Brazil Has Just Elected a Fascist. Now What?

It is up to decent people for forge a pathway forward.

The news only gets worse, this time out of Brazil.

Bolsonaro, a federal congressman for Rio de Janeiro who formerly served as an Army officer, has praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and has expressed a fondness for authoritarians past and present. He defeated former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party to win the runoff phase of the election.

With nearly all votes counted, Bolsonaro had captured more than 55 percent of the vote Sunday and been declared the winner by multiple Brazilian news outlets.

How bad is this guy? Really, really bad. Jacobin Magazine has posted an assemblage of quotes from Brazil’s new president:

  1. “Pinochet should have killed more people.” Veja, December 2, 1998.
  2. “I have five children. Four were boys, on the fifth I got weak and had a daughter.” Speech at the Clube Hebraica, Rio de Janeiro, April 3, 2017.
  3. “Let’s shoot all the PT members here in Acre [a Brazilian state].” Campaign event on September 1, 2018.
  4. “My advice and I do it: I cheat on my taxes as much as possible. If I don’t need to pay anything, I don’t pay.” Programa Câmera Aberta, Band RJ, May 23, 1999.
  5. “There is not the least doubt! I would organize a coup on the same day, the same day!” Bolsonaro in response to the question of what he would do with the National Congress if elected president. Programa Câmera Aberta, Band RJ, May 23, 1999.
  6. “If your son begins to act like this, sort of gay, he deserves a smack and he’ll change his behavior.” TV Câmara, October 17, 2010.
  7. “I’m favorable to torture and you know this.” Programa Câmera Aberta, Band RJ, May 23, 1999.
  8. “I don’t run this risk since my sons were very well educated and haven’t lived in environments like yours, lamentably.” In response to a question by a black woman reporter who asked what he would do if one of his sons dated a black woman. Programa CQC, Band TV, March 29, 2011.

Crucially for the survival of the climate and civilization itself around the world, Bolsonaro has committed himself to the deforestation of the Amazon, which remains the most important carbon sink on planet Earth.

So now what?

There’s not much that can be done by non-Brazilians, but the global rise of fascist illiberal forces worldwide makes it all the more essential that the most powerful economies in the world provide a counterbalance to them with pluralistic, egalitarian value systems. The United States got its turn on this wheel by the slimmest of margins when our anti-majoritarian electoral system put Donald Trump in power, and it is essential that this nation correct the error as soon as humanly possible by delivering his party a resounding defeat in the midterms, and aiding in investigations that will expose criminal wrongdoing and hopefully end his misbegotten presidency.

It is all the more crucial that the most technologically advanced nations in the world research and develop alternative energies and help developed transition to them while bypassing industrial fossil fuels. It is also essential that a strict yet generous set of incentives be put in place for nations on whom the world’s environmental future depends to protect their precious natural resources. That, too, will depend on a change in American leadership.

Intensive regulation of social media is also essential. Nearly all of the major far-right electoral victories over the last few years have depended on the unregulated dissemination of hate and false claims through various social media platforms, especially but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. Bolsonaro’s tool of choice for toxic content was popular messaging platform WhatsApp, and he has vowed to deregulate the platform even further.

There are also important lessons for the left here. When countries are rocked by demographic transitions, middle class declines, economic austerity and refugee crises, it is impossible to maintain liberal democracy by focusing only on a politics of empathy and pluralism. In the case of Brazil, Bolsonaro’s ascension was preceded by a center-left administration that was mired in corruption and that, while modestly effective in some areas, remained unequal to the task of significantly improving life in big ways for the majority of Brazil’s people. Brexit was enabled in large part by the agreement of both the Tories and the Labour party on austerity policies demanded by Brussels. And, of course, the election of Donald Trump was enabled in part by broad middle-class declines particularly among less educated white men in middle America, a void into which racist anxieties swept to fill just as they have in the rise of far-right governments throughout history.

It is crucial that as left and center-left governments fight back for liberal democracy, that they not only fight back hard against racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. But it is also necessary that they promise significant reforms and lifestyle changes for broad majorities, as well as accountability for the elites who have been partly responsible for middle class declines. Politics of self-interest for the 99% must be tethered to the politics of empathy, or liberal democracy will have difficulty surviving the myriad challenges of the future.

As for now, all we can do is fight as hard as we can to contain the worst impulses of men like Bolsonaro and Trump until they can be removed democratically by a majority of decent people.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.