Jair Bolsonaro: the Brazilian Trump-Duterte mashup

Next October, Brazilians will be casting their votes for president. Jair Bolsonaro is one of the main candidates in the dispute, second on all polls and behind only former President Lula – who is currently in jail. For those with little or no idea of who he is or stands for, one simplified way would be: imagine if presidents Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte inhabited the same mind.

Jair Bolsonaro’s current political visibility belongs to the same zeitgeist in which right-wing, conservative, and populist politicians – such as the US and Filipino presidents – have gained prominence in the past couple of years. He caters to a parcel of electors that want not just change in the status quo, but a rupture from “traditional” politics, typically characterized as corrupt, inefficient, weak, and too globalized. This is an audience that finds little inspiration in calls for hope, solidarity or democracy. Rather, it is one that tends to be cynical, bitter, and for whom the use of brute force is generally perceived as a necessary evil to restore order. Walls are good (both physically and symbolically), and there is little hesitancy to burn bridges. Their mission is not just to throw wrenches, but to be wrecking-balls.

Men such as Bolsonaro – and they are almost all men – also claim to represent a part of society that craves a return to the days when people “knew their place”. In general, this has been translated as meaning: the home (women), the closet (LGBT community), and out of the country (immigrants), where minorities and the poor are expected stay or to go back to a subservient position. Under such vision, religion is commonly praised – but only the “correct” one – and fundamentalist voices brought to the forefront. Most of these political figures fixate on their country’s past, which tends to be reconstructed in an idealized and whitewashed version. Bolsonaro, Trump, and Duterte are accused by their critics of being hypocrites, whether defending a Bible-based “traditional” marriage while being divorced (which they all have been not just once, but twice) or claiming to spearhead the fight against corruption while having no qualms over their own nepotistic practices or political alliances.

Specific parallels between Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and Donald Trump are not difficult to make. Their supporters call them by grandiose Il Duce-like nicknames: “The Myth”, “The Punisher”, and “The Great Negotiator”. These men commonly appeal directly to the electorate through unapologetic vulgar language, presented as a sign of authenticity. They are simply “straight talkers” with “unorthodox styles”, who apparently do not care about politically correct language or positions. Echoing Duterte and Trump’s frequently misogynist comments, Bolsonaro once told a fellow congresswoman he would never rape her because she “didn’t deserve to be raped” since she was “very ugly and not his type”. Like the Filipino and the American presidents, Bolsonaro has had no trouble claiming deep Christian roots while defending torture in the same breath. He has praised Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet – suggesting he should have had killed more people. In 2016, he dedicated his vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff to General Ustra – none less than the person who tortured her during Brazil’s military regime –  and that the general’s autobiography was his bedside book.

Bolsonaro, Duterte and Trump’s campaigns have been characterized as filled with anti-establishment rhetoric, yet their actual policy platforms appear to be overwhelmingly thin and vague. Once the vitriolic dog whistles are set aside – “criminals!”, “immigrants!”, “corruption!”, “lost morals!” – it can be difficult to find substance in other topics. They systematically praise the military as the embodiment of discipline, force, and national defense. Of the three men, Bolsonaro is the most avid on this path, choosing a military interventionist-defending general as running mate. The Brazilian candidate was in the Army for about 15 years, albeit with a lackluster record. Secret reports from his time serving have emerged, with superiors at the time describing him as a sub-par officer with “excessively financial ambitions” and lacking “logic, rationality and balance in his arguments”. He left the Army in 1987, a short time after being punished with 15 days in military prison for an article demanding better pay. He claims to have voluntarily retired to pursue a political path, while his critics say he was expelled from the corps.

A closer look at the individual profiles reveals Bolsonaro overlaps slightly more with Duterte than with Trump. While all three men have made statements disdaining human rights and openly instigating police officers to be rough, the former two have gone beyond in openly calling out police to kill more even if extra-judiciously. Duterte has recently offered bounties for the killing of communist rebels, while in Brazil, after policemen charged with killing 111 prisoners in the 1997 Carandiru prison massacre were punished, Bolsonaro said their real crime was the police officers did not kill 1,000 prisoners. Both men have also tried to show toughness through (hypothetically) disciplining their children: Duterte said he would kill them if they did drugs, and Bolsonaro – who seems to be somewhat obsessed with the “dangers” (?) of homosexuality – once said he would rather have a son die in a car accident than have him be gay. Unlike Trump, both have been on the political stage since the late 1980s.

However, unlike Duterte, Bolsonaro has no experience in the Executive power. He has served as municipal, State, and Federal legislator. Yet, for someone with three decades of public service, there is very little to show in concrete accomplishments (ex: only two bills he’s proposed were ever approved). Another important difference between Bolsonaro and Duterte: unlike the latter, the Brazilian pre-candidate has openly praised President Trump several times – which includes having shown support of administration’s policy towards immigrants and vowing to also change Brazil’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Bolsonaro has also openly stated his interest in strengthening the country’s relationship with the United States, while being a vocal critic (a position recently ‘softened’) of China’s growing presence in South America. Earlier this month, his son, Federal congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, met with Pres. Trump’s former top advisor Steve Bannon, where the latter (supposedly) claimed to be “an enthusiast of [Jair] Bolsonaro’s campaign”, and that they “are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural marxism [sic]”.

Finally, unlike Duterte and Trump, Bolsonaro is still only a presidential candidate. The possibility of him becoming the country’s next leader cannot be dismissed, at least at the present moment. Yet, it is also possible that he has a vocal but contained number of supporters, ending up a loser as have other far-right conservatives: Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Frauke Petry and the AfD in Germany. Still, even if Jair Bolsonaro loses, he might have already succeeded in normalizing a far-right movement in Brazil, mainstreaming a sugar-coated and cherry-picked version of the country’s history under military dictatorship.

Déborah Barros Leal Farias

Déborah BL Farias has a PhD in Political Science (UBC), and is a lecturer at the University of New South Wales’ School of Social Sciences. An economist by training, she also has a bachelor degree in Law and a master in International Relations – all from Brazilian institutions. Since 2000, she has worked as a policy analyst and lectured at various universities in Brazil and Canada. Her main areas of interest involve the International Political Economy of rising powers – particularly Brazil, China, and India – and Global Environmental Politics (especially related to renewable energies).

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