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Who Supports Brazil's New Strongman?

While he is compared with Donald Trump, Bolsonaro goes much further, making him more analogous to a strongman such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

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Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is within an inch of the presidency., Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil/Flickr

Many Brazilians woke up this past Monday with a “political hangover.” After weeks of highly polarized political theater—the presidential campaign season included the near fatal stabbing of a leading candidate, stories about massive corruption schemes, and an endless number of internet rumors about left-wing conspiracies—the presidential election results, announced late Sunday night, surprised most analysts. Ultra-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro came in first with 46 percent of the votes, nearly taking the election in the first round and leading the next candidate—former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad from the Workers’ Party (PT)—by almost 20 percentage points.

Bolsonaro not only outperformed predictions about his particular race; the hard conservative wave that has coalesced around his candidacy also wiped out establishment candidates in surprise results around the country. His party, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which had been insignificant before the elections, elected more than fifty members to congress, making it the second largest block. Bolsonaro still faces a run-off election at the end of the month, but conservatives in Congress are already pledging their support, making a supermajority in parliament likely even if Bolsonaro does not win the run-off. Political forces on the left will come to the second round hobbled and some political parties, such as the pro-democracy center-right PSDB, have been nearly obliterated.

Bolsonaro is being described in many media outlets as a Brazilian Donald Trump, but the comparison does not do him justice. Like Trump, he presents himself as an outsider to existing political parties. (Though he is not; he has been in Congress for twenty-seven years.) He is also a bombastic public speaker with incoherent policy proposals skilled at stoking people’s worst sentiments. But while Trump does his best to present the tough guy image, Bolsonaro goes much further, making him more analogous to a strongman such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, brings a juvenile but violent edge to his campaign events, often alluding to torture and to shooting down criminals. Throughout election day, images and videos circulated of Bolsonaro supporters voting while armed with guns. If Trump flirts with authoritarianism, Bolsonaro seems poised to more aggressively grab it. He has promised to give the military a greater role in public life and to extinguish political activism in the country. A member of the “Bullets, Beef, and Bible” lobby in Congress, he is a professed enemy of political correctness and is openly and aggressively homophobic. Instead of privately bragging about sexual assault, Bolsonaro speaks publicly and casually of violent rape. His candidacy has indelibly shifted the political landscape in Brazil, and as of October 28th, he could very well become the country’s next president.

How did this happen? The most obvious answer is that this was the first election after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, which hurt not only the Workers’ Party but also eroded confidence in the political establishment as a whole. Right-wing operatives stoked the anti-Workers’ Party sentiment skillfully online with an endless stream of memes and conspiracy theories. Constant images of former PT President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula) in jail only fed this sentiment even though the country is largely divided about the legitimacy of his sentencing for graft. But beyond how did this happen, the more important, and uncomfortable, question is who actually supports Bolsonaro and his extremist rhetoric? Indeed, it is the broad, cross-class alliance he has managed to form that makes this moment so novel and, ultimately, so dangerous.

First, of course, are the country’s economic elites. Bolsonaro has received support from arms manufacturers, large land-owners, and owners of industry and commerce. Included among his few specific policy proposals (beyond rolling back government regulation in general) are proposals to legalize access to fire-arms, abolish progressive education, lower the penal age to sixteen, give immunity to police officers who kill civilians, treat social movements such as the Landless Movement as a terrorist organization, de-fund human rights organizations, roll-back already weakened worker protections, and weaken collective bargaining. Throughout his campaign he has frequently spoken of attacking social rights, such as public health and retirement benefits—something even conservatives in the past have avoided during election years. 

Bolsonaro has also been well-received among the country’s middle classes, including among professionals such as doctors and lawyers. According to polls, Bolsonaro received more than 30 percent of college-educated voters (with 19 percent going for the PT candidate). These voters were the main motor of the pro-impeachment movement that brought down Rousseff in 2016. Middle-class voters who have been experiencing a loss of purchasing power in recent years, have become increasingly resentful of the redistributive policies of successive Workers’ Party governments, such as its conditional cash transfers, its affirmative action policies in universities, and support for rights of domestic workers. For them, Bolsonaro’s attack on these policies was as crucial as his tough-on-crime talk. Racism among Brazil’s mostly white middle classes remains unspoken, but it is a palpable and visceral part of Bolsonaro’s appeal. Internet memes, for example, about “ignorant Nordestinos (people from the Northeast), who vote for the PT,” have heavy racial overtones. As do Bolsonaro's promises to reduce affirmative action quotas in universities and to sell off the lands of maroon communities. One of the most loaded stock phrases on the hard right today is that “humans rights are only for right humans.”  

Crime and violence also explain his support among poor working-class voters, particularly in urban areas in the country’s wealthier South and Southeast. To live in an urban periphery of a city such as São Paulo today is to be at ground zero for the very violent war between drug gangs and military police. Nearly half of all deaths of young people between fifteen and nineteen years old in Brazil today are homicides, according to official statistics; all told there have been more than half a million homicides in Brazil in the last decade, largely concentrated in urban peripheries. Never mind that these voters are likely to be the victims of police excesses. For them, it was a moralistic law-and-order discourse that carried the day.

Finally, conservative Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, were the final factor in cementing his victory. In the last decade, conservative Christians have found their political footing as they work to oppose what they perceive as feminist and LGBT excesses by the national government. Combining a pro-life and pro-family rhetoric with traditional anti-communism, conservative priests and pastors throughout the country have worked hard in the past months to mobilize the faithful to vote against the left, often galvanizing a sense of moral panic that paid off in the voting booth. There was a widely repeated rumor, for instance, that so-called “Gay Kits”—which the Workers Party designed to promote LGBT tolerance among school teachers—were actually being handed out to six-year-olds in public schools to encourage homosexuality.

In the end, it is Bolsonaro’s broad appeal that represents the real novelty of Brazil’s current political situation. There have always been ultra-conservative candidates and parties in Brazil’s elections, but they have never been more than a sideshow. Bolsonaro has stoked the resentment of an angry electorate while crafting a politics that combines extreme market deregulation, the roll back of redistributive policies, hard cultural conservatism, open misogyny, and an admiration for police repression in a way that appeals to various segments. Pro-democracy forces are scrambling to form a viable political alliance around a center and center-left coalition that might stop this wave. 

While the result of the election is still undefined, one thing is certain: Brazilian politics, as they were instituted during the transition to democracy in the 1980s, will never be the same. The main forces around which electoral contests have coalesced since that time—the center-left (headed by the PT) and the center-right (headed by the PSDB), already weakened by the political crisis the country has been experiencing since 2013—have been largely replaced by something else whose shape we are only beginning to glimpse. As a result, democracy, which most assumed to be consolidated, becomes more fragile every day. The political disputes have changed terms: from a debate between adversaries to, according to Bolsonaro and his allies, an existential contest between enemies to be vanquished.