Brazil Turns on Bolsonaro

Brazil Turns on Bolsonaro

As the 2022 campaign nears, many of the myths that made Bolsonaro appealing have been washed away by the grim realization of what he has always been: a huckster, most notable for his abrasiveness and authoritarian posturing.

Jair Bolsonaro leaves the hospital on July 18, 2021, after undergoing treatment for an intestinal obstruction. (Amauri Nehn/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Three years after the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has been transformed from a generally respected rising power into a pariah state, repudiated for its appalling environmental and human rights record and for what Doctors Without Borders has called the world’s worst response to COVID-19. Brazilians like to joke about foreigners only knowing the country as the land of soccer, samba, and carnival. Today it is known as a prominent hub of far-right transnational conspiracy theories and democratic erosion. Bolsonaro, who ascended to the presidency of Latin America’s largest nation on a wave of reactionary bloodlust, willful ignorance, and the wishful thinking of establishment actors convinced they could control him, looms in international coverage of Brazil as a clear and present danger.

Yet over the summer, Bolsonaro seemed to be falling apart. In mid-July, he found himself in the hospital afflicted by chronic belching and hiccups. His hospitalization came as his polling hit record lows, mostly as a result of serious corruption charges and a congressional investigation into his calamitous handling of the pandemic.

As the 2022 campaign nears, many of the myths that made Bolsonaro appealing in 2018 have been washed away by the grim realization of what he has always been: a venal, profoundly incompetent huckster most notable for his abrasiveness and authoritarian posturing. There have already been over 120 formal impeachment requests against Bolsonaro filed by various political parties and civil society organizations. Much of the country has turned against the man known as “Mito” (legend) to his supporters.

Among the critics are several of Bolsonaro’s high-profile 2018 backers, including the center-right governors of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul. Their opportunistic disavowal of Bolsonaro signals a broader loss of support from prominent market-friendly politicians who once courted the far right. Millions of center-right voters who grudgingly voted for Bolsonaro in order to block the return of the center-left Workers’ Party (PT) in 2018 are now making the exact opposite calculation, supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the surest means of burying Bolsonaro. Most polls show Lula comfortably ahead of the incumbent. It’s a stunning turnaround; only a few years ago Lula’s political career seemed like it was over after he was imprisoned on dubious corruption charges.

Lula ended his second term a decade ago with a staggering approval rating of 80 percent, having presided over an administration that improved the lives of millions through redistributive social policies. By contrast, the conspiratorial authoritarian politics of Bolsonarismo stand against the very idea of an accountable, effective, and judicious state. The stakes of the next election are clear. And any attempt to understand the future of Bolsonarismo, even without its titular figure at the helm, must reckon with how it emerged and how Bolsonaro has governed over the past three years.

During the last presidential campaign, Bolsonaro was portrayed as a straight shooter and outsider undaunted by political correctness and business as usual. He brushed aside criticisms of his long history of homophobic, homicidal, sexist, militaristic, and racist comments, saying his opponents could call him anything but corrupt. Anyone familiar with the rotten politics of Rio de Janeiro knew this to be false: Bolsonaro and his family had several known links to the paramilitary mafias that control much of that state, and Bolsonaro and his sons, three of whom hold elected office, frequently forced employees to kick up a portion of their salaries in order to keep their jobs. However, by 2018, following years of highly publicized corruption scandals, including the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash investigation that helped bring down Lula, politics in Brazil became synonymous with self-interested dirty deal-making. Bolsonaro’s argument that he had overseen no malfeasance during his lengthy political career resonated with many voters.

While Bolsonaro’s rise indicated the spread of an insidious new right-wing common sense, it also marked the triumph of anti-politics—the idea that society’s problems cannot be solved by existing institutions, actors, and modes of government. After four consecutive electoral victories for the PT, a considerable slice of the electorate reasoned that a more robust right-wing challenge to the political system was needed. According to a Latinobarómetro poll taken in the run-up to the 2018 election, only 6 percent of Brazilians had any confidence in existing political parties and a mere 12 percent in the legislature. (A significant proportion of Brazil has never been sold on democracy in the first place; it has never received higher than 60 percent unequivocal support in Latinobarómetro polls.) Bolsonaro thrived amid this crisis of confidence.

Rather than run on a defined platform, Bolsonaro exhibited a visceral anti-leftism, a commitment to loosening restrictions on extrajudicial killing for the country’s security forces, and a vague suggestion of anti-corruption politics. Many voters received his retrograde demeanor and performative lack of pretension as a breath of fresh air. Bolsonaro conveyed a kind of law-and-order authenticity that appealed to a country in which policemen who kill the most “lowlifes” become national heroes. Brazilian society, still shaped by the history of slavery, has always maintained its abysmal inequities through a kind of informal apartheid. Violence is essential to this system. Brazil possesses the world’s most murderous police force (it killed 6,416 people last year, compared to 2,212 in 2013). The powerful have always needed thuggish enforcers of Bolsonaro’s ilk to keep the masses in line.

Despite its boorish affectation, Bolsonarismo is best understood as a virulent elite reaction to an interventionist state and the extension of social citizenship in a deeply unequal country. As he put it on a visit to the United States shortly after his inauguration, “Brazil is not an open terrain where we plan to build things for our people. We must deconstruct many things. Undo many things. So that then we can begin to do things. . . . Our Brazil was going toward socialism, toward communism.”

Whether eviscerating environmental regulations, moving to privatize mail delivery, or undermining public education, Bolsonaro’s administration has consistently sought new markets and opportunities for well-connected private actors. According to philosopher Rodrigo Nunes, “not only does Bolsonarismo openly espouse entrepreneurialism, it is an entrepreneurial phenomenon in its own right. The quintessential Bolsonarista is neither rich nor poor, but a member of a downwardly mobile ‘lower upper middle class.’” Bolsonaro’s ability to reach this segment of the population explains why he succeeded where other recent right-wing contenders—inextricably associated with narrow elite interests—have failed. At the core of this political project are the so-called Beef, Bible, and Bullet constituencies, which exercise enormous control in congress.

The first of these, big agriculture, is a major driver of the deforestation that has reached alarming levels under Bolsonaro. Agribusiness interests are constantly seeking more pastures for cattle grazing and cash crops like soy. Bolsonaro would never confront the illicit logging interests and rapacious cattle ranchers that drive deforestation today. What economic good comes from the rainforest?

Second is the Bible caucus, a powerful force in a country that is overwhelmingly Christian and increasingly evangelical. In 2018, Bolsonaro won 11 million more votes among self-declared evangelicals than did the PT’s Fernando Haddad. In a survey released days before Bolsonaro and Haddad faced each other at the polls, 59 percent of evangelicals favored Bolsonaro against 26 percent for Haddad. Among Catholics, still the largest religious group in Brazil, they were practically tied. Bolsonaro owed his victory to this decisive advantage among evangelicals. In 2019, he pledged to name a “terribly evangelical” justice to the supreme court. This July, he fulfilled that promise, nominating pastor and jurist André Mendonça to Brazil’s highest court. Given the extent to which prominent evangelical pastors have been involved in political scandals in recent years, their alliance with Bolsonaro appears less rooted in a shared commitment to Christian morality than a mutually beneficial pursuit of social control.

The third group, the Bullet caucus, represents Bolsonaro’s worldview most directly. Made up of elected officials with backgrounds in law enforcement or the armed forces, this group pushes for looser gun laws, harsher prison sentencing, and a freer hand for police. Bolsonaro himself has loudly proclaimed his support for torture and extrajudicial killings throughout his political career. During a television interview in 1999, for example, he exclaimed that “elections won’t change anything in this country. It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000. If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die.”

Bolsonaro launched his political career in 1988 as a disgruntled former army captain who billed himself as a spokesman for the interests of ordinary soldiers, cops, and firemen. Today, these ultraconservative sectors are among the president’s strongest base of support in congress and beyond. In a potential sign of trouble ahead, there have been numerous local police uprisings carried out in Bolsonaro’s name, particularly in states where anti-Bolsonaro governors introduced lockdown measures. These demonstrations have had limited staying power so far, but it is not difficult to imagine police officers as the president’s foot soldiers should he contest a loss in next year’s election. When a police colonel with 5,000 officers under his command publicly urged law enforcement officials to attend a Bolsonaro rally in São Paulo scheduled for September 7—Brazil’s independence day—he was fired by the governor. It could prove harder to hold the line against the politicization of Brazil’s police as the election draws nearer.

Despite its own mythology as a moderate defender of the constitutional order, Brazil’s military has always been a corrupt and authoritarian force. Many of its leading figures share the same conspiratorial worldview as the president. Under Bolsonaro, the military has engineered a stealthy return to government. It wields significant power: there are more members of the military in Bolsonaro’s cabinet than some of the cabinets of the military dictatorship itself. Part of their support for Bolsonaro has to do with the economic benefits officers have received from his government, including the removal of restrictions on maximum earnings for public servants, a move that allows retired military officers to cash in with full salaries on top of their already extremely generous military pensions.

While the armed forces have made occasional efforts to publicly distance themselves from Bolsonaro’s extremism, they are directly implicated in the government’s gravest crimes, including the accelerated destruction of the Amazon, widespread corruption, and, most important, the failed response to the pandemic. Eduardo Pazuello, the active-duty general who served as health minister at the height of the pandemic, helped push Bolsonaro’s snake oil cures while failing to secure vaccines. He sat on his hands as the city of Manaus ran out of oxygen amid the country’s second wave in January.

The power of the Beef, Bible, and Bullet caucuses is connected to the changing demographics of Brazil’s political class. In the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections, a host of new right-wing deputies took office. Eighty-five percent of senators and 51 percent of federal deputies elected in 2018 were first-timers, most of them echoing Bolsonaro’s outsider discourse. Among them were seventy-two policemen or members of the military, a retired porn actor, and an heir of the Brazilian royal family. In his book Beef, Bible and Bullets, Richard Lapper profiles one of the new Brazilian politicians, Katia Sastre, who rose to fame as a police corporal for gunning down a man on the periphery of São Paulo. The new political class relied more on social media clout than traditional patronage politics to win elected office, even if it proved more than eager to feast on the traditional spoils available to elected officials after taking office.

Bolsonarismo represents an effort to undermine not just the recent policies of the PT, but the moderately redistributive and inclusive state haltingly constructed in Brazil over the course of the past century. This state has at various times been authoritarian and exclusionary, particularly to the rural poor and inhabitants of the periphery of Brazil’s major cities. But it was based on the extension of a limited form of social citizenship to Brazil’s working class, and almost every government since 1930, including the military dictatorship (1964–1985), has sought to build upon this legacy. By 2018, however, a new conservative common sense had reduced the redistributive functions of the Brazilian state to a demonic form of corruption or communism wielded by the PT to maintain power at all costs. Bolsonaro and his allies depicted the achievements of Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, as corrupt and immoral. Bolsonaro’s victory thus came to signify not only the undoing of a moderate social democratic legacy but the neutralization of its basic premise, namely that the federal government can and should act to improve the lives of the majority of the population.

Bolsonaro’s election was preceded by an inferno that destroyed the national museum in Rio de Janeiro, one of the great works undertaken during the rule of Getúlio Vargas, the populist authoritarian who laid the groundwork for modern Brazil between the 1930s and ’50s. The fire, which consumed artifacts of enduring national pride and significance—much of the country’s cultural heritage—was met with little more than a shrug from Brazil’s elite. If anything, the fire served as a poignant metaphor for what Bolsonaro’s agenda, an essentially elitist project cloaked in red-meat populism, sought to accomplish: undoing the legacy of the entire post-1930 state. One of Bolsonaro’s first acts after assuming office was to close the Ministry of Labor, which was at the center of Vargas’s political project. In this respect, Bolsonaro’s project continues the one pursued by the unelected and illegitimate government of Michel Temer, who came to power through the congressional coup that toppled Rousseff in 2016. Temer launched an open assault on the foundations of the Brazilian welfare state, destroying the labor code and passing a constitutional amendment limiting federal spending and other extreme austerity measures. Social gains painstakingly secured since the end of military rule under the 1988 constitution are now in the crosshairs.

The problem for the president and his allies is that this is not a popular political project, in part because it offers nothing to those who have lost their jobs or loved ones to COVID-19. Bolsonaro’s initial outsider appeal has faded. He is no longer an unknown quantity. Brazil has learned to its great detriment who he is and what he stands for throughout the ongoing disaster of his presidency. 

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the pandemic on Bolsonaro’s eroding base of support. Over 550,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, second only to the United States. Experts predict Brazil will overtake the United States in that grim metric in the coming months. Brazil has one of the largest public health systems in the world. It has responded swiftly and effectively to past pandemics, establishing massive vaccine production capacity along with the communication and distribution strategies needed in a crisis. The country possessed the means to respond effectively to the pandemic—and state and local authorities generally acted responsibly—but that response was deliberately sabotaged by the Bolsonaro government.

As Pedro Hallal, an epidemiologist leading the largest coronavirus study in Brazil, told the BBC, “everything that you should not do, Brazil has done.” Hallal especially blamed the president for downplaying the risk the virus posed. Throughout the pandemic, Bolsonaro offered no explicit support to any restrictive measures, infamously dismissing COVID-19 as just a “little flu.” At the height of the pandemic, Bolsonaro held mass rallies on an almost weekly basis calling for the dissolution of congress and attacking the supreme court. As the pandemic ramped up, the president visited shopping malls and open-air markets in Brasília to suggest that there was no danger. He interceded on behalf of churches, allowing them to remain open as “essential services” despite their high risk of spreading contagion. His “Brazil Cannot Stop” social media campaign, launched just after the pandemic arrived in Brazil in March 2020, urged people back to work—before a federal judge quickly barred its dissemination. He has intimated on several occasions that governors taking drastic measures against the virus lacked courage, even threatening to deploy federal troops to supersede their authority. Administration officials consistently erred on the side of doing too little and, when questioned about this approach, exaggerated the uncertainty about how to stop the spread of the virus. Instead of securing vaccines, Bolsonaro, the military, and his supporters wasted untold amounts of money and time pushing pointless remedies like chloroquine and ivermectin as “pre-emptive treatments.”

Foreign observers have repeatedly asked why Bolsonaro has been so adamant in his denialism. Even more than Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has stood out for his dogged refusal to take the pandemic seriously. Part of the reason for the president’s blasé attitude is his macho persona. To admit vulnerability would be to admit weakness. He has never been shy about his indifference to death, and his casual sociopathy is well-documented. Beyond these issues of personality, conspiracy theories and a paranoid siege mentality are the hallmarks of the Bolsonaro administration. The president has always bet on intensifying a crisis and leaving his opponents to try to reason with the effects. In addressing the pandemic, his government has drawn from the same repertoire of dissimulation it resorted to in prior public relations crises. To parry criticism from abroad, the administration warns of an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a duly elected president. Domestically, he casts any attack as a boon to the opposition. At times, Bolsonaro appears to revel in his pariah status.

This strategy hit a wall as the pandemic dragged on. Voters tired of the ceaseless culture wars and the president’s politicization of basic science as their friends and family died. And in late April, congress formally opened an investigation into his handling of the pandemic, resulting in incendiary revelations that have chipped away at his standing. The inquiry uncovered multiple incidents of alleged corruption and gross mismanagement that could serve as grounds for new impeachment charges. It was revealed, for example, that the Bolsonaro administration failed to respond to fifty-three of eighty-one emails from Pfizer when the U.S. pharmaceutical giant reached out to offer vaccines in late 2020. Perhaps most outrageously, administration officials reportedly demanded a kickback of $1 per vaccine dose purchased from a potential supplier. Fortunately for Bolsonaro, the speaker of the lower house of congress, a key ally, is the only person who can initiate impeachment proceedings. As long as the president sufficiently greases the wheels of the most venal and seedy parties in congress with federal funds and traditional patronage politics, impeachment remains a longshot. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro’s claim to the moral high ground has likely been lost for good.

In the New York Times, Vanessa Barbara described the government’s approach to COVID-19—pursuing herd immunity and ignoring offers from Pfizer and other vaccine manufacturers for months on end—as “a classic supervillain plot, at once nefarious and absurd, deadly and appalling.” This is the inevitable result of the hollowing out of the state under Bolsonaro. Indeed, the president’s apparent allergy to actual governance is the issue that Lula has most emphasized since he was deemed eligible to seek a third term in the 2022 election. In his March 10 comeback speech at the metalworkers’ union headquarters in São Bernardo do Campo, the industrial center in the São Paulo metropolitan region where he first emerged as a national figure in the 1970s, Lula angrily declared that “this country has no government!” He went on to outline all the steps he would have taken had he been in office when the pandemic struck, each measure more sensible than the last. More recently, he compared Bolsonaro to the Queen of England, a figurehead who makes few real decisions.

Since his return to the political fray, Lula has proved a formidable foe for Bolsonaro. Some polls have shown the former president close to winning outright in a crowded presidential field. Lula’s political resilience owes to his ability to articulate a conciliatory message based not in ideological confrontation but in a reclamation of the basic republican values that Bolsonaro nakedly disdains. It also indicates the failure of both the center-right and the non-PT left to form a credible opposition to Bolsonaro’s calamitous government. Brazilians seem eager for a return to Lula’s sober, progressive inclusivity after years of vicious, mean-spirited outbursts from Bolsonaro pushed the country to the brink of catastrophe.

With his potential political demise on the horizon, Bolsonaro has taken to publicly doubting that officials will conduct a fair election next year. There are even stories about several senior military figures repeating Bolsonaro’s paranoid conspiracies about the reliability of electronic ballots, which experts assert have virtually eliminated fraud in Brazilian elections. In a healthy democracy, it would not matter what men in uniform think about the way elections are carried out. But Brazil’s military is in government right now, with thousands of members of the armed forces occupying civilian positions. It is unclear how readily they will leave power if there is a change of government in 2022.

If Bolsonarismo is an enduring force in Brazilian politics, it will likely be because of the return of the military to politics and the rise of a right-wing political class that shares the same worldview as the president. It appears that the future of Brazilian politics will be a battle between the center left and the extreme right. The center right still holds power in some regions, but for the time being it is no longer a national political force. Having ridden Bolsonaro’s coattails in 2018, it opened the door to a radical conservatism not seen since the return of democracy in the 1980s. These self-proclaimed moderates deserve an enormous share of the blame for Brazil’s sorry state.

Considering that he faces a mounting number of legal woes, losing an election next year could be the least of Bolsonaro’s worries. But even if he falls in 2022, the long-term social effects of the mass death Bolsonaro facilitated will linger for years after he leaves office. His administration’s onslaught against public education, the environment, international conventions, and democratic norms has been traumatic. And many of those who end up voting against Bolsonaro in a national election may very well also cast ballots for crackpot ex-cops in congress who believe in shooting bums, fighting globalism, eradicating gender ideology from the school system, and destroying the Amazon for a quick buck. It is much harder, in other words, to cleanse the civic poison of Bolsonarismo from the legislature than from the presidency. Bolsonaro himself served in congress for decades before being elected to the highest office in the land, and his sons currently in office will likely still hold elected positions after 2022. Even if the president’s national standing is unsalvageable by next year, the Bolsonaro brand will remain strong at the local and state levels. Rather than an end in itself, a Lula victory would mark the beginning of an arduous effort to imagine what a more just, equal, and caring Brazil should look like.

Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Jacobin contributing editor.

Andre Pagliarini is an Assistant Professor of History at Hampden-Sydney College and is preparing a book manuscript on the politics of nationalism in twentieth-century Brazil.