Jair Bolsonaro: The Brazilian Trump leading the far-right’s march to power

The authoritarian’s path to the presidency is a threat to democracy. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Reading Marx feels different in the tropics. “First as tragedy, then as farce” lacks much of its bite in regions where the tragicomic is quotidian and mundane, and nowhere is it as mundane and quotidian as Brazil. Every facet of Brazilian life is subjected to its own brand of black comedy, to bitter laughter in the face of a state that has utterly failed its people.

It is this intersection of humor and horror that Jair Bolsonaro inhabits. He does so on purpose; like mould, he has learned to grow in a dark corner before taking over the whole building. His followers call him a “legend” in a jokey way that might be recognised by those familiar with the supporters of other populists, such as Donald Trump. But Bolsonaro is a much more homegrown monster.

In the early days of the regime, Bolsonaro joined the military as a paratrooper; there he was deemed by his officers to be “disliked by his comrades due to lack of logic, rationality and balance in his arguments”. It’s hard to know if at this point he already had the act he puts on now; in any case, he soon showed his hand, and an article on the low army wages landed him in military prison for 15 days. This would be his first brush with prominence: officers and their wives expressed solidarity with a man they saw as theirs.

His next encounter with the law came as he planned to plant bombs on his own base and demand higher wages. It’s curious to imagine that the round peg was once a square one; the man who claims now that “a good outlaw is a dead outlaw” and derides the left for “excusing criminals” first came to public attention for a failed act of terrorism in the pursuit of better pay.

Bolsonaro left the military for politics, becoming first a Rio de Janeiro councillor in 1988, then a congressman in 1990. Despite repeated re-elections, he was met with very little success in Congress; a failure he attributes to Congressional prejudice against his right-wing ideas, though historically the Brazilian Congress has seldom been to the left of Margaret Thatcher. 

His reputation for honesty and his extreme views kept Bolsonaro afloat in his less famous years. His politics were largely those of the military dictatorship, a mix of social conservatism, Catholic morality and economic interventionism. He abhorred former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and his more neoliberal policy – suggesting that the president, once in exile for 20 years, should have instead been hung for the national betrayal of privatisation – and in 2002 he voted for Lula da Silva in the final round of the presidential elections rather than back Cardoso’s candidate.

 When Lula's Brazilian Workers’ Party revealed itself to be just as corrupt as the previous administration, however, Bolsonaro found his niche in deriding democracy as no better than the dirty practices of the dictatorship’s bloody machine.

Brazil in the early 2010s was a curious country: then president Dilma Rousseff had not yet proven herself to be disastrous. It had known almost 20 years of relative social liberalism. Previous presidents Cardoso and Lula clashed egos but, to both men’s credit, they seemed to understand the value and fragility of democracy. In those times, they seemed like the rule; Bolsonaro was an outdated dinosaur then, a prehistoric relic, Homo Dictatoris.  

This was not what is happened. The tiptoeing, intellectual harrumphing from the Cardoso-leaning centre-right was slowly mutating into a more aggressive political beast; one that painted corruption as an intrinsically leftist characteristic, something that came exclusively from the Workers’ Party, a malady that came hand in hand with supporting welfare and increasing the minimum wage. Bolsonaro took the space he was given among rich entrepreneurs and frustrated upper middle-class Brazilians: quickly, he moved away from nationalistic, anti-privatisation rhetoric to suddenly embracing a more market-friendly view. “The free market is the mother of freedom” he said, neglecting to mention that he had never been enamoured of either.

Then came 2015, and the country broke apart. Rousseff, could not keep the Lulista balancing act of pleasing both the rich and the poor, and her economic policy had aggravated instead of mitigated the effects of the end of the commodities boom and the fallout from the 2008 crisis. After denying any the economic slowdown for the whole of the election, Rousseff came up with unpopular austerity measures as a solution; her already waning popularity tumbled down to single digits.

Sensing weakness, then vice president Michel Temer found a sharp knife to bury in Rousseff’s back. Congress found an excuse to call for impeachment, and there a grotesque spectacle took place. Bolsonaro understood that moment better than most.

It was not just Rousseff’s (real) incompetence or the Workers’ Party’s (imagined) radical leftist menace that was impeached. It was the fragile thread of shared belief in democracy that had so long connected left and right, now gone. Bolsonaro dedicated his vote for Rousseff’s impeachment to Brilhante Ustra, the man who had tortured her. Under the dictatorship, Ustra had ordered rape and murder.

Bolsonaro’s gift, though, is that of every good performer; he knows how to turn being laughed at into being laughed with. This is how his political career has gone, from mindless controversy to another, propped by the naivety of the left and the sycophancy of the right.  What he is, though, is a ten-a-penny bigot whose unfunny grandstanding thinly veils an utter lack of ideology. He is the dictatorship as embodied by its lowest members, the rank-and-file goons and bureaucrats; his authoritarianism isn’t economic, geopolitical, or moral, it’s a performance. That’s the stage set, that’s the farce; the hired muscle, whom the blood-soaked generals never bothered to pay enough between ordering torture of children or pregnant women, now fancy themselves the new masters of the nation.