No country is immune to right- or left-wing populism. But the Bolsonaro phenomenon could only have happened in Brazil.
It's a well-known phenomenon. The emergence of populist leaders, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum, is fueled by fear. It is in times of decadence and despondency that people sacrifice prudence for the promise of pain relief. The triple crisis that Brazil is facing - comprising security, public ethics and the economy - has produced the candidate Jair Bolsonaro, much in the same way that the crises in Hungary, Italy and the Philippines have created Viktor Orbán Matteo Salvini and Rodrigo Duterte.
But if these structural factors were to explain the emergence of populism, why did other countries have the judgment to avoid the abyss in the peak of their crises? Last year, plunged in an identity and economic crisis, French voters chose Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen. Portugal, in the midst of the 2011-2015 crisis, opted for António Costa and not for the fringes of the political spectrum.
Some specifically Brazilian factors help explain how a boorish, regional politician with divisive values and a dwindled intellect has managed to attain national reach in just a few years without having traditional media at his disposal.
First of all , Bolsonaro is the politician who managed to take over the social media underworld more effectively in these elections. It should be noted that Brazil is one of the countries with the largest number of Facebook (4th ), Twitter (6th) and WhatsApp users (3rd) in the world. While traditional leaders were jostling for space on TV and on the streets, Bolsonaro created, over the years, a silent and sophisticated propaganda/attack structure on social media. While his opponents post regular news on social media platforms, Bolsonaro has adopted a pyramid propaganda scheme comprising more than 2,000 WhatsApp groups, with regional, municipal and international activists (including in Portugal). While other candidates have small political marketing teams, Bolsonaro has turned voters into propaganda vehicles. Victims turned tormentors.
I recently joined four of these WhatsApp groups (We are all Bolsonaro, Bolsonaro 17 PSL, Bolsonaro17 President, and Bolsonaro's Videos). These are not discussion groups but content delivery platforms - almost always videos and fake pictures, with false or biased information. There are also many audio files and external links. Since I started writing this article 20 minutes ago, I already received 76 messages in these four groups:
dozens of old videos of PT leaders with Venezuelan officials, followed by claims that Brazil is about to become a communist country; grotesque insults hurled at Fernando Haddad; and calls for a boycott against brands and public figures that do not support Bolsonaro.
It's a kind of cyber-dictatorship. Outsiders are stunned by the belligerence with which Bolsonaro supporters publicly defend foolish ideas. The application has been used to spread an alarming amount of misinformation, rumors and fake news, turning ordinary people into soldiers. While there is near unanimity outside Brazil against Jair Bolsonaro - even within right-wing movements -, there is absolute unanimity among members of these groups that there is an international communist plot to prevent the PSL candidate's victory at the polls. The lack of critical distance is an indicator of manipulation.
Since 44 percent of Brazilian voters rely on WhatsApp to shape their political decisions, Bolsonaro can afford to criticize traditional media and, in a deeply undemocratic gesture, refuse to go to debates.
Secondly , although the country has been governed since the early 1990s by center or left cabinets with progressive social agendas, Brazilians are, broadly speaking, highly conservative. Almost prudish. The last person to be sentenced to death was executed in 1876 but, in 2018, 63 percent still advocate capital punishment. Only 14 percent advocate the legalization of abortion, under any circumstances. Topless sunbathing is considered an obscene act under the Penal Code. When questioned by polling institute Datafolha about the country's most reliable institutions, Brazilians list the military, the police and religious institutions at the top of preferences.
Behind the frenzy of Carnival, Brazil is like the UAE of the tropics. It is no accident that Bolsonaro rescues conservative values which had no political representation, with the support of the institutions Brazilians trust the most.
This is associated with machismo, a widespread culture of gender stratification that bestows power and influence on men and objectifies women. According to a survey carried out in 2017, 61 percent of Brazilian men admit that they have sexist attitudes, but only 17 percent recognize that such attitudes are predicated on prejudice. For men, Bolsonaro's misogynistic comments are worthy of a good patriarch, while many women tend to react with leniency. If Bolsonaro were both a woman and a feminist, the conservative electorate would never even consider voting for him.
(Another 64 messages with 28 videos: Haddad is a pedophile; Haddad owns a Ferrari bought with corruption money; Haddad is a fake Christian; Haddad advocated incest in a book he wrote in 1989)
Thirdly , Brazil suffers from a lack of leaders. Although dissident voices have emerged from the military regime and infused the national debate with some good sense, whether in politics or the arts, the past thirty years have not generated enough leaders in enough areas to accelerate the country's economic and social development. As a weekend lecturer at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, I often ask my students to list - anonymously, on a piece of paper - any Brazilians in any area whose public positions help them they make their decisions. Those they look up to. I rarely get any answers. Now that one would expect every single leader to emerge from the depths of society to defend the cause of freedom, most shy away from public confrontation, hoping to maintain an instrumental neutrality that will keep their options open under Bolsaro's presidency. Most newspapers, companies and defeated first-round candidates have been suffering from aphasia.
If Brazil had moderate right-wing leaders, Bolsonaro's growth could have been curtailed at an early stage But there are no political forces that consistently advocate conservative, traditionalist and liberal values, such as Spain's Popular Party or Britain's and Canada's Conservative Parties. Brazil has never had a Jose Maria Aznar, a Margaret Thatcher or a Stephen Harper. Bolsonaro is criticized by right-wing leaders around the world - even by Marine Le Pen's far-right movement - for his lack of ideological consistency and his extreme, uncouth speech. But given the absence of alternatives on the right, the former captain is an oasis of hope for most Brazilians.
(125 messages in the last 3 hours. The last one is a screencap of an anonymous viral tweet: 'I was asked: if you're a Christian, why do you vote for Bolsonaro? The question was meant to offend me. My answer: because I prefer Peter, an impulsive man who talked nonsense and carried a sword but loved Jesus, to Judas, who lied about wanting to help the poor but was actually a thief and a traitor.')
Fourth point : Brazil has a problem with its history. A trip to São Vicente, on the coast of the state of São Paulo, is very revealing. This was the first city founded by the Portuguese in Brazil (back in 1532) and it is considered the cradle of democracy in the Americas - it was there that the first parliament was set up and the first elections were held. But the only remainder of this past is the Martim Afonso House, a small and poorly planned place with an exhibition of objects from the era. In Brazil, the future is built only from the present, in a permanent inventive frenzy and an incessant search for new things. To avoid past mistakes, one would have to know what mistakes those were, but Brazilian culture neglects its own past. There are few national heroes celebrated collectively. There are few historical achievements embedded in the memory of average Brazilians. There is little curiosity about the life of immigrant grandparents in foreign countries. My teenage son, who studies in Brazil, knows the Roman empire from 2,000 years ago better than the history of the Brazilian empire from five generations ago.
The country has not healed the wounds of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) There was no therapeutic process such as the one provided by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined the crimes of the Apartheid regime (1960-1994). The Brazilian Truth Commission, established over 25 years after the demise of the military regime, failed to universalize public condemnation of human rights violations. No one was arrested, unlike in Argentina and Chile, where hundreds of people were sentenced for the atrocities committed during the military regimes. Even today, the Brazilian coup of 1964, which deposed President-elect João Goulart, is benevolently termed in some quarters as a 'revolution' or a 'movement.'
Here in Buenos Aires, where I am writing this article, Argentine intellectuals tell me that a candidate who advocates torture and praises the military dictatorship, as Bolsonaro does, would hardly stand a chance. It is worth recalling that the PSL candidate was cheered when he praised Carlos Brilhante Ustra, the torturer who headed the DOI-CODI (the dictatorship's intelligence and repression agency), while voting for Dilma Rousseff's impeachment at the House of Representatives.
And finally , if we were to have a perfect storm, the opponent in the second round would have to be a PT candidate. And that is what happened. Populist leaders need public enemies to project onto them the sum of all fears, thereby galvanizing popular support. Jews are to Hitler, and Romis to Matteo Salvini or Muslims to Marine Le Pen, what the PT is to Bolsonaro. According to the right-wing candidate, it is this party, which governed Brazil from 2002 to 2016, that incarnates all evils. And the fact that the party has not yet apologized for its involvement in corruption scandals or rebuilt itself with new leaders further paves the way for Bolsonaro's propaganda.
If the PT had been defeated in the first round and Bolsonaro's opponent were Ciro Gomes, Geraldo Alckmin or Marina Silva, the 'Brazilians against the PT' argument would be debunked. But the fact that the PT survived the first round bolsters polarization and the idea of a collective enemy. Never has an election in Brazil been so segregational and hostile. There has never been so much political animosity in the country since democratization. And Brazilians have never been forced to choose between a candidate who will discriminate against half the population (Bolsonaro) and a candidate who will be discriminated against by the other half (Haddad).
(423 messages in 24 hours, most of them with insulting videos. No concrete ideas on how to deal with the crises facing Brazil)
* Rodrigo Tavares is the founder and President of Granito Group. His academic career includes the universities of Harvard, Columbia, Gothenburg and California-Berkeley. He was nominated Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.