By J.P. Linstroth
On Oct. 28, Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the 38th president of Brazil from the Social Liberal Party, a conservative leaning party. His critics call him the “Brazilian Trump.”
Indeed, Bolsonaro’s election is symptomatic of a worldwide trend toward “right-wing populism” and “neo-nationalism,” or popular sympathies favoring political candidates on the far right of the political spectrum. For example, in recent elections this year in Italy and Hungary, and last year in Austria, neo-nationalist parties have been on the rise and in control of those countries’ parliaments. This inclination in autocratic governance may continue in Western Europe and elsewhere.
So, what has inspired this political trend? Why are such politicians with far-right leaning tendencies being elected to political office?
We are seeing anti-civil rhetoric, especially racism and the incitement of racist violence, as hallmarks of these political trends. Such hatred is being directed at immigrants, women, minorities and the LGBTQ community in general, thereby poisoning overall civility.
Why is this happening? Among the commonalities favoring right-wing populism are a general downturn in the world economy; the lack of job opportunities; general fears about immigrant populations; and general fears about the disappearance of so-called traditional lifestyles.
In places like the United States and Western Europe, the economy has not recovered enough from the “Great Recession” of 2008 to offer enough stability for the middle class, and so anxiety persists. Many affected in that way also believe immigrants are responsible for taking away their jobs. Some believe average taxpayers will be forced to provide social services for such newly arrived populations.
Furthermore, people in general see their traditional values eroding. To some, the LGBTQ community is the ultimate pariah. To many in this popular mythology, so-called gay lifestyles are being openly taught in schools and have become popular on television and in society as a whole. For the religious right, especially in America, this move away from traditional values — heterosexual marriage, church attendance and a kind of wholesomeness from some mythological bucolic time of the 1950s, or beforehand — when America was supposedly greater, and certainly more white-dominant — all point to a kind of social crisis.
Brazil is no exception to any of these recent trends toward right-wing populism and its adherent mythologies. In fact, Jair Bolsonaro seemed to take a page out of Donald J. Trump’s political playbook in the manner in which he ran his campaign, mostly through social media outlets as Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter.
On Sunday, in the run-off election against the left-leaning candidate, Fernando Haddad, of the Workers’ Party, Bolsonaro garnered 55 percent of the popular vote and won.
For the past decade, Brazil has become sick and tired of the Workers’ Party, the political party of the popular president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), and its corruption. Lula’s hand-picked successor, President Dilma Rousseff, was later impeached by the Brazilian Congress because of her cabinet’s bribery and corruption scandals known as “Operation Car Wash.” The scandals not only implicated members of Rousseff’s cabinet and the Workers’ Party but also members of the Brazilian Congress and the state-run oil company, Petrobras. And now, Lula himself is in jail on corruption charges.
To many Brazilians, it was unacceptable for the country to become another “Venezuela” — where socialism under President Hugo Chávez and now President Nicolás Maduro have failed economically.
Many of the same fears seen in America and Western Europe are also evident in Brazil. A down-trending economy from years of recession, a lack of jobs, the rise of crime and the so-called erosion of traditional values are all manifestations of a Brazilian drift toward supporting a popular right-wing candidate like Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro began his career in the military and has been generally supportive of the past military dictatorship period in the country (1964-1985). He has vowed to bring back the military and clean up crime and put the army in the streets again.
Moreover, he has made his political career on making outrageous statements to the media and to the public. Such vitriolic rhetoric is loved by his supporters as much as it is adored by Trump’s devotees.
He has famously said he would not employ women equally, nor give them equal pay to men. In 2014, he shoved a fellow woman lawmaker and said he would not rape her because she was not worth it and too ugly.
Bolsonaro has likewise made outrageous homophobic statements such as iterating that he would rather have his son be a drug addict than gay.
He has said he will prosecute the leftist parties in the country and put them in jail or force them into exile. In 2016, in his impeachment vote against former prisoner Dilma Rousseff, he declared that vote was in honor of the memory of her torturer, Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.
Yet, what is perhaps most alarming of all is his promise to persecute Brazil’s endangered indigenous Amerindian population. Bolsonaro has vowed to eliminate the demarcation of Native territories in Brazil and open up the Amazon to economic development. If this comes to pass, there may not be any Brazilian Indians left living in the Amazon much longer. What is more, there may no longer be an Amazon in its natural state. A man-made environmental catastrophe of this sort would have devastating consequences not only for Brazil but for the world as well. The Amazon jungle has been referred to as the “lungs of the planet,” for its role in absorbing carbon and emitting oxygen.
In sum, what recent presidential elections in Brazil demonstrate are the fragility of democratic institutions. What happened in Brazil with Bolsonaro’s election to the presidency is a microcosm for world trends toward right-wing populism and neo-nationalism.
If such political trends continue we may see more sinister aspects of society coming to the fore and tearing society asunder with the rise of fascism once more.
This is a historical consequence nobody wants revived — a nightmare beyond any Halloween fantasy of evil zombies and ghouls and the rise of the dead. It is not an overstatement to say it may be the end of civil society as we know it.
J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford. His first book is “Marching Against Gender Practice” (2015).