Jair Bolsonaro’s Model Isn’t Berlusconi. It’s Goebbels.

The far-right Brazilian leader isn’t just another conservative populist. His propaganda campaign has taken a page straight from the Nazi playbook.

Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a press conference he called to announce his intention to run for the Brazilian presidency in the October 2018 election, in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2017. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)
Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a press conference he called to announce his intention to run for the Brazilian presidency in the October 2018 election, in Rio de Janeiro on August 10, 2017. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 7, Brazilians will vote in a first round of presidential elections that the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is expected to win. Bolsonaro, who is also known as the Brazilian Trump, is currently being advised by Steve Bannon in his campaign. Still in the hospital, after an assassination attempt a few weeks ago, the Brazilian populist combines promises of austerity measures with prophesies of violence. His campaign is a mix of racism, misogyny, and extreme law and order positions.

He wants criminals to be summarily shot rather than face trial. He presents indigenous people as “parasites” and also advocates for discriminatory, eugenically devised forms of birth control. Bolsonaro has warned about the danger posed by refugees from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East, calling them “the scum of humanity” and even argued that the army should take care of them.

He regularly makes racist and misogynistic statements. For example, he accused Afro-Brazilians of being obese and lazy and defended physically punishing children to try to prevent them from being gay. He has equated homosexuality with pedophilia and told a representative in the Brazilian National Congress, “I wouldn’t rape you because you do not deserve it.”

In these and other statements, Bolsonaro’s vocabulary recalls the rhetoric behind Nazi policies of persecution and victimization. But does sounding like a Nazi make him a Nazi? Insomuch as he believes in holding elections, he is not there yet. However, things could change quickly if he gains power. Recently, Bolsonaro argued that he would never accept defeat in the election and suggested that the army might agree with his view. This is a clear threat to democracy.

He implied the possibility of a coup. He endorses the legacy of Latin American dictatorships and their dirty wars and is an admirer of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet and other strongmen.

And like the Argentine Dirty War generals of the 1970s and Adolf Hitler himself, Bolsonaro sees no legitimacy in the opposition, which for him represents tyrannical powers. He said last month that his political opponents, members of the Workers’ Party, should be executed.

For Bolsonaro, the left represents the antithesis of democracy. It represents what he calls the “Venezuelanization” of politics. But in fact, Latin American variants of left-wing populism do not engage in racism or xenophobia, even when, as in Venezuela, they have also moved in a dictatorial direction.

Most populists on the left, like those on the more traditional right, do not destroy democracy. They downplay and often corrupt its institutional dimensions, curtailing it but also accepting the results of elections when they lose.

For left-wing populists, this was the case in recent years, for example, in the Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administrations in Argentina and the Rafael Correa administration in Ecuador. On the right, there have been plenty of traditionalist populists, including Carlos Menem in Argentina and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who are not anti-democratic.

This is not what Bolsonaro stands for. Unlike previous forms of populism (on the left and right) that embraced democracy and rejected violence and racism, Bolsonaro’s populism harks back to Hitler’s time.

It is not a coincidence then that last month in Brazil, the German Embassy was besieged online by commentators claiming Nazism was socialism. Critics have labeled Bolsonaro a Nazi for his far-right nationalist tendencies, and many of the outraged commenters on the German Embassy’s post were supporters of the former military man.

In Brazil and elsewhere, right-wing populists are increasingly acting as the Nazis did and, at the same time, disavowing this Nazi legacy or even blaming the left for it. For post-fascist members of the alt-right, acting like a Nazi and accusing your opponent of being so is not a contradiction at all. Indeed, the idea of a leftist Nazism is a political myth that draws directly on the methods of Nazi propaganda.

According to Brazilian right-wingers and Holocaust deniers, it is the left that threatens to revive Nazism. This is, of course, a falsehood that comes straight out of the Nazi playbook. Fascists always deny what they are and ascribe their own features and their own totalitarian politics to their enemies.

While Hitler accused Judaism of being the power behind the United States and Russia and said Jews wanted to start a war and exterminate Germans, it was he who started World War II and exterminated the European Jews. Fascists have always replaced reality with ideological fantasies. This is why Bolsonaro presents the left’s leaders as latter-day emulators of Hitler when in fact he is the only candidate close to the Führer in style and substance.

Today in Germany itself, some far-right protesters perform the Nazi salute in demonstrations, yet their leaders in the Alternative for Germany, which is now the second-most popular party in the country, explicitly disavow Nazism. At the same time, however, they use Hitler’s infamous insults and propaganda strategies to represent independent media. Just as the Nazi leader did, they call the media “the lying press.”

In the United States, President Donald Trump famously said in 2017 that some neo-Nazis and white nationalists were “very fine people.” Trump has also, at one point in his presidency, accused the CIA of acting like Nazis. Following Nazi doctrines of propaganda, many in the contemporary far-right (often full of white nationalists and neo-Nazis) deny links to their ideological predecessors and even argue that those standing against them are the real Nazis. Latin America’s new right-wing populists are following suit.

When another presidential candidate accused Bolsonaro of being a “tropical Hitler,” Bolsonaro responded that it was not him but his enemies who praised the Nazi leader. (In 2011, Bolsonaro said he preferred to be presented as Hitler by his critics than as being gay.) In the new populist era of fake news and outright lies, this particular falsehood about Nazism stands out: the twisted idea that Nazism and fascism are left-wing phenomena.

In an era when the contemporary far-right and the populist leaders who excuse its racism are closer to Nazism than ever before, many of them are trying to distance themselves from Hitler’s legacy by using simplistic arguments to blame the socialist left for Nazism. This is a notorious propaganda tactic that resembles previous fascist campaigns.

In Hitler’s early days, Nazi propagandists constantly stated that Hitler was a man of peace, a moderate regarding anti-Semitism, racism, and the personification of the nation and its people. In short, he was a leader above the pettiness of politics. As historians know, these were egregious lies that generated long-standing support for Nazism despite the fact that Hitler was exactly the opposite: one of the most radical warmongers and racists in history. Leaders who sound like Hitler are doing the same today.

As in Nazi times, repetition has replaced explanation. Only ignorance (or conscious oversight) of the historical legacy of Nazism can lead propagandists to mislabel an explicitly right-wing nationalist appropriation of left-wing concerns. Despite the mischievous moniker “national socialism,” which was intentionally misleading to confuse workers and make them vote for fascists, the Nazi Party soon renounced any possible socialist dimension.

Those who simplify history to argue that fascism is socialism intentionally forget that fascism was about fighting socialism (and also constitutional liberalism) while displacing concerns for social justice and class struggle and replacing them with nationalist and imperialist aggression. As the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat argues, these distortions of the history of fascist violence aim to “sanitize the history of the right.”

Latin America has experienced these fascist-inspired politics before, most notably in the case of Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s, during which the government killed tens of thousands of its citizens. Bolsonaro famously declared in 1999 that the Brazilian dictatorship also “should have killed 30,000 persons, starting with Congress as well as with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.” Like his fascist predecessors, Bolsonaro has argued that this sort of dictatorial regime was a true democracy—just without elections. What is new about Bolsonaro is that, unlike earlier military dictatorships, he wants to market fascism as democracy.

Bolsonaro dubiously claims that there would be “zero risk” to democracy if he were elected, but many Brazilians clearly disagree. After mass demonstrations against him last weekend, Bolsonaro’s lead is growing in the polls. Some Brazilian observers argue that this strong opposition from women and minorities has boosted his candidacy. Similar events occurred in 1930s Germany.

The more anti-system and violent Nazi extremism became, the more public support Hitler generated. In a country where support for authoritarianism is on the rise and 53 percent of Brazilians, according to a recent poll, see police as “warriors of God whose task is to impose order,” such views catch on.

Politicians such as Bolsonaro often deny any association with the German fascist dictator while accusing their enemies on the left of being the real Nazis. But history teaches us that the path to understanding the new global populists of the right cannot ignore the fascist roots of their politics—and their propaganda.

Federico Finchelstein is Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. He is the author of From Fascism to Populism in History and A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Twitter: @FinchelsteinF