A supporter of the left-wing presidential candidate for the Workers Party (PT), Fernando Haddad, reacts after the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidential election. Photo: PA

Calling Bolsonaro "the tropical Trump" lets Brazil's bigots off the hook

The election of Jair Bolsonaro wasn't an inevitable act in populism's sweeping decade. There was an active choice for hatred
October 30, 2018

Brazil’s newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro seems to be constantly viewed through the lenses of some other place. He is the “tropical Donald Trump”; a Latin American Rodrigo Duterte; an Orban-style right wing populist. All of these, however, obfuscate what is truly at Bolsonaro's core. The new president is a Brazilian-made monster. It is impossible to explain Bolsonaro without explaining the hypocritical way Brazilians deal with their bigotry. Polling shows that when asked if other Brazilians are racist, the majority of the people will say yes. If asked about themselves, however, most will say no. This is similar to attitudes toward homophobia and sexism; every Brazilian sees themselves as an island of tolerance in a sea of prejudice. In reality, prejudice and discrimination are commonplace in Brazilian society. While it boasts about being a mixed-race country, Brazil murders about 23 thousand young black men a year. While it pretends to be accepting of LGBT rights, it is one of the highest-ranking countries in terms of homophobic killings. While it boasts love for women, it kills about 12 women a day, many at the hands of their spouse. All of this is hidden under the guise of an accepting, open-minded society, and pointing out these evils is seen as worse than their existence. This is the scenario in which Bolsonaro presented himself as a candidate. The most common thing to hear about Bolsonaro's bigotry is that he does not really mean it. “Bolsonaro’s homophobia is all bark and no bite,” explained Brazilian actress Regina Duarte when she announced her vote for him. “He reminds me of my father, who also joked about blacks belonging in the kitchen. He's just older,” she continued. https://twitter.com/Jolanarchiste/status/1055774814655406081 Throughout the weeks preceding run-off, there were reports of Bolsonaro’s followers chanting about killing “queers.” Nothing fazed Bolsonaro’s followers, who call him, affectionately, “legend.” Brazilians enjoyed his bluster as part of the act. Yes, he had previously threatened to arrest or exile those who opposed him. But this was not supposed to be taken seriously. This sort of permanent state of “banter”, this instantly-given forgiveness borne out of privilege, is extremely Brazilian; this a country that takes a strange pride of “not being a serious country.” Perhaps it is easier to be relaxed when someone else is the target. But there is a serious core to Bolsonaro, too. His populism and popularity come also from the deeply conservative notion of “family” in Brazilian society. A frequent reason why his followers like him is that he “stands up for family.” Many of Brazil’s evangelicals, a growing political force in the country, embraced Bolsonaro, citing his respect for “family.” Family here has very well-drawn borders: it is a heterosexual, Christian, as white as possible, headed by a man. For some, it is in opposition to the families of homosexuals; for others, to black single mothers trying to raise their children in poverty; and to a core few, to the families of dissidents which disappeared or were tortured by the 1964 military dictatorship. Bolsonaro exists because many Brazilians see the existence of these other families as a threat to their own. The Brazilian far-right trades in paranoia. It preaches that within society there is always a hidden enemy, ready to destroy the family unit. Fernando Haddad, the opposing candidate, was slandered as a sexual abuser, as the mastermind of a plan to put five-year-old children under State custody to be raised away from their families, and—most effective among the lies—as someone who would encourage children to become gay. This discourse is familiar: family was one of the pillars of Catholic right-wing organization “TFP” (Tradição, Família e Propriedade; Portuguese for “Tradition, Family and Propriety”), whose march in 1964 encouraged the coming military coup that Bolsonaro so praises. The religion changed, but the meaning did not. Ignorance lets some pretend otherwise but does not make them blameless. Bolsonaro also won thanks to the country’s disregard for its own history. Brazilians are often spectators of decisions made by authoritarians, and they forget just as soon as an event is out of sight. This a country where museums go up in flames. Brazil never reckons with its own past. It is a country with no memory, and therefore no accountability. It is this illusion of innocence that Trump comparison feeds. Bolsonaro was not made by Stephen Bannon or by clever Facebook targeting. He was not an unavoidable act in the story of populism’s sweeping decade. He was created by Brazilians who have spent years hating the country’s minorities, and the people willing to go along with it for their own benefit. There was an active choice for hatred. Whatever else comes, the country doesn’t get to forget it.