Thousands crowded onto the busiest streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, clad in the green and gold of the Brazilian flag, many chanting a slogan at the core of the nation’s sudden shift to the right.
For years, Olavo de Carvalho has recorded and uploaded lectures and rants from his home office in rural Virginia for consumption in his native Brazil — videos, blog posts and social media riffs laced with obscenities, homophobia and dark proclamations about a globalist conspiracy bent on enacting what he calls a “worldwide socialist dictatorship.”
Now that message is enjoying its moment. Carvalho, 72, a self-styled philosopher living in a self-imposed exile in the United States, is credited by supporters and critics alike for providing the intellectual spark that ignited the rapid rise of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — the newest member in a global cadre of right-wing populists, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to President Trump.
“We couldn’t have won the election without Olavo,” Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo said in March. “Without Olavo, there would be no President Bolsonaro.”
Carvalho, ensconced in a cavernous home library bedecked with a specific kind of Americana — rifles, paintings of Confederate generals, an English mastiff named Big Mac — is inclined to agree. “I created the hunger for different ideas,” he said. “There was no thirst. I created it.”
That might be an overstatement — economic contraction, corruption and crime also helped sour Brazilians on establishment politics. But what is not: Carvalho has, from obscurity in Virginia, found his way to the center of Brazilian political life, helping to steer the conversation and sometimes speaking with Bolsonaro, to the delight of right-wing cultural warriors and the consternation of liberals.
His name appears on magazine covers. Newspapers cover his utterances. Loudspeakers blared his name this spring at street rallies for Bolsonaro.
And the Brazilian leader has lavished attention on him. Bolsonaro displayed one of Carvalho’s books during his election night victory speech. He followed his counsel when he appointed two little-known but ultraconservative candidates recommended by Carvalho to be his ministers of education and foreign affairs. He sat beside Carvalho at an official dinner at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington. And in May, he awarded him with one of Brazil’s highest distinctions, alongside the country’s vice president and justice minister.
Carvalho is poised to take his message beyond Brazil. Former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who says he’s met with Carvalho frequently, wants to install him as a lecturer at a training camp in Europe for the next generation of right-wing thinkers, if such a project moves forward, and feature him in televised debates. “A seminal thinker,” Bannon called him in an interview.
But here in this unincorporated splash of Dinwiddie County south of Richmond, where the only sounds are buzzing insects and cars driving by, he’s just another neighbor.
Coming to America
Carvalho remembers his first days in Virginia in 2005 as transformative. He’d just left Brazil, having found it difficult being an incendiary conservative writer in a country dominated by the politics of the democratic socialist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The education system, the gun control laws, the liberal bias he perceived in the Brazilian media: All of it made him feel claustrophobic.
But when he arrived in rural Virginia, settling first in Carson with his wife and two children, neighbors knocked at his door to introduce themselves. They brought cakes and gifts. They asked if they could introduce the family to a church and promised to help them with any problems they might encounter living here.
“I have lived for six years in this country, and here I am treated with an affection and understanding that no Brazilian . . . ever enjoyed in his own country,” Carvalho wrote in 2011. “Good neighborhood is not an advertising slogan. It is a living reality. It is an American institution.”
He was soon wearing cowboy hats. He bought rifles. He took his son hunting in Maine, where they bagged a black bear.
And he came to see certain elements of conservative America’s ideology — individualism, economic liberalism and a disdain for governmental meddling — not only as the antidote to Brazil’s bureaucratic state but also as a bulwark against what he has called the “globalist project” led by George Soros, the Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, Barack Obama, the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, has written about Carvalho’s influence in Brazil.
“What he has been selling has been deeply influenced by the fact that he lives in rural Virginia,” he said. “If you’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh over the last 20 years, you’re deeply familiar with what Olavo is selling.”
'I didn't know who he was'
In 2013, hundreds of thousands of people gushed onto the streets in the largest protests Brazil had seen in decades. Initially sparked by anger over transportation issues, the demonstrations grew into a broader indictment of corruption and feckless governance. The overall mood was that, following a period of economic growth, things were no longer going Brazil’s way, and the elites were to blame.
Matias Spector, an associate professor of international relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Sao Paulo, was surprised people were protesting — and even more baffled by the signs that some carried: “Olavo tem razão.” Olavo is right.
“I didn’t know who he was. I had no idea,” he said. “And this goes to the core of the point: Olavo has given voice to those against the establishment. He doesn’t come from the cadres of scholars, and he doesn’t have the trajectory of your standard philosophy professor.”
But some of his views, Spector soon learned, weren’t just iconoclastic. They were darkly conspiratorial. He doubted climate change and spread the false belief that vaccines “kill” children. He stated gay people are the only ones threatened by AIDS and has railed against what he calls “gayzismo” — “gayism” — describing it as “incompatible” with democracy.
All the while, his online audience was growing — and the Bolsonaro family was among them. Between 2014 and 2016, Jair Bolsonaro — then a fringe member of Congress — sat for at least three live chats with Carvalho that were streamed on YouTube. His sons Eduardo and Flavio told Twitter followers to watch Carvalho’s online videos, which he either posted on YouTube or sold to students of his philosophy course.
Some students, including Eduardo, traveled to Virginia to meet Carvalho and take personal classes at his home office.
“Greatest living Brazilian philosopher,” Eduardo Bolsonaro tweeted of his “Prof.”
As one convulsion after another roiled Brazil — a crippling economic recession, the removal of former president Dilma Rousseff, a vast corruption scandal that eventually led to Lula’s imprisonment — the growing popularity of Carvalho’s anti-establishment screed coincided with and accelerated the ascent of Bolsonaro.
After Trump jettisoned Bannon from the White House, the former campaign strategist started researching Bolsonaro — and saw in him a new standard-bearer in the nationalist current that has been upending the world’s politics.
Bannon wanted to meet the thinkers around Bolsonaro, particularly Carvalho, who Bannon said was correct in his diagnosis of “cultural Marxism” as a corrosive force. That’s when he learned he wouldn’t have to travel to Brazil.
“He’s down in your neck of the woods,” Bannon was told.
“I said, ‘What do you mean? He’s actually in Richmond? . . . Richmond, Virginia?’ ”
'Don't be stupid, guy'
An American flag fluttered beside a cracked window repaired with blue tape. In the gravel driveway were parked two cars, each with a bumper sticker. “Commie hunter,” declared one. “Don’t tread on my gun rights,” warned the other.
“I would like the Brazilians to understand this” mentality, he said. “So they wouldn’t let the government walk on them.”
In a two-hour, frequently scattershot conversation, while Carvalho puffed away at one of the hundred or so pipes he’d stacked beside him, he was self-aggrandizing: “I’m the most-read writer in Brazil. . . . I’m a tremendous writer.”
He was paranoid: The Brazilian media “want to destroy me. They want to take me out of existence. I am a constant humiliation to them.”
He was angry: “Don’t be stupid, guy,” he told a visiting reporter. “Grow up. Be a man, please. Become a man. Not a boy.”
His wife, Roxane, a former student, hustled coffee in to him twice and offered words of encouragement. His daughter Leilah smoked cigarettes and silently watched his every word. Big Mac walked among the rows upon rows of book stacks.
Outside, it was a humid and sunny Thursday morning. Two neighbors, father and son Leopoldo and Aldo Palestina, were walking to their car in their driveway.
“I’ve never seen him before,” Leopoldo said.
“Sometimes we see the lady,” Aldo added.
And inside, Carvalho was opening his computer and preparing to write a fresh condemnation of the Brazilian elite.