Bolsonaro represents a new brand of populism in Latin America, one that returns to its fascist origins across the world. Latin American populism is usually — and often mistakenly — presented in the press as a left-wing phenomenon. Perhaps that helps explain why this dangerous, xenophobic and violent threat to democracy in Latin America’s largest country has been largely overlooked in American media.
That oversight has real consequences: Extreme populism is almost always presented as an American, or at best North Atlantic, experience, rather than the true global phenomenon that it is. Bolsonaro’s rise should serve as a reminder that we are experiencing a worldwide crisis of democracy, one not limited to Trumpism or the rise of the extreme right in Europe.
There has been much talk, and even exaggeration, recently about Stephen K. Bannon’s European exploits. But less attention has been paid to Bannon’s Latin American adventures. Last month, one of Bolsonaro’s sons announced that Bannon was becoming an informal adviser to Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign.
Strategically, Bannon offers little more than a symbolic link with the successful campaign of Trumpism — he does not provide right-wing populists with new ideas or electoral know-how. That he has become so popular abroad, especially in Latin America, shows how appealing the aura of Trumpism is to extremists worldwide: not because leaders are emulating Trump, but because they see in him evidence that violent populism has the potential to triumph.
Trumpism provides leaders like Matteo Salvini in Italy as well as presidential hopefuls like Bolsonaro, with a powerful example of how they might successfully achieve power. But Trump himself is not an object of emulation, as Bannon and even Bolsonaro seem to constantly suggest. Rather, Trump legitimates their own extreme racist and violent proposals and practices. If this can happen in a global power like the United States, the argument goes, why not here?
Fascism has historically led to the creation of dictatorships. It emerged within democracies and destroyed them. Populism, however, has done the opposite. After the global defeat of fascism, populists came to power for the first time in Latin America, a development that represented a reformulation of fascism for democratic times. A key element in this historical transformation was the populist embrace of democracy and the fact that it left behind the political violence and racism that had defined fascism.
This has changed with the new right leaning populism of today. Racism has again become a key tool of populist leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro and their global partners on the right. They are also shedding the democratic part of populism and embracing its fascist roots.
Trump is for Bolsonaro and other post-fascist populist leaders around the world an icon of success, a projection of their most extreme political desires. One year ago, Bolsonaro identified with Trump’s self-portrayal as a victim. He said: “Trump faced the same attacks I am facing — that he was a homophobe, a fascist, a racist, a Nazi — but the people believed in his platform, and I was rooting for him.”
Bolsonaro has certainly embraced the violence and exclusionary politics that define this generation of post-fascist populist politics. He often argued during the campaign that criminals should be summarily shot rather than face trial. During his political life, the former military man has bluntly defended dictatorship and has made several racist and misogynist statements. For example, he accused Afro-Brazilians of being fat and lazy, and defended the physical punishment of children to prevent them from being gay.
Bolsonaro is especially obsessed with sexual difference. He argued in 2002: “I’m not going to fight or discriminate, but if I see two men kissing in the street, I’m going to hit them.” Like Trump, Bolsonaro defended sexual aggression against women, telling a representative in congress that he “would not rape her because she did not deserve it.” Also like Trump, Bolsonaro several times defended the use of torture, advocating for the murderous Brazilian dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s, even saying that the dictatorship’s big mistake was to only torture rather than kill.
The rising populism in Brazil is surprising. Not long ago, it looked as though the country was moving toward a more stable form of governance. After the dubious removal of leftist President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, a new technocratic government reached power in Brazil.
But conditions and false pretenses overrode the dispassionate politics promised by the new administration. Bolsonaro has seized upon an economic crisis and a judicial investigation that exposed extensive corruption raging from left to right, as well as from the current president and the now-imprisoned former president Lula da Silva, to sell himself as the anti-politics candidate. He claims to be a man of the people who will restore law and order in Brazil. The new global populist politics of hatred are at the center of his presidential bid.
The enabling example of Trumpism cannot be put aside when assessing this new populist Latin American right. Like the Trumpists, Bolsonaro presents religious beliefs as intrinsic to politics. He has received strong support from the powerful evangelical sectors of Brazil. He also promised tax cuts, investor-friendly austerity measures and deregulation as economic solutions. This mix of economic neoliberalism and authoritarianism is not new, but Bolsonaro is so far its most extremist champion in the region.
Neo-liberal economics has previously coexisted with dictatorships such as the one of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Dirty War military junta in Argentina in the 1970s. Later on, in the 1990s, a blend of neoliberalism and populism was put forward by right-wing leaders like Peronist President Carlos Menem in Argentina and Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil. These populists were not post-fascist in the way Trump and Bolsonaro are. In fact, in many ways, Bolsonaro and Trump might be closer to the dictatorial likes of Pinochet and the Argentine generals rather than their populist predecessors.
Like Trump and his European counterparts, Bolsonaro wants to bridge the historical gaps between fascism and populism. After the defeat of fascism in 1945, populism reached power in countries like Brazil and Argentina as an authoritarian form of democracy that left behind the dictatorial and racist elements of fascism. But the new populism of Trump and Bolsonaro unravels populism’s more democratic dimensions. And Bolsonaro’s brand of populism constitutes a real and present danger to democracy in Latin America, and it should not be ignored.