Brazil currently lives in sort of political limbo. It has elected Jair Bolsonaro, a man using the most radical rhetoric of all the country’s right wing populists; but until he takes office in 2019, the country is still governed by something resembling respect for democratic rules.
Transition has been a fascinating dance for the coming Bolsonaro government, a series of threats, followed by subsequent retractions and u-turns as words meet the same forces that restrained the previous Brazilian presidents: the economic realities and the brutal schemes of Brazilian political establishment. There is still a fragile membrane between his words and his actual power, and the new president finds himself tentatively trying to find out where his limits are.
It would be a mistake, however, to see Bolsonaro’s statements as empty words. The president-elect was victorious, not in spite of his aggressive outbursts, but because of them. More than that, they are deeply revealing of his thought process as a politician: Bolsonaro defines himself as against something else, first and foremost.
This enemy has many faces. Frequently it can be homosexuality, women’s rights or human rights activists. But it can also be traditional politicians, economists, journalists with too many questions and any one else who becomes a problem. All of them become representative of the same thing: a sort of degenerate leftism that has disgraced his imaginary Brazilian nation.
His comments such as the recent one about Brazilians “not knowing what a dictatorship is” are another insight into his mind. It is not just that the statement is historically wrong: Brazil had not one, but two dictatorships, the first from 1937-45 called Estado Novo (“new state”) and led by Getúlio Vargas, then that of the 1964 military junta. It is also that Bolsonaro is telling us that he intends to use the full weight of the State to crush the specter of Communism that haunts him.
He made his statements after a conversation with Viktor Orban. The prime minister of Hungary is, just like Donald Trump, a far-right authoritarian who pits himself against the outside threat of men like George Soros, intent on destroying and polluting its original purity. Bolsonarismo perceives the threat of leftism in Brazil in the same way.
This mentality is a mix of old and new versions of the worst far-right thought. A lot of Bolsonaro’s ideas are simply the baseline of the military dictatorship thought, without bothering to make the promises about an eventual return to democracy that generals used early on. (Bolsonaro never rose to the high ranks of the army, due to his incompetence, so his ideology never required such intellectual scruples.)
Some of it is product of online contamination, creating a Brazilian take on American and Europeans conservative politics; that is where the concern about immigrants, and identity politics comes from. It is common for Bolsonaro’s online followers to repeat points used by other far right partisans, seeing themselves as part of an alliance against wider cultural forces. Like Steve Bannon, Bolsonaro’s thought is that he has been locked out from the ivory towers where a twisted elite tries to spread its evil ideology on common citizens.
It is no wonder, then, that his followers and allies see the influence of communism in every single thing that does not work about the country and the world, and see any method as justified in order to fight it, including torture. Bolsonaro does not object to the horrors of Stalinism, or the horrific human rights violations happening in Venezuela in the name of socialism. If anything, these are the positives of the ideology. What he calls Communism are values such as human rights, the importance of science, or freedom of speech. Bolsonaro’s fight is not against marxist thought; it is against Enlightenment values.
One of the main arenas where the fight against takes place is academia and schools, where Bolsonarista thought hopes to replace the current curriculum with a far-right approved version. Under the pretense of impartiality, Bolsonaro’s followers are trying to police students and professors. Through a campaign of paranoia, everything can become subversive or biased. Calls for more racial justice in a deeply racist country become “moaning” and “an attempt to divide the nation”. History lessons on the dictatorship become “leftist brainwashing”. Sex education and anti-homophobic bullying lectures should be banned from classrooms, as being in contact with such themes might give students strange ideas. Scientific evidence on global warming is classified as globalist dogma.
The main problem for Brazil is that Bolsonaro has every chance of winning this battle. The average Brazilian person does not read more than one book a year; they believe WhatsApp chains to be as truthful as newspapers, and the public school education is at a constant crisis. Brazilians have no regard for their history, and they were deliberately kept ignorant for years.
In this respect, then, maybe Bolsonaro had a point. A country that fully understood what the dictatorship was, understood its horror, its monstrous actions, and properly punished its perpetrators, would never have elected him.