Trumpism in South America

Jair Bolsonaro, the victor in Brazil’s 2018 federal election, cites Donald Trump as a role model when thinking about the ideal leader that Brazil deserves. Bolsonaro bleeds a new brand of populism in South America that reflects the continent’s origins in fascist leadership. Bolsonaro even hangs photos of Brazil’s military dictatorship on the walls of his office in Brasilia, continuing to eulogize for the abuses of the dictatorship against the people. Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil was ruled by an authoritative military dictatorship marked with torture of citizens, mass crime, and economic collapse after a coup on the previous democratic government. He’s proud of serving as an army captain during the height of the military leadership, and he uses that connection to prove his qualifications for the Presidency. Bolsonaro sees his military experience as tantamount towards his endurance in his twenty years in the Brazilian Senate and his views as a political outsider— unlike the Brazilian politicians who have spent decades trenched in the political sphere.

Brazil is currently at a crossroads in its history. Since the last election in 2014 and a staggering report of corruption at Petrobras, the state oil giant that most of Brazilian politics is connected to via dark money, Brazil has had one president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a president with a staggering five percent approval rating, and a populus furious at the current state of politics. Recovering from a recent recession, Brazil sees a rise in unemployment, crime, and homelessness as the former Temer government did nothing to aid in these problems. GDP dropped nearly 5% between 2014 and 2017 according to Reuters, unemployment rose to 13.7%, and homelessness reached a staggering 7% across Brazil’s major cities. Although the presidencies of Lula Da Silva and of Dilma Rousseff brought nearly 36 million Brazilians out of poverty through social agendas dedicated to improving the basic rights of the people, much of the progress was undone by President Temer, believing welfare to be damaging towards the Brazilian economy.

Bolsonaro thinks he can solve Brazil’s problems easily. He wants voters to entrust the thirty-year old democracy into his hands and allow him to fix the country’s woes. Bolsonaro presents himself in campaign advertisements as a “strongman outsider” that rallies against the media, crime, and corruption. Many Brazilians therefore compare the populist Bolsonaro to Donald Trump for similarities in policy. Like Trump, Bolsonaro intends to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Climate Agreements and isolate the country further from major international trade agreements. In a recent TIME interview, Bolsonaro welcomed the comparison. He said, “I’m not richer than him. That’s all that I don’t admire”

Yet Bolsonaro isn’t just politically incorrect as Trump is; rather, he goes one step further. In that same TIME interview, Bolsonaro continued to advocate for state violence against the gangs that litter Rio’s favelas. Bolsonaro promotes the notion that police officers can shoot, or even potentially kill, anyone suspected of a crime in the Rio favelas. Between 2007 and 2016, 46,750 people were murdered in the Rio favelas due to crime and gang violence dominating the streets. For Bolsonaro, killing the murderers and gang members responsible for that number signifies the public promise made to reduce the influence of crime in Rio de Janeiro.

He equated homosexuality with pedophilia along with many other insults and attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, which he has a long history of attacking. Bolsonaro is also an open racist, using racist statements many times throughout his presidential campaign. In particular, he accused Afro-Brazilians of being fat and lazy, and defended punishing children to prevent them from homosexuality. Clearly, Bolsonaro promotes this new globalistic populistic politics brand of hate as the center of his campaign, which won the Presidency last month.

The effect of Trumpism on global leaders needs to be considered when considering the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil. Similar to Trump supporters, Bolsonaro views his religious beliefs as intrinsic to his politics. The Evangelical groups fervently support Bolsonaro for promoting their interests in politics for the first time in nearly thirty years. Although Bolsonaro is catholic, his wife and son are Evangelical, something that gives him enough credibility to navigate the evangelical community. Over 22.8% of Brazil identifies as Protestant, a number that has grown from a meager 6.8% in 1990. In a Catholic-dominated Brazil, the Evangelical community has increasingly appealed to politicians of the right wing to defend their religious rights, as they see the left-wing politicians as dangerous to their beliefs. Most commonly, evangelicals see him as incorruptible in the face of politics— enough to thrust their full support onto him.

Bolsonaro supports tax cuts across all Brazilians, creating investor-friendly economic policies, and deregulating the economy as a whole. Though the idea of Trumpism has been seen in South America previously, Bolsonaro is by far the most extreme champion of the philosophy in recent years.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro wants to bridge the divide between fascism and populism. In the past, populism filled the void in Brazil and in Argentina that democracy left behind, becoming an authoritarian form that continued the racist elements of democracy. Yet Trump and Bolsonaro present a new brand of populism that eliminates more of democracy than beforehand. Bolsonaro’s rise in Brazil issues a warning that populism can no longer be avoided in the context of South America but instead must be considered as the rising political ideology.