Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Another crude-talking rightwing reactionary – meet Brazil’s new president

They may share implausibility, simplicity and moral bankruptcy, but viewing newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s Donald Trump does not explain his success, reveals Dan Restrepo

Coming during a favourable run for conservative candidates in Latin America’s current electoral super cycle and with obvious commonalities with United States president Donald Trump, it is easy to miss the distinctly Brazilian flavour of Jair Bolsonaro’s rise and its central lesson for progressives.

Right-of-centre candidates have thrived across the Americas during the past 12 months, with the notable and significant exception of Mexico. Colombia’s Ivan Duque, Chile’s Sebastian Piñera, Paraguay’s Mario Abdo – all traditional conservative politicians – have come to office, while Argentina’s Mauricio Macri did surprisingly well in that country’s critical mid-term elections.

Bolsonaro, however, is not a traditional, right-of-centre politician. He is a reactionary, albeit one just elected as Brazil’s next president.
A reactionary who certainly shares things in common with Trump. At the basest level, Bolsonaro, like Trump, is a crude-talking figure, who shows open contempt for women, the LGBTQ community, non-whites, and basic democratic norms in the context of a multi-racial democracy.
Positioning himself as Brazil’s Trump, as Bolsonaro has done, however, does not explain his success. As is true elsewhere, Trump has a dismal approval rating in Brazil. Only 14 per cent of Brazilians, for example, express confidence in Trump to do the right thing in global affairs.

Instead, Bolsonaro is very much a homegrown phenomenon fuelled by a dangerous confluence of severe economic downturn, a profoundly discredited governing class, and widespread criminal violence.

Since 2014, Brazil’s once-booming economy has contracted by nearly nine per cent, leaving more than 13 million unemployed. Brazil’s elites – both political and economic – have been discredited by the Lava Jato corruption investigation led by an intrepid and independent group of prosecutors and judges.

But the dynamic that best explains Bolsonaro’s rise is the security crisis wracking Brazil and the inability or unwillingness of traditional politicians to address it. In 2017, Brazil experienced 63,880 homicides, its most ever, with one in 10 global gun-related homicides claiming a Brazilian life last year.

This volatile mix has profoundly undermined democracy’s basic appeal. In 2016, support for democracy as the preferred form of government collapsed in Brazil, dropping by 22 points from 2015 to a mere 32 per cent. In 2017, only eight per cent of Brazilians believed representative democracy was a ‘very good’ form of government, while 33 per cent thought it was a bad form, and 27 per cent (Latin America’s highest level) expressed support for autocracy.

In this context, it cannot come as a surprise that a strong man offering a solution – even a simplistic, unworkable one – to the most basic concern of nearly all Brazilians is thriving, especially since he is the only figure addressing the country’s citizen security crisis.

Progressives the world over must ensure we are directly addressing the central challenges facing our electorates – be it physical or economic insecurity – in concrete ways with emotional appeal. As Bolsonaro’s rise again demonstrates, we cannot continue to expect the radical nature of our opponents, nor the implausibility, simplicity, or moral bankruptcy of their proposed solutions, to suffice for voters to default to our candidates and approaches.

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Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC

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Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil, licensed under Creative Commons

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