Brazil Is Suffering. Bolsonaro Isn’t.

The Brazilian president is proving that right-wing populism has ways of overcoming self-inflicted disasters.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro salutes a Chinese military officer during a ceremony at Planalto Palace in Brasília, on March 8, 2019. SERGIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

The conventional wisdom about the politics of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have consolidated around the idea that it has weakened, if not ended, right-wing populism by reviving a desire for the very things that right-wing populist leaders are prone to vilify or to question: scientific expertise, global collaboration, and bureaucratic institutions (the much-maligned “deep state”). This line of analysis has typically centered on U.S. President Donald Trump; as Politico succinctly put it: “The Pandemic Is the End of Trumpism.”

But the example of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, often referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics,” offers a more complicated picture. It shows that populists have tools at their disposal to survive, and that the global pandemic offers political opportunities for populists to exploit. Less apparent is how the domestic environment can also work to the populists’ advantage. In Bolsonaro’s case, he’s tapping local myths about military rule to make the case for why he is the right person to get Brazil through the pandemic and beyond.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro underplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus: It’s just “ a little cold,” he said, adding that there’s no point in worrying since “we’re all going to die one day.” He also joked about how the physical strength of Brazilians would allow them to power through the pandemic: “They can jump in raw sewage and nothing happens.” On March 24, in a speech to the nation, Bolsonaro blamed the media for the pandemic. “Most of the media has been countervailing. The perfect scenario to be used by the media to spread hysteria,” he said.

By April 1, the New York Times reported that Bolsonaro was “the last notable holdout among major world leaders in denying the severity of the coronavirus.” Weeks later, Bolsonaro fired the country’s health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Among Mandetta’s sins were being more popular than Bolsonaro, refusing to relax social distancing, and objecting to the use of hydroxychloroquine as standard treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. More telling, Bolsonaro has flaunted his disregard for the protocol that public health officials have put in as the best defense against the coronavirus in the absence of a vaccine and effective therapeutic treatments. In March, he joined his supporters in Brasília for a rally against Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court. At that event, Bolsonaro posed for pictures with children plucked out of the crowd, demonstrating a blatant disregard of the advice of public health officials. He has criticized the governors and mayors who have implemented lockdowns across Brazil, saying that what they are doing “is a crime; they are destroying Brazil.”

Today, Brazil is one of the top global hot spots in the spread of the coronavirus. According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map, as of May 27, Brazil had nearly 400,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, by far the highest count in Latin America. The number of recorded coronavirus-related deaths in Brazil is lower, at 25,000, than the number in other countries with fewer confirmed cases, but there’s reason to suspect that this death toll is grossly underestimated. By contrast, neighboring Argentina (admittedly, a much smaller country) has registered 13,000 coronavirus cases and under 500 deaths. Brazil’s number of coronavirus cases also exceeds those of Italy, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom, some of the world’s worst-hit nations, and stands behind only that of the United States and Russia.

The reaction of the Brazilian public to Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic has been harsh, which suggests potential political peril ahead. “Fora Bolsonaro” (Get out Bolsonaro) is a familiar chant by quarantined Brazilians, especially in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The chant is usually heard at night, coming from high-rise apartment buildings, and is accompanied by the sound of clanging pots and pans. This is what Brazilians call panelaços, a long-standing form of protest in Latin America. They helped bring down President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, who was impeached in 2016. Curiously, media reports suggest that the recent panelaços have spread to the wealthy enclaves of Rio de Janeiro, where Bolsonaro received considerable electoral support in the 2018 election.

As with Trump, Bolsonaro’s travails precede his botched response to the pandemic. Indeed, it did not take long for Bolsonaro to become wildly unpopular. His time in office has been defined by his controversial statements on homosexuality, education, and abortion; disarray within his cabinet; and corruption scandals. All of this, according to a poll by Datafolha, by April 2019 had given Bolsonaro the lowest popularity rating of any first-term president since democracy was restored in the mid-1980s, with 30 percent of Brazilians deeming his presidency “bad or terrible.” Since the pandemic erupted, the polling for Bolsonaro has worsened. A recent XP opinion poll showed a disapproval rating of 42 percent, with 49 percent saying that they expected the reminder of his administration to be “bad or terrible.”

Bolsonaro’s non-coronavirus troubles have deepened since the resignation last month of Brazil’s Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, setting up a perilous political challenge for Bolsonaro when he can least afford it. Moro is a household name in Brazil and something of a mythical figure for many Brazilians. He’s also known to harbor political ambitions. Moro earned his fame as the lead prosecutor in Operation Car Wash, the massive anti-corruption dragnet that implicated numerous Brazilian politicians, from both the right and the left. And he forever endeared himself to Brazilian conservatives by jailing former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva right before the 2018 presidential election, one of the primary factors behind Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency. Prompting Moro’s resignation was Bolsonaro’s firing of Maurício Valeixo, the head of Brazil’s federal police, which had been looking into allegations of corruption by Bolsonaro’s sons. Reacting to the firing, Moro stated that: “I have to protect my biography and above all the commitment I took on … that we would stand firm against corruption, organized crime and violent crime.”

But it would be a mistake to write off Bolsonaro, or other right-wing populists whose weaknesses have been exposed by the pandemic. Bolsonaro has a fierce base of supporters and key political allies (especially the military, the religious right, and economic oligarchs), who are impervious to his undemocratic behavior. Bolsonaro’s connection to his supporters is not based on ideology or policy but rather on a common distaste for the so-called liberal political elite. Bolsonaro has also made inroads into the Brazilian working class, traditionally the province of the Workers’ Party, by depicting himself as an everyday man. In the very splintered political environment of present-day Brazil—there are dozens of political parties represented in the National Congress—having a loyal political base can mean a lot. Indeed, the 30 percent of the electorate that professes its allegiance to Bolsonaro is probably enough to get him into the second round of voting in the next elections. At the very least, the base will protect Bolsonaro from getting impeached. It has been reported that some 30 requests for his impeachment have already landed on the desk of House Speaker Rodrigo Maia.

Beyond a loyal base, there’s the capacity of populists for political reinvention. One of the trademarks of populism—alongside the cult of personality, a penchant for demagoguery, and a disregard for political norms and institutions—is the lack of adherence to any political or economic doctrine. Quite the contrary, populists have always been very adroit at abandoning old ideas and embracing new ones to suit the political moment and ensure their political survival. It is also the case that for all of the weaknesses that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed about right-wing populism, the crisis has not come without plenty of political opportunities for populist leaders. Around the world, right-wing populist leaders are exploiting the pandemic for their own political benefits. Far-right, populist parties in Spain, Germany, Italy, and France have used the crisis to call for the closing of national borders and for curtailing immigration.

In Bolsonaro’s case, the pandemic is providing him with a golden opportunity to remind the public of one of the things that got him elected in the first place: his law-and-order background (he was a parachutist in the Brazilian Army) and affection for the military. Since the crisis erupted, Bolsonaro has brazenly encouraged the militarization of the government by, among other things, expanding the powers of the generals in his administration beyond the confines of military affairs and by amplifying calls for a military takeover at rallies where he has been in attendance. “We Want the Armed Forces in Power,” read a banner at a pro-Bolsonaro rally in Brasília last month. Addressing the crowd in that same rally, Bolsonaro said: “We are not going to tolerate interference—our patience has ended. We have the people on our side, and we have the armed forces on the side of the people.”

No serious political observer thinks that Brazil is anywhere near becoming a military dictatorship, not the least because the military itself will stand in the way. After the Brasília rally, the military was rattled enough by what it heard from the protesters and Bolsonaro that Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva was compelled to issue a statement that read: “The armed forces will always be on the side of law, order, democracy, and liberty.” But Bolsonaro’s flirting with military government is not based in reality. Instead, it taps into the mythification by the right of the military dictatorship that the country abandoned in 1985. Central to that myth is the image of Brazil under military rule as orderly, economically prosperous, and free of political corruption—everything that the country is not since it embraced democracy in 1988, by enacting a new democratic constitution.

Like all myths, there’s a kernel of truth in the romanticized image of pre-democratic Brazil. The military was much less bloodthirsty in Brazil than in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Under military rule, Brazil also experienced the so-called Brazilian miracle, a dramatic expansion of the economy. But Brazil has not been anywhere near as zealous as its South American neighbors in exposing the truth about its experience with military government. It was only in 2014 that an official truth commission chronicled the human rights abuses during the period of 1946 to 1988, and especially the military regime that ruled from April 1, 1964 to March 15, 1985. It found the military responsible for systemic torture and for some 400 killings and disappearances. These findings came some 30 years after Argentina convened its own truth commission and put the military on trial for the human rights abuses of the Dirty War.

Bolsonaro’s law-and-order background and invocation of Brazil’s history with military government also resonates with the public. For many years now, Brazilians have deemed crime an urgent problem. And for good reason—in 2017, the number of murders in Rio de Janeiro state reached 40 per 100,000. This is 14 times the rate in New York state. A seven-term former congressman from Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro reassures people that he is serious when he says that only he can bring peace and order to the country.

Whether any of this will keep Bolsonaro in office remains to be seen. But for now he is more than happy to evoke the mythical version of Brazil under military rule—and plenty of Brazilians are more than willing to go along with him. It is a useful distraction from the dark reality of the pandemic and a wounded economy—and proof that populism is more resilient than one might think.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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