Brazil’s Trial by Populism

Written by: Michael Sauer

Buoyed by burgeoning populism worldwide, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro rode the winning wave and cashed in a decisive victory in Brazil’s presidential election, held on October 28th. The retired army captain enjoyed strong support among the country’s western and northern states in particular. His rigid ideology, consisting of brash indifference to the tenets of Brazilian democracy, is of immense concern to international human rights defenders and citizens apprehensive over the erosion of democratic institutions.

Jair Bolsonaro lovingly craves dictatorship. At nearly every turn in his political career, he has pronounced his glorification of the former Brazilian military dictatorship. Ruling from 1964-1985, the restrictive regime was the antithesis of the fundamental democratic norms enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 constitution. The military embodied the heartless tactics present in every inhumane government. They tortured, jailed and assassinated political dissidents when convenient and further employed intimidation techniques against the opposition. Bolsonaro evoked nostalgia of former authoritarian rule when he said that the military dictatorship brought about “20 years of order and progress” and that “the error of the dictatorship was that it tortured, but did not kill.” Beyond Brazil, he has expressed admiration of neighboring dictatorships, especially the Chilean Pinochet regime, where he said his only disappointment was that they “should have killed more people.” These appalling comments are not one-offs but instead are hardened, lifelong beliefs in the righteousness of authoritarianism.  

The president elect does not even spare his own citizenry from his barrage of hateful rhetoric. He possesses an incredibly condescending attitude toward women, going so far as to describe a fellow congresswoman as “not worth raping; she is very ugly.” He brazenly attacks members of the LGBT community, belittling them to achieve a vindictive personal victory. On his own accord, he would be “incapable of loving a gay son” and affirmed that in his ideal society, they would “die in an accident.”

But Bolsonaro’s rise to prominence is no accident. Despite his inability to exercise simple propriety, he is a shrewd politician who masterfully manipulated the current state of Brazilian politics. Over the past four years, Brazil has been ravaged by one of the most sweeping corruption scandals in Latin American history: Operation Car Wash. An amalgamation of money laundering, bribes and corruption, the scandal landed two former presidents in jail, over two hundred individuals under investigation, and nearly $10 billion USD misappropriated. Apart from the dashing headlines, Operation Car War has inflicted harm on everyday citizens. The sheer scope of the corruption exacerbated Brazil’s recent recession. Untold thousands lost their livelihoods and sight of their path forward. Acquiring basic goods and services has become progressively difficult for many Brazilians. They rate their lives lower today than at any time in recently recorded history. With nearly one-third struggling to put food on the table this past year, it’s evident that society is radically faltering. 

The tanking economy, lackluster job market, and pervasive sense of corruption has caused confidence levels in government to plunge. These conditions are ground zero for populist uprisings. Shrinking economic opportunity and depleted trust in government drive people for a distinct alternative, with preference toward the extreme. A majority of Brazilians saw in Bolsonaro a candidate that, among other things, was outside the mainstream line of politicians tainted by graft and someone who spoke his mind without remorse. Brazilians strongly admire politicians untouched by corruption, but the latter is crucial to understand too.

Populist movements present themselves in many lands and national circumstances, but a central thread for success is a robust leader in uncertain times. Crisis stirs desperation and anxiety. Voters want an immediate medium to facilitate drive reduction of the inescapable threat. They are not searching for an apologist. Rather, they are searching for a politician with a resolve akin to that which binds their fervor. Policy matters are a secondary concern; righting the ship is the first. The captain must be a capable conductor of the crew’s commands, channeling their demands into a direct affront to the established norm. By unconventional means only can their intensity for change be appreciated.

Populists strive to implement their agenda by working the levers of influence to steer popular opinion their way. Many critical junctures of history have been privy to these same phenomena. These are the conditions that engender populist rule. Indeed, they have produced several of populism’s most menacing figures, like Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. And when the gales of populism threatened domestic politics, historical giants such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped up and stymied its intrusion. In Bolsonaro, Brazil has elected a callous ideologue who possesses not even the slightest veneration for democracy. 

Vulnerability in governance, that which lends legitimacy to populism, is no virtue. It  surrenders countries at the heart of a governing crisis to the whims of the succeeding populist administration, imposing a degree of helplessness that should never be inheritable. Yet, it happens repeatedly, and worldwide. Populism is the penalty for bad governance. National angst and a deficiency of trust in government consistently spawn populist upheaval in many places around the globe. Countries in Europe, Asia, North and now South America have now all undergone varying degrees and flavors of populism. 

Defeating chains of populism cannot be considered an easy task, but that makes it no less essential for healthy government to once again take root. History’s storied chapters of comparable times serve as reminders that all can be made right again. The course of future history is not a predetermination of history gone before, but instead an open invitation to craft good governance now and down the road. It is the people’s work to reverse, alter, and terminate this political scourge. A genuinely different course of politics needs to be sought out globally: the prioritization of people in every measurement of policy – beyond populism’s fleeting zeal and hollow promises. Good government exerts strong admiration for governing institutions, respect for human rights, and esteem for every member of society. Populism is not that. 

From Brazil, to America, and beyond, the struggle against populism is common. And what must be common about our struggles, too, is that they are won.