In this article, Eduardo Tamaki analyzes the last, worrying developments from Brazil. President Bolsonaro does not simply claim to represent “the people” in opposition to the “elites”, as the classic populist textbook prescribes, but went further. He hijacked religion and introduced nationalistic, patriotic elements. This allowed him to start a moral, religious crusade with the goal to defend the “fatherland” against every sort of enemy: the “old politics”, Communism, the Supreme Federal Court. Of this crusade, of course, he is the leader, the Commander, the Messiah.
As September 7— Independence Day—loomed in, the world had its eyes on us. History had its eyes on us. Unfortunately, it was not for a good reason. How did we get here? In 2018, after years of political crisis and corruption scandals, a series of events led to a “perfect storm,” which culminated with the election of the former army captain and far-right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, to the head of the largest democracy in Latin America, and third-largest in the world. After all, Brazil had been experiencing political turmoil for years: president Dilma Rousseff, reelected in 2014, had been impeached by Congress by mid-2016 amid corruption scandals, economic recession, and anti-government demonstrations that begun in 2013 and inflated after the first arrests made as part of Operation Car Wash. Her successor, Michel Temer, finished the term with single digits approval rating, ongoing corruption scandals, and a slow economy, which, by 2018, had contributed to engulf Brazil in a toxic political atmosphere, discrediting and displaying the political class at its worst.
In that moment of crisis, benefiting from rampant dissatisfaction with the entire political class from left to right, the sight of populism as a “redemptive face of democracy” was most likely to emerge; and Bolsonaro made sure of it. As populists flourish in times of crises, Jair Bolsonaro broke the mold of his fringe political shell and established himself as a maverick, as a dissonant and paradoxical figure who flaunted his connection with the “average Joe” while sustaining carnivalesque mockery and promising to rid the establishment of the “old crooked politics.” However, is Bolsonaro a medicine to a sick system? Or is he a threat to Brazil’s democratic foundations?
Bolsonaro’s campaign in 2018 was a feast for any who had the stomach to sit through the many hours of it (if we count Facebook and YouTube live streams as part of his official campaign speeches). Displaying not only populist but also every other far-right element in the book, voters who identified with militarism, law and order, illiberal, and anti-minority views felt well represented. In this sense, if we follow the ideational approach to populism, Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign is considered just “somewhat populist” as it displays the necessary and sufficient elements of populism —Manicheism, people-centrism, and anti-elitism— without actually dedicating enough time to develop its people-centrism. His campaign is better understood if we turn our eyes to the nationalist and patriotic elements that overshadow his populism.
As it often happens when there is a supply of populism, the demand comes along as another side of the same coin. In Brazil, in 2018, populist attitudes were widespread among the population. Being driven mainly by political interest, democratic support, and, paradoxically, authoritarian preferences, widespread populist attitudes seemed to predict the vote for a far-right populist such as Bolsonaro. However, despite being present in almost half of the population, populist attitudes played little to no role in explaining support for Bolsonaro. Attitudinal determinants of voting for him were rather right-wing ideology, illiberal and anti-democratic attitudes, more in line with the radical right dimension of his discourse.
As Bolsonaro became the 38th president of Brazil many thought that the democratic institutions would hold him back, or at least tone down his rhetoric. That did not happen. From the very first minute that Bolsonaro sat in the presidential chair, he pushed forward the construction of a Messiah. By claiming to speak on behalf of the country’s silent majority against the wave of progressive changes, Bolsonaro brought religiosity to the very center of politics, riding a wave that preceded his ascension to the presidency, and helped him solidify his quasi-sacred status. Bolsonaro’s discourse hijacked religion —a tactic commonly used by right-wing populists— and in combining Catholic symbols, Pentecostal narratives, and deference to Judaism, it moved in the direction of messianic promises of salvation.
Almost poetically, the “icing on the cake” came from Bolsonaro’s populism. Now sitting at the head of the largest democracy in Latin America, Bolsonaro’s narrative had to adapt to its new “status”. Not that it was a problem, no. Bolsonaro quickly found an enemy almost better than the “evil” Workers’ Party (or PT in Portuguese): the political establishment, the “old politics” (mainly embodied by local and regional governments) and the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court. The board was set. On one side, Bolsonaro united “the people” on a moral, religious crusade against a secular threat, and on the other, he created the enemy.
Even more alarming than this religiously fueled populism is Bolsonaro’s use of nationalist and patriotic discourse. Evoking the idea of guardianship and rallying the nation to stand against those who threaten it, Bolsonaro resurrected the “communist threat,” and, similarly to what happened in Latin America during the Cold War’s military regimes, his rationale rests on defending the “fatherland” against forces of subversion. In this narrative, while atheism and secular values embody threats to the nation, communism and socialism are resurrected to oppose the “fatherland”. His God-given mission is to safeguard the nation, and for that, “if needed be, life for freedom”.
As September 7 loomed in, the world had its eyes on us. History had its eyes on us. After all, was Bolsonaro a medicine to a sick system, or was he a threat to Brazil’s democratic foundations? Better yet, what should we expect from him who claims to represent “the people?” This question itself does not concern the nature of the relationship between populism and democracy. No. We are far past that point now. Red flags are easy to spot and Brazil, unfortunately, has raised too many. A red flag was raised, for example, when the president celebrated a convicted torturer as a “national hero” or when he pushed to commemorate the military coup of 1964 as a revolution. Or when the president accused the Electoral court of fraud and threatened not to hold the presidential elections of 2022 unless the voting system is replaced with printed ballots that he favors. If only God will remove him from power, as he threatened, it means that Brazil has passed the inflection point. A specter is haunting Brazil. It has a name, a face, and a body. It is putting Brazil’s democracy in danger, and Brazilians must face it for what it is: an authoritarian and illiberal attempt to overthrow our democratic institutions.
Eduardo Tamaki is a Graduate Student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in Brazil. Researcher at the Political Behavior Study Center (CECOMP – UFMG) and at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz Minas). He is an active member of Team Populism, where he serves on the Textual Analysis Team and as one of the team leaders and co-founders of the recent Young Scholars Initiative on Populism (OPUS). His research on populism focuses on measuring populist discourse by political elites and measuring populist attitudes at the mass level. Besides populism, research interests include political culture, nationalism, and radical right politics.