for planning to detonate small bombs on military installations in protest of what he regarded as the unjustly low salaries received by soldiers. He had previously been disciplined by the military for publishing an article in the widely circulated Veja magazine that denounced military pay rates—an act that also turned him into a minor celebrity among supportive soldiers. He then launched his political career that year with a successful run for the city council of Rio de Janeiro on a pro-military platform.
Despite his expulsion from the military, he remained an avid fan of the regime, defending the 1964 coup as a “democratic and popular revolution,” calling the era of the dictatorship “glorious,” and insisting for three decades that Brazil was better off under despotism than under democracy. Indeed, Bolsonaro has often said that his only criticism of the military dictatorship is that it did not go far enough. In a now-iconic 1999 television appearance, Bolsonaro said, “Voting won’t change anything in this country. Nothing! Things will only change, unfortunately, after starting a civil war here, and doing the work the dictatorship didn’t do. Killing some 30,000 people, and starting with FHC [Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the center-right president at the time]. If some innocents die, that’s just fine.” Similarly, in 2015, Bolsonaro responded to an Amnesty International report that stated Brazil’s police kill more people than any other country’s by saying, “I think what the Military Police has to do is kill more.” As the journalist Vincent Bevins wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2018: “Bolsonaro is not merely nostalgic for that era; he would reintroduce the dictatorship’s political ethos, preserved and intact, into modern Brazil…. What Bolsonaro offers is an explicit return to the values that underpinned Brazil’s brutal dictatorship.”
When his presidential candidacy strengthened through 2018, the Western press—which has never paid much attention to Brazil—struggled to convey who Bolsonaro was. They dubbed him the “Trump of the Tropics,” which they believed was an insulting nickname. In reality, it was far too cute, provincial, and ethnocentric to be anything other than wildly misleading. That nickname also had the unintended effect of normalizing Bolsonaro in Brazil. After decades of being told Brazil is a “developing country” or part of the “Third World” or “Global South,” many Brazilians felt, not unreasonably, that if Bolsonaro were similar to the president of the richest and most powerful country on the planet, he must be doing something right.
Yet for so many reasons—from his explicit admiration for torture and killing to his unique mix of militarism, religious fervor, an antigay fixation, and an anti-communist obsession—Bolsonaro is unlike other modern far-right leaders such as Trump, Marine Le Pen, or the Brexit leaders in the United Kingdom. He’s far darker and more menacing; indeed, in mentality, disposition, ideology, and ultimate vision, he is more like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or even General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt.
Whatever else one might say about him, Bolsonaro is a charismatic figure and talented demagogue who knows how to attract attention and mobilize people’s worst, most primal drives. And he has built a political dynasty: Three of his sons are prominent elected officials in Brazil. The oldest, Flavio, was a state legislator representing Rio de Janeiro for a decade and was elected with an overwhelming vote total to the Federal Senate in the same 2018 election that brought his father to the presidency. Bolsonaro’s youngest political son, Eduardo, is a federal representative from São Paulo who was reelected in 2018 with the largest vote total for a member of Congress in the history of Brazilian democracy. Carlos, the middle political son, is a longtime member of Rio de Janeiro’s city council and the mastermind of his father’s online network of fake news and hate-driven attacks against the family’s critics.
Conjuring the image of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay, Bolsonaro’s sons all resemble him, yet are somehow even worse. Shortly before Bolsonaro’s election as president, Eduardo spoke openly about how easy it would be to close the Supreme Court (STF) if it ruled that his father’s campaign had violated election laws: “Dude, if you want to shut down the [Supreme Court], do you know what you do? You don’t even send a jeep. Send a soldier and a corporal.” He then added, even more menacingly: “What is the STF? It takes its power from the pen of an STF minister. If you arrest an STF minister, do you think there will be a popular demonstration in favor of the STF minister, millions on the streets?”
In 2019, as approval of his father’s administration plunged, Eduardo—whom Bolsonaro had tried and failed to appoint as Brazil’s ambassador to the United States—issued a public threat. He said that if street protests against Bolsonaro took place in Brazil, the way protesters in Chile were demanding an end to harsh austerity measures at the time, there would be a restoration of AI-5—the terrifying decree that Brazil’s military dictatorship had issued to summarily abolish any residual democratic rights and establish Brazil as an absolute tyranny.
Meanwhile, almost immediately after his father’s election as president, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro became engulfed in a scandal that is still unfolding, involving the close connections on the part of the whole family to violent paramilitary gangs. These militias, composed of rogue current and former members of the Military Police, rule Rio de Janeiro with tactics that make the Italian Mafia seem like pacifists.
Another of the Bolsonaros’ most potent and reliable political weapons is religious fanaticism—a variant that mixes ostensible Catholicism with Latin American evangelical fervor—which the entire family uses to stimulate widespread hatred against Brazil’s LGBTQ population. Indeed, anti-LGBTQ fervor has become one of their signature issues: Bolsonaro infamously told Playboy that he’d rather learn his son were dead than gay, and one of his only proposed laws in Congress was a bill to ban same-sex couples from adopting children, despite the tens of thousands of Brazilian children without parents who linger in shelters and orphanages. In 2018, Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign featured a claim that gay men were trying to infiltrate schools, using a fictitious tool he called a “gay kit,” which he told parents across the country was being used by gay people and their teacher allies to indoctrinate youth and turn their children gay.
What made Bolsonaro’s election particularly jarring was that it was such a radical shift from Brazil’s recent political history. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, Brazil has never been anything close to a far-right country. On the contrary, the four presidential elections before Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory were all won by the center-left Workers’ Party. Bolsonaro was preceded in office by that party’s founder, Lula—a factory worker born to extreme poverty who was illiterate until the age of 10—and his anointed successor, Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla and the first female president of the country.
How did Brazil leap from being a center-left country that fit comfortably into the mainstream ideological wing of the Western neoliberal order to one ruled by a figure as extreme as Bolsonaro? Here, and only here, is the comparison to Trump helpful, since a similar question can be asked—and a similar answer provided—about the United States: How did a country that twice elected Barack Obama suddenly send Donald Trump to the White House? Likewise, how did a country as integrated into Europe as the United Kingdom suddenly opt for Brexit, despite all the clear evidence of the harm that would ensue, especially for the members of the working classes who voted for it?
As has happened in so many countries, the failure of Brazil’s establishment—and particularly its prevailing neoliberal ideology—had left so many people so angry with the political system that they were willing to gamble on anyone who could successfully pose as an enemy of the political class that the population (rightly) blames for so much of its suffering and deprivation.
Prior to Bolsonaro’s rise, a convergence of crises had engulfed Brazil: an economic crisis that was due at least in part to the 2008 financial collapse caused by Wall Street; a crisis in public security that came with skyrocketing poverty and unemployment; a murder rate that was comparable to Baghdad’s at the height of the US occupation of Iraq; and a massive corruption scandal, revealed by the Operation Car Wash probe, that implicated almost every major political party (including the long-governing Workers’ Party), as well as the country’s richest oligarchs and its most powerful companies (with the state-owned Petrobras, once Brazil’s national pride, at the center of it all).
As in the United States, the widespread popular rage toward the political establishment that propelled Bolsonaro’s victory was many years in the making. And the tremors could be felt by anyone who bothered to listen to the Brazilian people.
Perhaps one of the first signs of the intensity and ubiquity of the disgust with the political process was the sustained and rancorous street protests of 2013. These protests began with a narrow and provincial cause: an increase in bus and subway fares of 20 Brazilian cents (equivalent to five US cents) across the country, which fell hardest on those who could least afford to pay: the country’s poorest laborers and the lower-middle classes, who exclusively used public transit to commute to work, often crammed into buses and trains for hours traveling from the cities’ impoverished peripheries to their upper-middle-class neighborhoods and corporatized downtowns.
At first, the specificity of the issue meant that relatively few people attended the protests. But soon the grievances expressed at the protests expanded; so, too, did the crowd sizes. Within weeks, the protests became the largest demonstrations Brazil had seen since millions took to the streets in 1992 to successfully demand the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was driven from office in a huge corruption scandal.
The 2013 protests quickly became a general vehicle for the registration of anger: with Dilma Rousseff’s government; with corruption, unemployment, and rising violent crime; with the profiteering associated with the approaching 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Globo broadcasting empire; and with the political class generally. Throughout that June and July, 2 million Brazilians from across the political spectrum ended up in the streets at various points. Even as Brazil’s largest media outlets, led by Globo, vehemently denounced the protesters as vandals and idle malcontents—in the process becoming main targets of their anger—polls showed that more than 80 percent of the population were sympathetic to the protesters and their various causes, however ill-defined.
The protests continued to defy easy ideological categories, but virtually no power center or mainstream institution was spared. Soon Rousseff herself became one of their primary targets—a bitter irony for a party that claimed to represent the very working-class people who were the victims of the bus fare increase. Ugly and thuggish governmental attempts to repress the protests with police violence only fueled their growth.
Efforts by Rousseff and by the Congress to appease the protesters, including rescinding the fare increase—as well as the withdrawal of a series of measures designed to make it more difficult to prosecute corrupt politicians—did little to assuage the unbottled rage. Though the protests gradually shrank in size, the reverberations extended far beyond the demonstrations themselves.
The rapid transformation of the 2013 protests was an early sign that Brazilians were deeply angry. More important, the protests showed that their anger was not reserved for any one party or any single ideology, but for anyone and everyone who wielded power in Brazil.
In this critical regard, Bolsonaro’s ascension to power was driven not so much by agreement with his ideology but rather by a pervasive and justified disgust with ruling institutions and their prevailing orthodoxies. That Bolsonaro had been ejected from the mainstream precincts of “decency,” and that he was so clearly feared and despised by mainstream institutions, became one of his most powerful political assets. Bolsonaro is a gifted demagogue who succeeded in turning the hatred that elite institutions harbored against him to his own advantage.
Anyone who is hated by the political system that we despise and the elites who control it, and who promises to burn it and them down to the ground, must be on our side. This mentality also explains the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of so many people in the United States voting for Barack Obama in 2008 as he promised to usher in substantial “change” and then for Donald Trump in 2016 when he promised to “drain the swamp.” Both these “outsiders,” despite their obvious ideological differences, shared the much more important quality of appearing to be hostile to the hated establishment. Indeed, the notion of Trump the billionaire real estate mogul and NBC star as an “outsider” is only slightly more ridiculous than the outsider image of Obama, who went from Columbia University to Harvard Law School to the US Senate courtesy of the Cook County Democratic machine—before running against the establishment.
Bolsonaro, while not a billionaire or Harvard Law graduate, is no more an outsider than Trump or Obama. After all, he spent three decades in politics representing the most corrupt state in the country—Rio de Janeiro—as a member of eight different political parties, several of which were implicated in the Operation Car Wash anti-corruption probe. During his 2018 presidential campaign, he vowed to empower Paulo Guedes as his economic minister, touting him as a University of Chicago–trained academic who would follow the Pinochet model of privatizing industry and slashing social benefits—not exactly an antiestablishment icon.
Like Obama and Trump, though, Bolsonaro was far enough outside of elite political circles that he could convincingly depict himself as their adversary. And all three successfully spoke to the anger and sense of betrayal of tens of millions of people.
Many Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro—including many of my and my husband David Miranda’s friends, some of whom are Black, some of whom are working-class or favela residents, and some of whom are LGBTQ or close friends of the LGBTQ community. They did so not because of his history of hateful and extremist comments, bigotry, and support for tyranny, but despite them. They did so from desperation: When you can’t find work that provides a living wage, when your children have no access to health care or drinkable water, when you have reasonable grounds to worry each day as your children leave for school that they will not come home alive because of indiscriminate street violence, and when you watch a tiny portion of the population prosper from a political system that seems to care only for its interests while harboring contemptuous indifference to your plight, it’s not irrational to send in an agent of chaos to disrupt and even destroy the political system—even if you don’t believe that he’s actually competent to fix it or well-intentioned enough to try.
At the very least, people confronting such deprivation will be highly susceptible to angry scapegoating and easy solutions: kill all criminals, restore public morality through religion, wipe out corruption. That’s the formula used by countless right-wing demagogues for the last century to seize power—and that’s what worked so effectively for Bolsonaro in 2018.
The more the perfectly coiffed Globo stars in their glittery Rio and São Paulo studios—or the “well-respected” members of Brazil’s political elite—expressed their horror at Bolsonaro’s latest pronouncements, the more his backers delighted in the suffering and upset that he triggered. That’s a dynamic that should sound familiar to US voters, and it’s also increasingly familiar to Western Europeans as they watch Brexit and the rise of once-unthinkable far-right parties. As Noam Chomsky has noted on many occasions, popular contempt for elite institutions and political insiders is driving such election results across the democratic world.
What makes Brazil different is the speed of the transformation—and the depth of the descent into authoritarian rule. Bolsonaro’s rapid progress to the presidential palace was accompanied by a far-right tidal wave that swept into various halls of power a herd of previously obscure figures. Bolsonaro’s party, which barely existed prior to 2018, elected the second highest number of members to the National Congress, just one seat behind the long-dominant Workers’ Party. Brazilians went to sleep before the 2018 election in a seemingly stable and steadfastly democratic country—and woke up the next day in a country where democratic values remain threatened and the viability of core civic liberties is still very much in doubt.
But this reversal, though sudden, did not happen overnight. Instead, it was the culmination of trends that had grown over decades, rendering a population that had come to believe all politicians were corrupt, and that elections changed nothing, ready to blow up the political system that they held responsible for the nation’s many crises. Brazil matters because of its size, its vast environmental resources, and its political and cultural influence around the world. But it also matters as an example. Citizens of currently democratic countries who are tempted to dismiss the dangers when elites flaunt their contempt for ordinary people—or to respond, amid claims that current levels of inequality and widespread immiseration are unsustainable, that such things “can’t happen here”—need only look to Brazil. Because it did happen here. It’s still happening here.