On 28 October 2018, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil’s president. Before then, he was not much more than a political outcast in Congress, known for his hateful and inflammatory rhetoric: paying homage to one of the most notorious torturers from Brazil’s military dictatorship, for example, or claiming he “would rather die in a car accident than have a gay son”. Yet, after a campaign fuelled by disinformation and fear-mongering, he was elected with 55% of the valid votes. Bolsonaro is one of the country’s most vocal anti-gay advocates. As president, he has continued to fuel violence and discrimination against LGBT+ Brazilians.
With Bolsonaro at the helm, the two core elements of populism are present in Brazil:
anti-elitism: Divisiveness has characterised Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric throughout his career. During his presidential run, he attacked the previous left-leaning administration as an “enemy to be fought” and labeled it as responsible for all issues negatively affecting Brazilian society. For example, after his first round win, Bolsonaro called the opposition “red bandits”, and publicly threatened to jail or banish them from Brazil.
anti-pluralism: By capitalising on divisive “us versus them” rhetoric, Bolsonaro’s administration not only dramatically simplifies Brazil’s complexities, but also places anyone who opposes his views or opinions in the “them” camp. This is a long list ranging from journalists investigating corruption scandals to civil society organisations (CSOs) to foreign governments that question his policies and to even his own former supporters. Most dangerously, this rhetoric positions Bolsonaro as the sole voice of “us”, allowing him to push through his ideas without regard for protocol or expertise.
Additional features of populism include:
anti-debate: For example, Bolsonaro failed to attend any debates during the second round of the elections, and is known for shutting down press briefings when asked questions he does not want to answer.
resistant to countervailing facts: Bolsonaro not only dismissed the latest data on Amazon deforestation as lies, but also fired the scientist ultimately in charge of producing the numbers.
rejects intermediaries: Bolsonaro frequently addresses Brazilians using Twitter and Facebook Live, often prioritising these channels over official ones, such as when he forewent a meeting with the French Foreign Minister to get (and livestream) his hair cut.
crisis, breakdown or threat: Bolsonaro uses this as a political strategy, for example making headlines by stating that Brazil-based US journalist Glenn Greenwald “might do some jail time in Brazil” for reporting on political scandals. He has also declared he will fight “gender ideology” and the “problem of migration” in Brazil, presenting them as crises even though they barely exist in reality.