NUANCES OF THE AUTHORITARIAN RIGHT
MAKING SENSE OF BOLSONARO AND TRUMP AS A CLASS OF LEADERS
BY ALAN LACERDA
Classifications are a tricky business. More often than not they become labels, and these, with repetition in the media, are liable to assume the form of clichés. In any event, I do believe that we should classify phenomena correctly. In the political arena of recent populist leaders, for instance, Jair Bolsonaro has sometimes been called “the Trump of the Tropics.” Let’s ignore the geographical reference—a hot climate is not at issue here. I write this piece as an informative text about the president of my country, laying out the reasons why I think the comparison with Trump, while pertinent, may be misleading if taken too far. In the process, I hope to shed light for American readers on what really constitutes the political persona of Bolsonaro. I will use a few concepts out of political science, my discipline as a faculty professor.
Are they both populists? Yes, if you use the term to encompass leaders who bet all their rhetoric in a direct identification with “the people”—a term which is never precisely defined by either president. This identification may be religious, ethnic, historical. Trump is not particularly religious in his speeches, though he advances the interests of white evangelicals, who support him en masse. The same applies to Bolsonaro, but religion is, since his victorious campaign, a centerpiece of his addresses. The link between God and country was instrumental to his entry into the evangelical electorate, the single most important factor in producing his triumph in the polls in 2018. He is keen on nominating a “terrifically evangelical” judge for the Supreme Court in the next vacancy.
A key difference between the two leaders’ references to an idealized past lies in the former Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), something fortunately lacking in the U.S.’s own history. The reference in Trumpian discourse to an America that was great (and should be so again) can hardly be linked to a precise regime or era in American history. For all the racial and social injustice that took place in the United States, the country did avoid a full-blown authoritarian experience in its history. In our case, however, the reference is clear and worrisome: the authoritarian regime did exist, and it is praised by an equally authoritarian president. He openly praises torturers of the coercive apparatus of that regime. A military man himself (before becoming a representative), he has a cultural milieu that the businessman who is now the American president never did. This puts Bolsonaro higher than Trump on a scale of authoritarianism. Although one can say that both would like to be autocrats should the opportunity arise, Bolsonaro is the more thoroughly authoritarian figure.
Bolsonaro has always been a rabid anti-leftist, and sees communists even when they have disappeared from the scene. Moderate leftists and even centrists are already a danger in the minds of many of his followers. To draw a comparison, if Bolsonaro were an American, he never would have donated money to Democratic candidates, as Trump did on occasion. In this sense, the association of our president with the radical right is clearer than Trump’s, considering the history of the two men.
In the Brazilian case, the ethnic element of Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism manifests itself in the maltreatment of indigenous peoples and the black movement. These groups are, in the eyes of the bolsonaristas, an obstacle to mining and timber businesses (even when illegal), and the attitude is that they should be “integrated” into the broader Brazilian society, which is another way of saying that they are to give up their cultural identities. Racism also occurs in the attempts of the Brazilian right to deny that racial prejudice exists in Brazil. For instance, a black man who has declared himself an outright enemy of the black movement has been put in charge of a foundation whose mission it is to combat racism. Despite all this, racism seems to me a less prevalent aspect of Bolsonaro’s regime than of Trump’s, especially when compared to the American president’s enterprise against Latino immigration.
Institutional differences between the two countries are crucial to assessing the vulnerabilities of each leader. For all his flouting of the law, Donald Trump is protected by the American two-party system. Since Republican elites, in a mix of cowardice, commitment and electoral primary fears, do not stand up to him, he is free to concentrate his political fire on minorities, liberals and Democrats. Bolsonaro enjoys no such protection, and his political errands have left him in a perilous position within a multiparty Congress. Impeachment is a possibility in the future given the current public health crisis and his amateurish relations with politicians of all stripes. Although Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives, his removal from office was never really in the cards due to the current polarization of the U.S., again enhanced by the two-party system.
The true danger of Bolsonaro is the normalization of authoritarian discourse. Even when he is gone, this may pose a big problem for our democracy. It seems to me that the authoritarian features of Trump’s rhetoric meet with greater resistance from U.S. social and political institutions than in Brazil. The press is stronger, civil society more vibrant.
Finally, is the nationalism of Bolsonaro akin to fascism? While I do not doubt he attracts fascist voters, Bolsonaro is at most a very incomplete fascist. His nationalism is contradictory in the extreme. He has paid public homage to the American flag several times, an act that no Brazilian fascist of the interwar period would have engaged in. His praise of Trump is so subservient that it hampers his ill-formulated chauvinism. Privatization of state assets to foreign companies is also seen as good public policy by his administration. Because of this eclectic nationalism, I group Bolsonaro—along with Trump—in the authoritarian populist right, pointing out, alas (for me), that the U.S. has a republic more resistant to the damage such a leader can produce.
Associate Professor of Political Science
Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil