A recent article published by the B.B.C. described a modern politician like this: “[he] has insulted women and homosexuals…and attacked political correctness. His comments deeply divided voters and, while some expressed a dislike for him, others felt he was the outsider needed to…rough up the establishment.” Surprisingly, the politician being referred to is not Donald Trump, but Brazil’s president elect, Jair Bolsonaro. After running on a platform that emphasized both his own military background and his support for Brazil’s former dictatorship, Bolsonaro emerged victorious from Brazil’s presidential election in October. The former military captain’s divisive rhetoric centers on a nostalgia for the days of Brazil’s authoritative military regime: he has said that the only failure of this regime was that they didn’t kill enough dissidents to maintain control. This fondness for past violence, coupled with regressive environmental, educational, and immigration policies, have endeared him to some and made him repellent to others. In the current political climate, however, this type of volatile relationship between an elected government official and the country’s citizens is not unusual: the U.S. has Trump, the Philippines have Duterte, Russia has Putin, and Turkey has Erdogan. In the wake of the cultural and political upheaval of the last half of the 20th century, many nations have surrendered to leaders whose forceful nature and conservative political values create an image of a capable arbiter of order. But Bolsonaro’s election is an indication that, even if order is the desired outcome, the ends do not justify the means if the result is intolerance, destruction, and hate.
Bolsonaro’s victory is the most recent in a string of surprising elections around the world. His initial performance in the election astounded many. His brash style and controversial comments caused many to dismiss him, but in a country that has been led by the left since 2002, the promise of change and newness that his candidacy offered was appealing enough to give him 55.2 percent of the vote. Many parts of Brazil that have swung left in previous elections were decidedly in favor of Bolsonaro in this election, including the northeast, one of the country’s poorest regions. The leftist candidate, Fernando Haddad, won eight out of nine of the northeastern states in the first round of the election, but Bolsonaro won in the five largest cities in the region. His appeal to the working class as an honest politician hit home in the wake of decades of corruption and scandal in the Brazilian government (though his policies don’t necessarily reflect the best interests of this demographic), his conservative views appealed to Evangelicals, and businesspeople were attracted to his support of the free market. It would perhaps be easier to say that some sort of corruption or meddling was responsible for the election of a man who once said a woman was too ugly to be worth raping and that he would rather his son die than be in a relationship with a man. However, the truth is that this brash, aggressive manner is exactly why Bolsonaro was elected: it gives the impression that he can stand up to the challenges Brazil has faced for decades, unlike any politician before him.
The pattern of electing political strongmen is relatively predictable: after a country experiences social upheaval that provokes its citizens to question their nation’s core values, the people elect a leader who uses extreme force (usually rhetorical and sometimes physical) to restore balance and order. The fall of the Soviet Union produced Putin, violent drug-related crime in the Philippines gave Duterte the boost he needed to win, and arguably, the socio-political changes in the U.S. in the last decade prompted many to see Trump as the savior of middle-class white America. Brazil’s history of corruption, violence, and poverty inspired Brazilians to look to Bolsonaro for salvation, or, at least, for a new approach to problems that have plagued them for far too long. Perhaps it is too early to say that Bolsonaro will prove to be the wrong choice for Brazil. Though certainly his personal comportment is condemnable, his plans to improve Brazil by means of force and threats may just work. But the extreme politics and partisan culture that characterize this era of political strongmen is not sustainable for our individual nations, our planet, nor our people. If order comes at the cost of human rights violations, it is not worth it. I certainly hope Bolsonaro turns out to be more than a “little tropical wannabe Hitler,” as one of his opponents dubbed him, but I am not optimistic.
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