Brazil may soon become a brutal regime reminiscent of its past atrocities, and the far-right will probably impose crippling austerity (it wants to freeze real government spending for decades, which will worsen public health and make recessions much worse) that will do significant harm to the working class.
For the past thirty years, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro was a fringe extremist in Brazilian politics, known mostly for outlandish, deliberately inflammatory quotes in which he paid homage to the most notorious torturers of the 1964-1985 military regime, constantly heralded the 1964 coup as a “defense of democracy,” told a female socialist colleague in Congress that she was too ugly to “deserve” his rape, announced that he’d rather learn that his son died in a car accident than was gay, and said he conceived a daughter after having four sons only due to a “moment of weakness.”
His primary solution to the nation’s crime epidemic is to unleash the military and police into the nation’s slums and give them what he calls “carte blanche” to indiscriminately murder anyone they suspect to be criminals, acknowledging many innocents will die in the process. He has criticized monsters such as Chile’s Pinochet and Peru’s Fujimori – for not slaughtering more domestic opponents. He has advocated that mainstream Brazilian politicians be killed. He wants to chemically castrate sex offenders. In all respects, the hideous Brazilian military dictatorship that took over Brazil and ruled it for 21 years – torturing and summarily executing dissidents, with the support of the US and UK in the name of fighting Communists – is his model of governance.
As a result of last night’s truly stunning national election in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has been instantly transformed from marginalized clown into the overwhelmingly dominant force in the country’s political life. Bolsonaro himself fell just short of winning the 50% needed to win the presidency without a run-off.
But given the margin of victory, he is the overwhelming favorite to win on October 28 against the second-place candidate, ex-São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad. Haddad is the previously unknown, hand-picked successor anointed by Lula, the ex-two-term President who had been leading all polls until he was convicted on dubious corruption charges and quickly imprisoned so as to bar his candidacy, then silenced by Brazil’s right-wing judiciary with a series of remarkable prior restraint censorship orders barring all media outlets from interviewing him.
In sum, it is virtually impossible to overstate the threat level posed to democracy and human rights in the world’s fifth most-populous country as a result of last night’s election. And unlike in the U.S. or in the UK, which have old, strong, long-established democratic institutions that can limit the excesses and worst abuses of demagogues and authoritarians, Brazil has none of that. Spiraling from multiple crises – suffocating economic inequality, an epidemic of violence worse than many war zones, and a corruption scandal so sweeping that it has infected the core of almost every faction of the ruling class – this is a country with little to no ability to impose limits on what Bolsonaro wants to do.
Add to that the sheer youth of Brazilian democracy – only 33 years old: the temporal equivalent of the U.S. in 1820 or so – and it’s remarkably easy to envision a quick return to the military rule that imposed so many atrocities on so many segments of the population. That all of this has been ushered in democratically should be, but likely will not be, another warning sign to western democracies that are confronting similar dynamics, albeit ones that are unfolding somewhat more gradually.
To be sure – as is true of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing extremism throughout Europe – some substantial minority of Bolsonaro voters are motivated by classic bigotry, racism, anti-LGBT animus, resentment toward the indigenous population, and just a general tribal anger that seeks scapegoats for their plight. But many, probably most, are none of those things.
Many, instead, are motivated by legitimate grievances toward an establishment ruling class that has failed them on all levels, that expresses indifference if not outright contempt for their suffering and loss of hope, that they blame, often with good reason, for enacting policies that have destroyed their futures while refusing to accept any responsibility for it. And once that framework is adopted, any perceived enemy of that ruling class becomes their friend, or at least someone whose vows of destruction become more appealing than vows to preserve the system they justifiably despise (the reality is that Bolsonaro (like Trump), with his Chicago-trained neoliberal economic guru, will serve the economic interests of the establishment with great devotion at the expense of his working-class voters, but the perception of his anti-establishment animus is what matters).
The standard establishment reaction in the face of rising demagogues like Bolsonaro is to denounce those who support them, to call them names, to heap scorn on them, to sanctimoniously lecture them that their choices are primitive, retrograde, ignorant and illegitimate. That only serves further to exacerbate the dynamic.
Some context for the 21st century:
The world is watching Brazil’s elections, probably as never before. “Latin America’s latest menace: Bolsonaro Presidente,” screams the headline on the cover of The Economist. This conservative UK magazine would love to see the Workers’ Party (PT) disappear from Brazilian politics, but even they cannot stomach Bolsonaro, who in 2016 dedicated his vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff to the colonel responsible for her torture.
By 2014, under the presidencies of Lula and Dilma, poverty had been reduced by 55 percent and extreme poverty by 65 percent, and unemployment hit a record low of 4.9 percent. Some of these gains were lost when the economy then went into a deep recession that year, and the right took advantage of that downturn to seize what it could not win at the ballot box in four consecutive elections.
They impeached Dilma and removed her from office without even accusing her of an actual crime; and then Judge Moro sent Lula to prison for a “bribe” he never accepted, in a “trial” without material evidence. The US government sent experts from its Justice Department to “help” with investigations, and quietly showed support for the removal of Dilma.
But the bulk of the Brazilian electorate could see that although all the major political parties were infected with corruption, the decapitation of the Workers’ Party was not about justice. Lula retained a commanding lead in the polls even after his conviction. And so it became necessary to bar Lula from running for president, to jail him, and restrict his access to the media.
For the first time in decades, the threat of a military dictatorship is surfacing. No responsible journalism should ignore this threat, nor legitimize the extremism that strengthens it. And anyone who cares about democracy in Brazil would have to support Bolsonaro’s opponent in the second round of the election.