Brazil and populism

Few topics have attracted as much writing in recent years as the rise of populism and nationalism. I was interviewed recently by a student reporter at PSU, who wanted to talk to me about Jair Bolsanaro’s rise in Brazil. How does a politician -who served as an officer during the dictatorship, and has made offensive comments about many groups-  win the Brazilian presidency? Of course, Brazilians are exhausted by the endless political scandals, which have left one previous president impeached, and another in prison. Anyone who once promised to shut down Congress will attract votes in this context. The Worker’s Party failed to denounce its leaders for corruption, which cost them legitimacy. I quoted Bolsanaro in my book on military terror in Brazil, in which he said that 30,000 corrupt officials needed to be lined up and shot. He made that statement about twenty years ago. Brazilians have been so frustrated by the massive scandal involving Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras, that these and similar comments probably helped more than hurt him.

The Venezuelan example has also proved to be a priceless political gift to the right throughout Latin America. The leaders of the Worker’s Party in Brazil have made themselves vulnerable on this point by refusing to condemn Venezuela’s leadership. Bolsonaro seized upon this opportunity by warning Brazilian voters that the left wanted to turn Brazil into a Venezuela. Still, Bolsanaro is part of a larger political trend that cannot be explained in term’s of one nation’s politics.

Canada’s former prime-minister has a forthcoming book, and a piece about populism was published in the conservative Canadian paper, the National Post. I didn’t agree with most of Harper’s policies while he was in power, and I have a different philosophy of the world, much like the “cosmopolitans” he questions in this excerpt. Still, I think it’s worth reading his argument, to understand how a political leader views the current trends in global politics. You can view the piece here, “Exclusive: the future is populist in this age of disruption, Stephen Harper says in new book.” 

Ten to fifteen years ago all of Latin America was moving to the political left. That trend has not only reversed, but also the swing to the right in the region is becoming more extreme, as Bolsonaro’s victory suggests. As interesting as Harper’s piece is, it’s still placed in a North American context. What is happening now is a global phenomenon, from Brazil to the Philippines, Eastern Europe to the United States. To state the obvious, the move to the populist and nationalist leaders is taking place in different cultures, in countries with widely differing levels of development, and in regions facing different economic and social challenges. We cannot seek to understand this phenomenon by only looking at one regional context.

At the same time the meaning of conservatism has changed. Hayek’s fiscal conservatism and calls to minimize government aren’t reflected in the thought of most populist leaders. Bolsanaro has deep ties to Brazilian military officers who believe that the state must have a key role in national development. As such, this populist and nationalist movement shouldn’t be seen only as a swing to the right. These forces are redefining conservatism itself. The old thinkers such as Hayek have lost influence, as is obvious in the United States. Globally, people have a sense that the system is broken, and they are returning to old identities and ideals.

The Brazilian military has long sought to justify its involvement in politics by denouncing the corruption of Brazil’s political leadership. In this context, it’s worth remembering the military’s own deep involvement in corruption, which generated internal tensions so serious at times that they threatened to tear the institution apart. At the same time, military terror became an essential tool of the armed forces’ involvement in politics, as well as for the generals to purge the institution of dissent. For anyone wanting to learn more about this topic please read article, which is freely available: Smallman, S. (1999). Military terror and silence in Brazil, 1910-1945. Canadian Journal Of Latin American And Caribbean Studies = Revue Canadienne Des Études Latino-Américaines Et Caraïbes, 24(47), 5-27. I have a second article that talks about the collapse of Brazilian democracy in 1964, although it is behind a paywall: Shawn C. Smallman “The Professionalization of Military Terror in Brazil, 1945-1964” Luso-Brazilian Review 37.1 (2000): 117-128.

Bolsonaro’s vision of the world was deeply defined by the period of military rule, which makes sense that he was a member of the army during this period. It’s telling that his vice-president is a retired officer. What most concerns me is that some people may believe that Bolsonaro’s outrageous statements are mere rhetoric, designed to generate political support. Bolsonaro does effectively use outrageous statements to draw media attention. But I also believe that these statements reflect a return to the military thinking of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which could be used justify a fundamental reordering of Brazil’s political system, and an end to democracy. For anyone who wishes to have a better understanding of the Brazilian military’s long history of involvement in politics, see my work, Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954. When I wrote the book, I thought that my own study of military corruption, torture and coups described a world of the past. Now Bolsonaro’s election leaves me feeling haunted.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

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