Brazil’s New Right

Brazil’s New Right

Since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Brazil has been in political turmoil. With ex-president Lula’s recent surrender, a new right threatens to become the decisive force in the 2018 elections.

“Judith Butler’s dream is to destroy your children’s sexual identity” reads a sign at a protest in São Paulo, November 7, 2017 (Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil)

On Saturday, April 7, Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva surrendered to the police and will begin serving a twelve-year sentence for corruption. His imprisonment throws the Brazilian left into crisis. With the popular Lula out of the race, the Workers’ Party is left with no presidential candidate to run in the upcoming elections and creates an opening for a new right-wing candidate to win. The article below, written before these developments, charts the emergence of Brazil’s new right, as well as prospects for the left in this October’s elections and beyond. ―Editors

It became clear that political conflict in Brazil had reached a new level of hyper-reality last November when right-wing demonstrators in São Paulo burned an effigy of Judith Butler outside a cultural center hosting a conference she had co-organized. They shouted “Burn the witch!” as they set fire to the scarecrow-like dummy. Three days later, another group of demonstrators surrounded Butler herself as she made her way through São Paulo airport. Protesters accused her of supporting pedophilia as she attempted to wheel her luggage cart past the airport’s mobile phone and rental-car kiosks. Brazilians have long been accustomed to seeing their political struggles caricatured in telenovelas. With the current crisis, it seems, we need not await the telenovela: the events themselves are already exaggerated manifestations of deeper conflicts.

Cultural theorists generally attract about as much attention on the streets of Brazil as they do in the United States—which is to say none. It’s unlikely that many of the protesters had even read anything by Judith Butler. But a loose-knit network of right-wing activists used her visit as an opportunity to stoke the fires of resentment, tarring her as “the mother of gender ideology.” These activists describe any questioning of traditional gender roles either itself as a manifestation of communism, or as a ploy to undermine Brazil’s education system, facilitating its takeover by communist agents. Butler was cast as the arch-villain behind this nefarious plot. As it happens, she was not in Brazil to speak about gender at all. The conference she helped organize was on a topic more immediately relevant to Brazil’s current crisis: “The Ends of Democracy.”

The attacks on Butler were directed by a new right in Brazil, one riven by contradictions but nevertheless committed to flexing its cultural and electoral muscle. Its emergence has come as a surprise to many political observers: only a few years ago, it seemed as if the Brazilian right had largely disappeared, as business elites prospered under two decades of a center-left administration, and cultural pluralism flourished. The Butler episode, along with earlier protests against a queer art exhibit in Porto Alegre and a nude performance piece in São Paulo, is the sign of an unexpectedly powerful backlash, one with profound implications for Brazil’s civil society.

Since the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, Brazil has been in a state of political irresolution. The new right threatens to seize the opportunity created by this crisis to become the decisive force in Brazil’s 2018 elections. This is a grim prospect for those committed to cultural tolerance and the democratic rule of law in the largest nation in South America.

Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former vice president, now occupies the presidency. The Rousseff-Temer ticket represented an alliance between Rousseff’s labor-friendly Worker’s Party (PT) and Temer’s centrist Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). It was an awkward alliance at the best of times, and Temer showed no remorse in joining the push to impeach Rousseff. He has since sought to cut back dramatically on social spending while placating the business sector. He has tilted more sharply to the right in recent months, including the February 2018 initiation of direct military intervention in public security in Rio de Janeiro—an executive power rarely implemented since re-democratization in 1985, and never implemented without destructive consequences for the most vulnerable citizens. Temer’s opponents suspect he is using the military intervention primarily as a ploy, hoping to buy time to build legislative support for a controversial cutback on government pensions.

The 2018 election will serve as a referendum on Temer’s policies. Over the past twenty years, Temer’s PMDB has chosen strategic alliances over retail politics and will likely not nominate a presidential candidate. Temer’s politics are most closely aligned with Geraldo Alckmin, the candidate of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB). But the tepid Alckmin, a former governor of São Paulo state, tends to live up to the disparaging nickname he earned in his first, ill-fated run at the presidency in 2006—the chayote popsicle. Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and PT icon, would be the leading candidate on the left, if he were not currently ineligible by reason of criminal conviction. Lula’s legal troubles leave the left without a prominent national-level contender, with now only six months before the first round of voting in October. The new right, in contrast, has made clear its preference for Jair Bolsonaro, a candidate who scorns homosexuality, excoriates the PT, and vows to shrink federal government, with the exception of the Armed Forces. Bolsonaro affiliated with the Social Liberal Party, or PSL, in January 2018, but has belonged to five different parties over the past fifteen years, most of them marginal players in shifting right-wing coalitions. Party affiliation is a minor tactical element in his larger populist strategy, always subject to revision.

From the ashes of the culture wars

The title of Butler’s conference has a dark resonance. The allegations made against her recall the right-wing paranoia of Brazil’s 1960s. In 1964, a group calling itself TFP, for Tradição, Família e Propriedade (Tradition, Family and Property) successfully encouraged the Armed Forces to overthrow a reformist democratic administration, initiating two decades of military rule. The military regime justified its hold on power with the specter of a broad communist threat, one manifest in the moral decay of the public and the decline of traditional gender roles. Long-haired men and young women on birth control were taken as sure signs of subversion, requiring heavy-handed repression.

The regime was ultimately made obsolete by the proliferation of its bêtes noires. By the late 1970s, the gender trouble demonized a decade earlier had become so widespread, and so closely linked to consumer advertising, that it could no longer be confused with communism. Brazilian advertisers marketed counter-culture as effectively as did their North American counterparts, but with a Brazilian twist, celebrating tropical seduction and the loosening of inhibitions. The dictatorship eagerly stoked the growth of consumer society through heavy international borrowing and subsidizing the lifestyle of the urban middle class.

In the process, the military regime lost the cultural battle. Oil shocks, followed by hyperinflation, threw the nation into economic crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s. By that time, Brazil’s consumer society and its libidinous iconography were taken for granted. The dictatorship gradually ceded power before a rising tide of democratization and cultural modernism. Following ten years of economic stagnation, new currency policies tamed the beast of hyperinflation in 1993.

Over the next twenty years, Brazil achieved a rare combination of economic growth, declining inequality, and a flourishing of democracy. That period spanned the administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the Social Democratic Party (PSDB), in office from 1994–2002, and Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party, (PT, 2002–2010). Although Cardoso and Lula (as da Silva is universally known) headed opposing coalitions, there was a continuity to their sixteen years of administration: both the PSDB and the PT used alliances with big business to fund third-way reforms designed to redistribute government spending down the economic ladder. Cardoso’s PSDB stitched together a fractious coalition on the center-right. Lula’s PT had its roots in more radical union mobilization. But both parties governed from the center. Enmity between them was more personal than doctrinal.

Those sixteen years of continuity were never smooth sailing, as one political scandal after another rocked the boat. But as long as commodity prices continued to rise, export receipts flowed in quantities sufficient to pacify competing interest groups. High-tech domestic energy and communications sectors buoyed the expansion of a new and larger middle class. Brazil appeared to be on the road to prosperity with rising equity.

And the cultural war appeared to have ended. São Paulo’s annual Gay Pride Parade became one of the biggest and most celebrated in the world. An energetic black rights movement pressed Brazil to reckon with its long history of racism. The old moralist right of the early dictatorship seemed not only defeated but defunct.

There were, however, warning signs that the economic good times might be coming to an end. When, in 2013, massive crowds took to the streets of Brazil’s cities demanding improved social spending, it was not clear if it was the debut of a maturing civil society or the sign of political crisis. Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor, struggled to accommodate these protests while maintaining the PT’s close relationships with major government contractors. Then commodity prices crashed in 2014, revealing the fault lines in this fragile landscape: as export receipts dried up, so did the wealth of the new middle class, and political alliances disintegrated.As the economy collapsed, the old moralist right staged a revival under a new group, the Free Brazil Movement (MBL). It allied with a neoliberal sector, including both entrepreneurs and members of the imperiled middle class, intent on slashing entitlement programs. This partnership turned the anti-corruption rhetoric of the 2013 protests into a partisan bludgeon leveled at the PT. Led by a cohort of provocative twenty-somethings skilled in the ways of social media, the MBL made a splash with protests against queer art exhibitions and presentations by distinguished scholars of gender like Judith Butler. The Free Brazil Movement effectively became Tradition, Family, and Property 2.0. Like the first version, the Free Brazil Movement offered the politics of resentment to middle-class, urban Brazilians convinced that welfare policies and cultural erosion were undermining their stability. The leaders of this movement could themselves have stepped out from a telenovela. Kim Kataguiri, the most visible leader of the MBL, is a young economist who idolizes Milton Friedman and scorns welfare spending. Alexandre Frota, leader of a rival faction, is an ex-porn actor who now claims to regret his wayward past and calls for defense of traditional values. Kataguiri and Frota have battled in court over the MBL name, but perfectly represent the two prongs of Brazil’s moralist, neoliberal new right.

Both of these wings have appealed to Brazil’s booming neo-Pentecostal churches, which provided most of the foot-soldiers for the demonstration that briefly made Butler a household name in Brazil. (Such churches were founded after 1950 and tend to embrace a combination of charismatic theology and aspirational networking, such as the “prosperity theology” espoused by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.) There are over 40 million Protestants in Brazil, most affiliated either with neo-Pentecostal churches or with neo-Pentecostal sectors of more traditional denominations, such as the Baptist Church. The increasing politicization of this population is both the greatest novelty and the most unpredictable factor in the upcoming 2018 election. Back in 1964, right-wing marchers affiliated with a conservative wing of the Catholic Church took to the streets to call for military intervention. The Church discouraged this kind of reaction after the dictatorship fell, but neo-Pentecostalists have revived it.

They are well-represented in Brazil’s Congress by a bancada evangélica, or evangelical caucus. The caucus had accumulated leverage patiently since the 1980s while largely eschewing moralist campaigns. That changed in 2016, when it played a decisive role in rallying votes for Rousseff’s ouster. In the wake of her impeachment, it has rallied behind Bolsonaro, who describes himself as “a Catholic who has frequented the Baptist Church for ten years,” and who asserts the putative Christian identity of Brazil.

Bolsonaro is a long-serving member of congress from the state of Rio de Janeiro, where he emerged in the 1980s as the leader of a revanchist segment of the state police and military personnel. Many of these officers never accepted the emphasis on human rights after the fall of the dictatorship, and Bolsonaro has catered to this sentiment. As Bolsonaro accumulated power, his social media presence grew. Clips of his public appearances, marked by a virulent mix of homophobic, sexist, reactionary rhetoric, were uniquely suited to YouTube. Among the most viewed, for example, is the clip of a 2003 encounter with PT Congresswoman Maria do Rosário, in which an aggressive Bolsonaro spits out, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” (He has repeated the tenor of that insult on subsequent occasions, despite facing legal troubles as a consequence.)

The neoliberal populism of the new right

Brazil’s new right thus brings evangelical moralists together in a marriage of convenience with neoliberal entitlement-slashers, joining forces to support the electoral ambitions of a populist provocateur. If this sounds disturbingly familiar, it should.

Brazil and the United States grow more alike by the year. But unlike Trump’s base, the Brazilian right has a bygone military regime to celebrate. Bolsonaro got his start in politics as a young Army officer attempting to hold back the tide of democratization in the 1980s. Throughout his career, he has defended the use of police torture. He dedicated his vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff to Colonel Brilhante Ustra, accused of directing the widespread use of torture during the dictatorship. (Brilhante Ustra died in 2015. The new right has made praise of the old military regime central to its mission. This has led to spectacles that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. As Brazil prepared to celebrate the 2018 Carnival—the show must go on, after all—a group called Direita São Paulo, or São Paulo Right, advertised a carnival block—a roving musical party—celebrating the dictatorship’s use of torture. The name of its block—Basement of the Department of Political and Social Order—refers to black sites run by the military’s secret police, which were eliminated in 1983. Flyers for the right’s block featured a menacing photograph of Brilhante Ustra himself.

Jair Bolsonaro (Agencia Brasil)

Members of São Paulo Right have defended both the Carnival party and the flyer as the manifestation of a repressed and discriminated sector of Brazilian society. If it seems difficult to take this seriously, that itself may be part of the point. Like much of the iconography of the global “alt-right,” such as Pepe the Frog, the flyers verged on parody, a sensibility that creates a veneer of deniability. Those who are offended can be assured it is “only a joke.” Those who are inspired can feel reassured that their inclinations have moved from the margins to the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has emerged as one of two leading candidates for the upcoming presidential elections. In theory, the other leading presidential candidate is Lula da Silva himself, still Brazil’s most popular politician. But while Lula is beloved by half the country, he is also resented by many. He is also currently ineligible for office. In January, an appeals court upheld his conviction for corruption and money laundering. Brazil’s “Clean Slate” electoral law—which, ironically, was passed in 2010 when Lula was president—bars anyone with a criminal conviction from running for office. The specific charges against Lula focused on the unlawful purchase and renovation of a beachside apartment in the state of São Paulo. But they were part of a larger investigation (known as “Car Wash” because of the initial investigation into money laundering) into a massive kickback scheme on government contracts.

Lula’s trial and its implications have driven a wedge through the Brazilian left. Barring extraordinary measures either to vacate his sentence or to exempt him from the electoral implications, he will remain ineligible for office. But as long as the remote possibility of Lula’s candidacy remains alive, no other left-wing candidate can emerge from his shadow. On the right, Bolsonaro gathers steam, despite his own missteps and despite opposition from Lula’s supporters.


What of the larger questions raised by Judith Butler’s visit to Brazil? What are the ends of Brazilian democracy—and how does the new right figure into its prospects? Bolsonaro sows the wind with his defense of torture, disdain for the constitutional rule of law, and nostalgia for the dictatorship.

Could the military again intervene to choke off democracy, as it did in 1964? That prospect is now discussed openly, though it remains unlikely. Brazil has consolidated democratic procedures over the course of eight transitions in the office of the presidency since the dictatorship ended in 1985. Two of those transitions have come through impeachments rather than elections, but these impeachments followed constitutional rules (objections of those removed from office notwithstanding). Also, in contrast to 1964, the officer class has given no indication of an inclination to seize power.

But the deeper threat goes beyond this election. Two immediate dangers to the democratic rule of law have emerged. The first is the erosion of a consensus on the illegitimacy of torture—a consensus constructed through the painstaking process of re-democratization. Though that consensus was often violated in practice, it still had a restraining influence on the authorities. It is now completely gone, torn to shreds by Bolsonaro and his followers. The second immediate danger is a loss of popular faith in the independence of the judiciary, which is increasingly seen as a partisan tool.

Lula’s supporters, for example, point to the decision to prosecute Lula while allowing Temer to skate on similar allegations as evidence of improbity. Only the first of these dangers is directly linked to the emergence of the new right. The second can be attributed more generally to scandal fatigue.

It would be easy to survey this landscape and despair. But the gains of the 1993–2013 period have not all been lost; some of the advances in economic equity and the expansion of democracy remain. The challenges outlined above can be confronted. But re-democratization took over a decade—rebuilding a civil society that abjures torture and trusts in the judiciary again will also take time. Brazil’s current republic is only three decades old but it already has a history of absorbing and accommodating diverse interest groups. The new right is not immune to this process. As delicate as the current moment is, there is still hope the divide can be bridged, and Brazil can renew its commitment to pluralist democracy.

With Lula’s candidacy on ice, can anyone emerge on the left? The most appealing prospect would be Fernando Haddad of the PT, former Minister of Education under Rousseff (2005–2012), and mayor of São Paulo (2013–2017). Haddad is reflective, bookish, secular, and in favor of things like bicycle paths and gay rights, all of which make him a worthy foil for Bolsonaro. As Minister of Education, Haddad distributed anti-homophobia booklets and videos to public schools, derided as “gay kits” by the new right. The contrast between Bolsonaro and Haddad is the clearest representation of the profound fracture in Brazil’s civil society.

Haddad has legal troubles of his own, however, connected to financial irregularities in his mayoral campaign. Even if cleared to run, he may not be able to achieve the national recognition necessary to survive the first round of the election in October 2018, when voters will choose from many candidates, with only the top two advancing to a second round in November. Better-known candidates include the centrists Marina Silva of Rede (a splinter of Brazil’s Green Party), and Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT). Silva and Gomes are less likely to appeal to Lula’s supporters, but can peel voters away from Geraldo Alckmin. Prospects are uncertain, but for all those who value the social and economic gains of the 1993–2013 period, the choice is as simple as ABB: Anyone But Bolsonaro.

Bryan McCann is president of the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) and Professor of Latin American History at Georgetown University.