Following in the steps of Big Brother?
How Brazil’s rightward shift is similar and dissimilar to that of the U.S. in 2016
By Flavio Azevedo (University of Cologne, Germany), Daniel Mucciolo (Universidade do Contestado, Brazil),and Da’Quallon D. Smith (Columbia University, USA)
The following article first appeared in the ECC’s Fall 2018 Newsletter.
Brazil is a country of superlatives. It is the world’s 5th largest and most populous country in the world, extremely rich in natural resources, and Latin America’s most powerful economy. Brazil is also the primary home of the Amazon Forest,the earth’s lungs, which absorbs ¼ of the world’s carbon dioxide. In an ever-interconnected global economy and environment, Brazil’s election results matter well beyond its borders. On the last Sunday of October, as the country’s constitution mandates, a run-off election pitted Fernando Haddad, who took over Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party, against a candidate pundits have been calling the “Trump of the Tropics.” But appearances can be deceiving. While parallels can indeed be drawn between Donald Trump and Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, differences between the two countries’ circumstances and the candidates’ ideological characteristics are palpable.
Think of the disparate backgrounds wherein the two contests took place. Contrary to the U.S. in 2016, Brazil’s latest election took place while the country was reeling from the worst economic crisis in its history, with sky-high unemployment and record-shattering murder rates. As if things were not bad enough, Brazil is still embroiled in an ongoing 4-year long corruption investigation that has shaken the nation to its core, incriminating politicians across all parties and ideological proclivities. Dubbed operation car wash, it hassaid to have uncovered the largest corruption scheme in the world, and one that has sent Brazil’s favourite son, Lula, to prison.
Against the backdrop of a seemingly never-ending political corruption scandal, it is no surprise that only 13% of Brazilians are satisfied with democracy, only 11% think the country is going in the right direction, and the legislative and executive branches are among the country’s most distrusted institutions. In a country in which voting is mandatory, 42.1 million people chose not to select a candidate in the runoff — that is one in every three Brazilian adults. What these numbers show is a generalized disillusionment — or political alienation, if you will — with the political establishment. But perhaps the most telling contextual factor that differentiates Brazil’s shift to the (far)-right from that in other countries is that the Worker’s Party (PT) had won the last 4 Presidential elections. And while PT oversaw the most prosperous times Brazilians have ever seen, recent political, public security, and economic crises dissolved popular support for PT as well as trust in the entirety of Brazil’s political class. Not only will the lower house have 30 different parties (a record), but almost all of the major political parties had their representations in Congressseverely reduced. Indeed, the erosion of traditional parties — particularly on the mainstream right — created a vacuum so large that many Brazilians thought of this election as a referendum on the status quo: a choice between “more of the same” and anything else. Enter Jair Bolsonaro, a retired Army captain and longtime congressman from Rio de Janeiro who — prior to Operation Car Wash and Rousseff’s impeachment — received some notoriety for defending what was once seen as inconceivable rhetoric. For example, during Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings, Bolsonaro drew national condemnation for dedicating his in-favor vote to the memory of Colonel Ustra, a convicted human rights violator and torturer of the military dictatorship — and who personally tortured Rousseff in 1970.
As far as the political campaign goes, there are some striking similarities between Trump and his Brazilian counterpart. Both were widely discredited by political and cultural elites; both uttered racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs without serious consequences (electoral or otherwise); they lauded themselves as incorruptible, promised to drain the swamp, invested heavily in social media, and circulated misinformation on too-big-to-notice-until-it’s-too-late platforms such as Facebook, Twitter & WhatsApp; and despite calling the news media “fake” — or perhaps because of it — dominated national media coverage.
In addition, Trump and Bolsonaro share two ideological appendices to their conservative politics: populism and authoritarianism. In 2004, Mudde synthesized the core elements of populist political actors and defined populism as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017). Similarly, Hawkins (2009) argues that populism is “a Manichean discourse that identifies Good with a unified will of the people and the Evil with a conspiring elite.” Both scholars, and the literature in general, tend to agree that central to populism is (a) framing of political divisions as the clash of two opposed and monolithic forces, (b) which is characterized by the assignment of a moral dimension via the juxtaposition of totalizing qualifiers such as good vs. evil, us vs. them, pure vs. corrupt (van Hauwaert, Schimpf, Azevedo, 2018). It is this moralization and covert in-grouping and out-grouping that predisposes and links populist views to both authoritarian and conservative views. Moreover, it is why, in practice, this partnership take hold almost exclusively on the social and cultural dimension of political orientation. In this sense, populist authoritarianism goes beyond the belief in an ordered society wherein transgressions should be punished severely — also known as law and order, a longstanding staple of authoritarian conservatism — to also include the identification, derogation, and targeting of “deviants.” Indeed, it has been shown that belligerence towards minority groups and the endorsement of the establishing and maintaining group-based hierarchies is a stable and robust predictor differentiating preference for mainstream conservative vs. populist authoritarian candidates (Womick, Rothmund, Azevedo, King, & Jost, 2018). Populist authoritarians seek to perpetuate societal inequalities — if not expand them — which they see as natural and legitimate (Azevedo, Jost, & Rothmund, 2017; Mudde, 2007; p. 23).
When fused, authoritarian populism is seen as a social pathology imbued by a paranoid style of politics which ultimately threatens liberal democratic values. The argument is that democratic rule is built upon the integration of pluralism in the political system, which is institutionalized by fair and free elections, separation of powers, the rule of law, and the equal protection rights and liberties for all people. Indeed, democracies’ checks and balances exist to limit the power of the executive branch and protect citizens from abuse. Populists, however, while claiming to speak for the people, conceive democratic procedure and its institutions as unnecessary obstacles to defending the Nation, as an impediment to their conception of popular will (Müller, 2017). Often through the exploitation of economic grievances, populists advocate for a return to nationalism, encourage prejudice and foment distrust toward globalization, international alliances and trade pacts. When in power, populists tend to reject pluralism and minority rights, clash against the free media, and decrease the extent to which civil liberties and political rights are upheld. Unsurprisingly, for most of the last decade, intellectuals, news media, and politicians have echoed voices of concern against the rise of populism, which is now a major player in politics around the globe.
However, while Bolsonaro and Trump share a populist authoritarian ideology, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric differs from Trump’s in at least two important ways: ambivalence towards democracy and overt, unapologetic generalized prejudice. We focus on the former first. Contrary to mainstream conservatives, who operate within the boundaries of democratic institutions, the members of the far-right display a varying degree of undemocratic proclivities (Golder, 2016). In a nutshell, the far-right is composed of two groups: the populist radical right and the extreme right. While the populist radical right is critical of democratic institutions — particularly those designed to preclude unchecked majority rule and ensure separation of powers — it is still supportive of elections and democratic rule. The discourse of members of the extreme right, on the other hand, not only shows contempt for democracy and its institutions but often encourages the transfer of governing power and legitimacy away from the Nation’s people. In a 1999 televised interview, Bolsonaro affirmed his support for military intervention, closing the Congress, and said these words about democracy: “You will never change anything in this country through voting. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, things will only change when a civil war kicks off and we do the work the [military] regime did not. Killing some 30.000, killing them! If a couple of innocents die, that’s OK.” Bolsonaro is also a staunch defender of the murderous legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship. In 2016, while being interviewed on radio, Bolsonaro said this about the practice of torturing captured dissidents: “the mistake was not to torture, it was not to kill them.” Even during the Presidential campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro suggested to a crowd of supporters that they would shoot down PT supporters and send them to Venezuela where they would be forced to eat grass. So, in comparing Trump’s with Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, there is a qualitative difference in support for democracy. Even if the American President tries — and sometimes succeeds — to blur the lines separating the three branches of government, Trump never publicly suggested that autocratic forms of government were preferable to democracy.
The second difference relates to the presence of covert vs. overt unapologetic prejudice. In all likelihood, Bolsonaro and Trump share the same prejudices (and levels thereof), but when it comes to public political discourse and decorum, there is a qualitative difference. In 2011, Bolsonaro outright stated that his children would never have relations with a person of color because they had been well educated and doing so would constitute promiscuity. He is also on record saying that he would be incapable of loving a homosexual son, and would prefer his death than have him “show up with some bloke with a mustache.” In 2017, Bolsonaro referred to the gender of his daughter — after four male sons — as “a moment of weakness,” not only implying his masculinity or effort affected the sex of his children, but also passing judgment on which sex is superior. We could go on. The take-home message is Bolsonaro’s rhetoric bears the hallmarks of the extreme right and thus conflating it with Trump’s is a grave solecism.
But why should we care about the electoral consequences of a country thousands of miles away?
First, Bolsonaro is against environmental regulations and plans to merge the ministries of Agriculture and Environment, in support of agroindustry, which effectively means the invasion of Indigenous people’s lands and unrestrained deforestation of the Amazon. Fewer trees will contribute to global warming, which affects us all. Second, Brazil is a regional geopolitical leader integrating all of its South American neighbors physically, economically and politically. Its stability plays a strategic role in ensuring local shocks don’t travel across the region. Recently, Brazil’s democratic institutions have shown uncanny resilience in the face of three concomitant crises. The military never intervened, court decisions were respected (despite popular upheaval) and constitutional processes were followed. However, as Bolsonaro has promised to crack down on dissidents, the media, and even the electoral court Brazil’s democracy could fall and cause a domino effect across the entire region. Third, Bolsonaro’s unapologetic prejudice against women, homosexuals, blacks and natives, promises to bolster fringe and extreme groups, increase domestic violence and hate crimes — just like it has in the U.S. as Trump repeatedly fails to denounce far-right groups — leading to the death of innocent human beings and human rights violations. Fourth, Bolsonaro has promised to embolden police officers and promote shot-to-kill public policies. In a country with already staggering amounts of police violence and extra-judicial killings, the institutional backing will only increase police impunity and violence — particularly against the poor and racial minorities. Innocent people will suffer for no other reason than authoritarian-fueled ideology. And the conditions of the incarcerated — Brazil has the third largest prison population in the world, who already live in subhuman conditions — have been predicted to substantially deteriorate. Fifth, and least important of all, we may be witnessing the death of conservatism as we know it. Despite a few overlaps with populist and authoritarian views, and the ease with which they constructed alliances in the northern and southern hemisphere, these differ considerably in terms of aspirations and modus operandi. Populist Authoritarianism is brash and passionate while conservatism is modest and cautious. Conservatives tend to respect hierarchy, favor continuity and revere traditional values (Freeden, 1996) while authoritarian populists embody anti-elitism, exacerbation of societal differences, and unmitigated prejudice. Yet, that conservatism’s worldwide drifts into populist authoritarianism does not seem to set off alarm bells. Indeed, conservatives seem oblivious to realize their cultured and traditional precepts have been hijacked before their eyes.
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