Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is an anthropologist at the Federal University of Santa Maria in Brazil.

On March 5, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted an obscene video that shocked the country and the world. The video showed a man touching his anus while another man urinates on him. “I’m not comfortable showing this, but we have to expose the truth so that the population can have this knowledge and decide on its priorities,” Bolsonaro wrote in his tweet. After a huge outcry from Brazilians calling the president’s behavior inappropriate and at odds with the decorum of the office — especially because teenagers and children follow him on social media — he tweeted: “What is a golden shower?”

By sharing the video, Bolsonaro tried to suggest that Carnival, one of the world’s most popular celebrations, was perverse and characterized by moral misconduct. Coming from him, the entire argument is hypocritical. In 2018, he declared that he used his congressional housing assistance to have sex. Not to mention the fact that one of his own party’s deputies and supporters, Alexandre Frota, is a former porn actor. But regardless of the hypocrisy, Bolsonaro’s tweets were harmful — not just to the reputation of his office, but also to the safety of Brazilian citizens.

Bolsonaro’s likely rationale for the tweet is complex. At a basic level, Bolsonaro was probably motivated by resentment because the 2019 Brazilian Carnival was marked by political dissent and satire. Revelers, for example, made costumes inspired by the recent scandal that involved Bolsonaro’s family, and chanted anti-Bolsonaro songs and slogans. Sharing a bizarre video that does not represent the spirit of Carnival might have been Bolsonaro’s attempt to delegitimize the spontaneous outcry echoing from the streets.

But at a deeper level, Bolsonaro’s attitude is part of a larger moral, cultural and educational crusade taking placing in Brazil.

There has been a long-standing political tradition that has attempted to link the left with libidinous excess and debauchery. Anti-communism and moralism have been intertwined for decades in Brazil, not only because this is an efficient way to spread moral panic but also because the right wing was mostly composed of religious groups that are in favor of the “traditional family” and conservative values. This helps explain why the current government, backed by a network of evangelical fundamentalists, has become obsessed with attacking subjects related to gender and sexuality.

And, as Benjamin Cowan has discussed in his book “Securing Sex: Morality and Repression in the Making of Cold War Brazil,” a transnational network of far-right cultural activists has historically backed Brazil’s military regime. Bolsonaro, with his military background, fits into this narrative.

When he served as a congressman, a large part of the approximately 630 law amendments and actions he presented to Congress was focused on persecuting the queer community. During the elections, one of the main rumors spread by his campaign was about a “gay kit” designed to encourage homosexuality amongst children. This rumor — just like his recent lewd tweets — was not simply an absurd story invented by his political strategists to create moral panic against internal enemies. It also fits in line with Bolsonaro’s personal ideology, going back years.

Some have questioned whether Bolsonaro’s moral crusade is only a smokescreen to disguise other political and economic maneuvers. Although there are certainly many policy decisions that Bolsonaro might be trying to bury — this month, for example, a Brazilian journalist reported that his government is trying to loosen and decentralize environmental licenses for major construction — these stunts are far more than political distraction.

The most alarming issue about Bolsonaro’s inappropriate behavior on Twitter is the real impact it has on the most vulnerable groups of Brazilian society. Before Bolsonaro came into power, Brazil already had one of the highest rates of LGBT killings worldwide. During the election, as Bolsonaro doubled down on anti-LGBT rhetoric, the violence seemed to grow. Bolsonaro’s tweets will only further legitimize these hateful sentiments and incite violence toward the innocent.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter whether Bolsonaro is using moral issues as a smokescreen or if he truly believes his own dogma. The fact is that his dangerous rhetoric — and the larger tradition it stems from — has lethal consequences.

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