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How Bolsonaro Happens

Seven points about the Brazilian Presidential Election

How Bolsonaro Happens

With the possible election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency being discussed on English Media there are lots of people asking: is he a Brazilian version of Trump? Is he Hitler? How did Brazil get here? I’ll try to answer these questions in eight points.

#1) Bolsonaro might be the Trump of the Tropics. But Trump is the Bolsonaro of the United States.

When Trump was running for President in 2016, news outlets were comparing him to autocrats and foreign leaders. Many writers compared him to Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant Italian former Prime Minister. TV comedian Trevor Noah (who was born in South Africa) did a segment comparing Trump with African leaders like Idi Amin Dada and Gaddaffi.

To me, there was something of a Brazilianness to Trump. Trump’s nepotism and his mixture of public and private businesses is a style that Brazilians know well. Trump’s adult children were and are everywhere, in his company, in his campaign and in the White House.

(Some years ago, an American that had been married to a Brazilian woman published a list of things that he hated about Brazil. One of the things, along with taxes and the police that did not do their job, was the fact that families were always meddling in the life of married couples).

Ironically, Trump could not have hired Ivanka and Jared Kushner in Brazil. Politicians were so keen on hiring their own children that strong anti-nepotism laws were passed. (Politicians then tried some workarounds, of course, trying to indirectly find some cushy job for their children.)

Many politicians in Congress and everywhere are children of other politicians. The current mayor of São Paulo, the mayor of Salvador, and the current Speaker of the Lower House of Congress all share the surname of famous politicians.

It’s easy to spot the children of the owner inside any Brazilian business. They usually have a murky role, somewhere between not really accountable for anything or wielding a huge amount of power inside the company.

Something like Jared and Ivanka. Or Donald Jr.

Trump’s political style is not uncommon among Brazilian politicians. In Brazil, there is the idea of coronel, that’s basically the same thing as the caudillo of Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. Coronéis were large landowners that bought military titles from the Army during the Brazilian Empire, and that used their economic power to hold political power over certain regions.

In Brazil, it is not rare to find a family controlling the political machines, the major TV stations, and large swaths of land in a certain region or state. And these politicians will use some level of populist rhetoric as a defense against accusations of graft and authoritarianism.

When then-Senator Antônio Carlos Magalhães, who controlled the political machine in the State of Bahia (his nephew is now mayor of Salvador), was being accused of corruption, I would see people in Bahia saying that we, who lived in São Paulo, did not understand Antonio Carlos Magalhães.

And the idea that a politician can’t be corrupt because he is personally rich? That’s not something that I’ve heard for the first time from a Trump supporter, but from the supporters of Paulo Maluf, the former mayor of São Paulo, who was accused of graft during his political career. (His supporters used to point out that he was a crook, but he managed to get things done. He is now in jail.)

Maluf, like Trump, also did a mixture of right-wing policies and left-wing promises. He also had strong support among the white lower middle class.

Bolsonaro might be helped by an idea of cultural war that was imported from the United States, and he represents a political right that imported a lot of ideas from American talk-radio and Fox News. (A mixture of the Brazilian and American Right surely sounds like a Frankenstein, doesn’t it?) But he is also a typical Brazilian politician, and Trump, by rupturing typical American norms, also resembles your typical Brazilian politician.

(Trump would not have been elected without the votes from the former Confederacy – like Brazil, a society that was built after slavery.)

#2) Bolsonaro is the Ron Paul of Brazil.

Brazil has proportional representation for the Lower House of Congress. It’s something like having at-large districts where the most voted-for candidates are elected, after considering party-line votes.

Especially in large states, this system helps candidates who have name recognition, who can gather small proportions of the vote in each precinct, to be elected. It also helps candidates who are supported by a professional class (like teachers or cops), or highly ideological candidates who can gather votes from sparsely populated geographical areas.

Bolsonaro’s political career began in 1987, when he complained about soldiers’ salaries to a magazine and presented a plan that included drawings with references to bombings of military installations, if the government refused to offer salary raises.

(He was court-martialed, stayed under military arrest and almost expelled – ironically, if he had done this in the United States, he would have been dishonorably discharged and banned from buying guns. Which he can still do in Brazil, a country with much stricter gun control overall.)

The episode brought him fame, which allowed him to be elected to the City Council of Rio de Janeiro in the following year, helped by the support of the lower ranks of the Military. He was then elected to Congress where he was basically a backbencher. He was not a high-profile member of any committees or commissions, and he did not manage to pass any bill.

Bolsonaro only gained a national profile through his fights with feminist members of Congress. (Yes, including the infamous fight where he suggested that he would not rape a colleague because she was ugly.) Unlike Nigel Farage and Jean Marie Le Pen, Bolsonaro did not build a political organization. He was chosen by activists on the right, who were attracted by his rhetoric.

That’s pretty similar to the Ron Paul Revolution in the US Republican Primaries in 2008 and 2012. Ron Paul did not create a political organization either; he was embraced by a diffuse network of activists that were pretty savvy on social media.

Bolsonaro only chose the party in which he would run some months before the election. In some sense, he is an accidental politician. He is not like Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin, who carefully planned their rise to power.

He is not so much an authoritarian as he is someone that would enable the authoritarianism of other people, especially because he does not have the political experience to control other people.

Imagine Ron Paul being elected to the White House. Or imagine Dennis Kucinich, Justin Amash or your typical highly ideological backbencher that is not liked by most members of both parties being elected to the White House.

You get the idea.

#3) When it comes to the economy, Bolsonaro is much more similar to the 5 Star Movement/Lega Nord coalition in Italy than with Trump.

There are several comparisons between Trump and Bolsonaro, and lots of political observers saying that Trump would enact a “Brazil first” economic policy.

A big part of the problem here is that Brazil is already a pretty closed economy.  Brazil basically uses tariffs and taxes to force manufacturers to produce goods locally. If you buy a smartphone in Brazil, it’s a smartphone assembled in Brazil to avoid import duties of 60%. Basically, when Trump says that if Apple wants to avoid taxes, then they should assemble their iPhones in the United States, he’s saying that the United States should be more like… Brazil.

Brazil already has lots of tariffs, and they are not that popular because… surprise, they make everything more expensive. (It’s not a coincidence that Foxconn is building a plant in Wisconsin after building two plants in Brazil.)

In some sense, Bolsonaro resembles the Lega Nord / 5 Star Movement in Italy.  Brazil, like Italy, needs to do unpopular reforms: the country spends too much on pensions — something close to 11% of the GDP — and spends too much on government workers (too many people doing administrative tasks, and too many people being too expensive for those administrative tasks). Like with the coalition in Italy, Bolsonaro’s coalition wants things that do not necessarily add up.

Bolsonaro’s economic guru is Paulo Guedes, a Chicago Boy who was always popular among free market libertarians in Brazil. On the other hand, another of his lieutenants, Major Olimpio, now a senator-elect, almost ran as the running mate for the gubernatorial candidate of Lula and Dilma in São Paulo. One of Olimpio’s issues with Lula and Dilma is that he thought that both were too conservative on pensions.

The truck drivers’ strike that happened in May is also a sign of problems to come: oil prices are increasing, and that means inevitable increases on diesel prices, unless fuel subsidies are increased. The same increases that helped to bring about the truck drivers’ strike.

This fragile alliance between people that like the status quo and those who want free markets might be a problematic marriage.

#4) There is not so much of a pro-Bolsonaro vote as that there is a Anti-PT vote.

The PT, the Workers’ Party, was founded in 1981 by a coalition of union leaders and intellectuals. Lula, one of these union leaders (who would become a President), became a kind of legend as the leader of a sequence of strikes among steelworkers (particularly auto workers) in 1978-80.

Lula’s rhetorical style is a mixture of Jesse Jackson in the 80’s and Bill Clinton. Lula, who never finished the equivalent of Middle School, does not care for speaking with perfect grammar nor for using fancy words. Lula gives speeches like a working-class dude talks in the bar. One of the reasons why Lula gets so many votes in rural areas in the Northeast (one of the poorest regions in Brazil) is a local version of the bubba vote: there is a cultural identification between Lula and low-income people in the Northeast.

That also meant that Lula was an easy target. People in the middle classes outside the Northeast always saw Lula as an uneducated ignoramus.

The fact that the PT was not only the party of labor unions but also the party of academics created a perfect mix for cultural wars.

The dynamics of Brazilian elections since the 80s have been a push-pull between people voting for the PT on one side, and people opposing the PT on the other side. That allowed center-right parties to win elections with completely mediocre candidates, just because they were not the PT.

Polls show large rejection for Bolsonaro, but they also show even larger rejection for the PT. It’s the most common dynamic in Brazilian politics.

The idea of a candidate from a pretty small party with little political experience winning the Presidency because of the anti-PT vote is not exactly new. In 1989, Fernando Collor (then a first-term governor of Alagoas, a small state in the Northeast) was elected President.

The fact that PT has held four consecutive mandates doesn’t help either. Additionally, Dilma Rousseff was a clumsy politician, who created lots of unnecessary problems in the economy, and the country faced a huge recession under her watch.

#5) Without Dilma’s Impeachment and Lula’s arrest, it would be very difficult to imagine Bolsonaro being elected.

Ironically, without two controversial political events, Brazil would probably be having an election with two normal, boring politicians.

In 2014, Dilma Rousseff was reelected by a relatively small margin. She was elected in a coalition with PMDB, a center party that was then the largest party in Brazil. It was mostly a marriage of convenience, where Dilma would get the votes from the PMDB in Congress, and PMDB would name people for the ministries.

By that agreement, the PMDB named the vice-president, Michel Temer.

When Dilma’s approval rating soured after a strong recession, Temer and his allies began to articulate the idea of Dilma’s impeachment. The idea, which was supported by a lot of people on Wall Street, was that Temer could pass the “reforms” that Lula and Dilma could not enact.

Sure, you put in as President a guy that was not elected to be President, who will then enact a program of reforms that were rejected on the previous election. What could go wrong? To make things worse, Temer was not really used to dealing directly with voters. He was basically a parliamentary leader in the Lower House of Congress. He had other politicians as his main constituents, and he was also was married to a woman that was 43 years his junior. Plus his party was far from clean when it came to accusations of graft and corruption.

In the end, surprise, Temer was incredibly unpopular.  So unpopular that he became toxic to the parties that supported Dilma’s impeachment — basically all the major parties on the center-right.

That situation created a vacuum that favored Bolsonaro. It was not that different from what happened in the 90s in Italy, when Operation Clean Hands devastated all the major parties and created the opening for Berlusconi, previously an outsider to Italian politics.

If Dilma had not been impeached, we would probably have a runoff between two normal politicians. Probably a runoff between two boringly normal politicians, Haddad and Geraldo Alckmin.

There is also the issue of former president Lula’s arrest. Lula had pretty good numbers in the polls before being arrested for a somewhat clumsy conviction for corruption.

In Brazil, obviously, there are no grand Juries. But juries are also only used for capital crimes – intentional homicides, abortion or assisting suicide. Basically, unless you are believed to have murdered someone, you are going to be either convicted or acquitted by a judge, and then other judges will either reject or confirm your conviction in an appeal.

Operation Car Wash became an international sensation because it seemed that Brazil was finally arresting corrupt politicians. It was originally aimed at contracts of state-controlled Petrobras, the large oil conglomerate. It soon added the arrests of the owners of large construction companies like Odebrecht and OAS – companies infamously known for involvement with large infrastructure projects plagued with overruns and graft.

Sure, arresting corrupt politicians is nice, and companies like Odebrecht and OAS had been a large problem in Brazilian politics since the Military Regime. But there were problems with Operation Car Wash. It was trying to do too much, and it was too centralized around a single judge, Sergio Moro. (It was so centered around him that a Financial Times reporter thought that he was a prosecutor.) Both judges and prosecutors were perceived to be relying too much on a local variation of the plea bargain. It was commonplace for an arrested public official or official at a construction company to give a bombastic confession under plea bargain that would never be confirmed.

It was strikingly similar to waterboarded detainees confessing completely unrealistic terror plots.

It also seemed that both judges and prosecutors were too political – they were always talking to the media or talking in social media. The leading prosecutor was once mocked on Twitter because he was commemorating his number of followers “like if he was a female teenager on Instagram”.

The episode that brought Lula to jail never made sense to me. Lula was accused of receiving a beach condo from a construction company as a kickback. The apartment in question seemed to be cheap and small, especially for a former President. The apartment was in the city of Guarujá, a popular destination for beachgoers because of its closeness to the city of São Paulo.

One could argue that it’s TOO popular a place, and that there are too many tourists going there, especially during the weekends and holidays in the summer. Lula is a politician that would be recognized by everyone. Yes, Guarujá has beautiful beaches, but it is also infamous for violent crime. (Part of the Port of Santos is located there.)

It would be similar to someone trying to use an small apartment in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, or in Long Island, to curry favors with Barack Obama.

A huge part of the debate was that the prosecutors never really managed to prove who formally owned the apartment. One could argue that Lula was trying to hide an asset. But there are no Delaware Corporations in Brazil: it would be impossible for Lula to hide the ownership of the apartment and then use it as an asset (like, selling it).

Sure, political scandals generally involve people doing all kinds of petty and stupid things – Jesse Jackson Jr. and Duncan Hunter Jr.’s expenses with campaign funds involve petty stuff. But why would someone use an apartment in Brazil as a kickback for Lula if they could use an offshore account to buy him an apartment in Miami?

Supporters of the PT complain that prosecutors were going too soft on members of other parties. It is true that they convicted and arrested Eduardo Cunha, the powerful speaker of the House from Temer’s party (P)MDB. But the evidence and accusations against Cunha were overwhelming.

Geraldo Alckmin, who ran as a Presidential Candidate in this election, was named as a recipient of kickbacks in an infamous Odebrecht list (unlike Lula or Dilma). It would make sense. Geraldo Alckmin was the governor of São Paulo for 13 years. The state of São Paulo had direct control of one of the largest highway networks in Brazil, and it was directly responsible for the most expensive highway construction project in Brazil. It also controls the subway construction of São Paulo, another potential target for graft.

Anyway, the PT was in a horrible political place. Arguing that yes, you are a crook, but the other parties are even worse is a losing political message. And in the end, both the impeachment and the corruption scandals proved to be entirely destructive to the mainstream of Brazilian politics – both on the right and on the left.

That created a political vacuum that favored Bolsonaro.

One could argue that large portions of Brazilians are known to have authoritarian opinions, and Bolsonaro just reflects opinions that large portions of the population have. But he was favored by an institutional vacuum, and it would have been entirely possible to curb the influence of Odebrecht and other construction companies using smaller and more discrete operations, that would have allowed the political system to survive.

#6) The main problem with Bolsonaro is not that he will enact a fascist regime, but that he will enact the worst impulses of the Brazilian State.

In theory, Brazil has one of the largest military budgets in the world. In practice, the Brazilian Military is not that large – a large portion of this money is spent on pensions and clubs for top officials. (There is an infamous pension — for life – for unmarried adult daughters of military officers.) Generals give declarations implying some veiled support for some type of military intervention in the civilian government, and don’t face any punishment – remember General Stanley McChrystal being sacked for simply mocking civilian officials in private?

Some of the largest massacres in Brazil were committed by police forces. In 1993, 111 inmates were killed by the police in the largest state penitentiary in São Paulo. In 2005, four cops killed 30 people in the city of Queimados, Rio de Janeiro. 5012 people were killed by police forces in 2017.

There are studies pointing out that the largest forces behind the drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro are not the traditional drug cartels, but the milicias, militias comprised of active duty policemen, firefighters and the military.

And then there are the judges and prosecutors. Some years ago, a judge was caught in a DUI. Not only he was not arrested, he managed to sue the traffic agent that caught him – she said that “judges are not god” when he said that he was a judge. A chief judge in the state of Mato Grosso went to a prison to personally free his son, arrested for drug trafficking.

If Brazil has a higher homicide rate than Nigeria or the states of Mexico in the midst of the drug cartels’ war, you can’t blame it on the population. A large portion (if not most) of the blame rests on institutions that are not doing their job (or are making things worse).

If Bolsonaro is elected, the biggest danger is not that he will become a dictator, but that Brazilian institutions that no one really has control over now (and that face almost no accountability) are going to become even more unhinged and more violent.

#7) Yes, Bolsonaro in general shows that the left, everywhere, has a huge challenge.

During the first round of voting, a video of someone using a gun to vote for Bolsonaro went viral. It was later revealed that it was someone using a toy gun. And yes, as John Oliver noted, Bolsonaro is a big fan of finger guns.

There is an appeal in that for a certain type of masculinity. It might be an incredibly fake and an especially insecure type of masculinity, but it’s an appeal. No wonder that he talks about guns all the time. Even the most physically weak man in the universe can feel powerful with a gun. That’s not that different from the appeal to masculinity coming from Donald Trump.

In most countries, men make up something like half of the voters. And in a lot of countries, most of these men are going to be white or people that identify as white. You can’t win elections if you are losing half of the electorate. In the #MeToo era, that’s something that a lot of people on the left and among liberals of all kinds are missing.

Some months ago, Ezra Klein wrote about how he felt personally uncomfortable when his friends used the hashtag “#KillAllMen” on social media.

In Brazil, some days before the first round of voting, people on social media (many of them associated with feminists) called for large rallies in opposition to Bolsonaro, with a fancy hashtag. Bolsonaro’s numbers in the polls seemed to improve in response to this.

One of the reasons why so many men are attracted to phonies like Bolsonaro, Trump or a middle-aged Canadian psychology professor prone to platitudes is because there is no one on the left trying to appeal to them.

You don’t need to sound like some MRA dude to appeal to men. But you need to have some appeal aimed at that half of the voters (especially because the other half are not going to vote for candidates just because of women candidates or because of feminist messages).

Another lesson for liberals of all types from the Brazilian election is that the social media game is biased against them. Social media is perfect for spreading rumors that can be used to stoke fear. Fear of crime. Fear of people who are different from you. That pushes people to the far-right.

People that are afraid of something are going to move in the direction of authoritarian politicians looking for protection.

Social media can also be used to stoke social divisions that are going to favor the far right. Brazilian observers note the (false) rumor of welfare payments for prison inmates, that has been spread on social media for more than a decade. It’s not so different from the Obamaphone rumors that are so common in the United States.

Bolsonaro was propelled in part by rumors and fake news that used social media. No one in Brazil was prepared for the intensity of the whole thing.

It would be wise in other countries for people on the left and even in establishment parties not to commit the same mistake.

Andre Kenji de Sousa

Andre writes from from Itatiba, São Paulo, Brazil.

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19 thoughts on “How Bolsonaro Happens

  1. Brazil already has lots of tariffs, and they are not that popular because… surprise, they make everything more expensive. (It’s not a coincidence that Foxconn is building a plant in Wisconsin after building two plants in Brazil.)

    I’m not sure this does what you want it to do in the context of your article.


    • I was pointing out that Trump is trying to do the same type of industrial policy that Brazil does when he says that he is bringing back “jobs” to America, and that the two countries that Foxconn was building plants in the Western Hemisphere were precisely Brazil and United States.

      In both cases were used tax incentives.


  2. This is all good stuff. On the subject to bringing finger guns to a knife fight, do you think the fact that someone stabbed Bolsonaro is going to be a) a factor, b) a decisive factor or c) no factor to put Bolsonaro in office?


    • I think that it helped because he did not have to go to the debates or be interviewed. He could simply do Facebook lives without having to face other candidates or journalists. He is not that smart, it’s easy to perceive that during an interview. It’s not that he is someone like Lula, that lacks formal education, he is not smart.


  3. I recently washed the Mechanism on Netflix and read a fair bit about Brazil in the past. Brazilian politics seems corrupt in ways that haven’t existed in the United States for decades. Practically nobody has any memory of needing to bribe somebody to get plumbing done. I can see why people in Brazil might go for a just in case break glass moment.

    A problem with what should be done in many countries is that it’s boring and unsexy. The non-solutions offered by the Far Right and Far Left are certainly a lot more exciting sounding than what liberalism is offering. The entire left spectrum also has the issue that their meta-message sounds like we need to sacrifice more. Naturally people do not like sacrifice. The Right Populists at least promise some people that they can have their cake and eat it to.


      • The Mechanism seemed very disciplined its plotting to me. You need to get past the first episode and from there on it, its solid gold. One thing that I liked about the show is that it does depict the tediousness of doing investigations into any crime in general and white collar crime committed by powerful high status people in particular. It was a realistic depiction of how these things work out, how people make smart moves, dumb moves, and the role of luck on both sides.

        Saul recently remarked on Facebook that his life and the life of all lawyers would be a lot easier if legal dramas came with a realistic time line. People don’t realize how long the law takes to act. The Mechanism was good at depicting it.


    • Brazil problem is not corruption per se, but the institutions and lack of trust on institutions. You don’t have to pay bribes for cops, for instance(I can’t say the same thing about Mexico), on the other hand you can’t expect cops and the Justice System to do their job.

      The main problem of the Mechanism is precisely that.


  4. Awesome essay.

    My suspicion is that we’re experiencing a backlash of sorts to a technocratic elite that has detached more or less entirely from the populists they’ve been in charge of.

    And democracy does what democracy does in response to such a detachment: it goes populist.


    • Yeah, one of the things Trump said on the stump in 2016 was “the game is rigged”. I think that’s accurate. And nobody was trying to address it. Or it wasn’t anything more than one point in a 972 point plan.


        • I more or less endorse this, but I’d like to note that from the perspective of the populist supporter, they are employing “tit for tat”, which is a very old, and pretty valid response to this kind of situation.

          We can hope for, and do, better. But it’s an indication of how badly off-centered our political economy has become.


      • I suppose for a given value of rigged it is… on the right. It certainly isn’t that way on the left. I mean the Democratic Party haltingly moves policy in the direction liberals and its voters generally want and seeks to do that more. On the right what the GOP and its donors want is almost opposite what its voting base wants in terms of economics, safety nets and foreign policy.


  5. Very interesting read and thanks for sharing. Pay attention to world politics and Trump doesn’t seem nearly as shocking. It’s something many countries have dealt with in recent history, and I would say virtually all democracies are dealing with now, including middle income ones like Brazil.


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