If you thought liberalism was in crisis, Brazil gets the Trump of the tropics

Extreme: Jair Bolsonaro vowed to send his opponents "into exile or into prison": AP
Extreme: Jair Bolsonaro vowed to send his opponents "into exile or into prison": AP

When fascism comes to America,” said US stand-up comedian George Carlin, “it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts.”

The late, great social critic would surely have nodded in bleak recognition as Jair Messias Bolsonaro, Brazil’s ultra-Right-wing president-elect, celebrated his triumph in Sunday’s second round of voting, wearing a casual open-necked shirt and broadcasting a victory message on Facebook Live — the essence of which was that he and his fellow citizens could now “change Brazil’s destiny together.”

In spite of Bolsonaro’s assurances he will govern for all Brazilians, many of them are already anxious — with good reason — about the character of the destiny he has in mind. After he voted, Brazilian supreme court justice José Dias Toffoli pointedly quoted sections of the nation’s constitution to reporters, emphasising “the future president must respect institutions, must respect democracy, the rule of law”.

Already, members of Bolsonaro’s party have launched a campaign urging students to denounce “indoctrinator teachers” who oppose his victory. This follows official raids on campus events and classes involving the study of fascism during the electoral process. Even as the complacent within and beyond Brazil persuade themselves its liberal institutions will “normalise” the president-elect — as their counterparts did so glibly after Donald Trump’s victory — an unmistakably authoritarian direction of travel is beginning to emerge.

As often as Bolsonaro pays homage to Winston Churchill, the fascistic texture of his politics is beyond question. He has praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 — with the caveat that its error was only “to torture, and not to kill” Left-wing dissenters. During the campaign, he vowed to send his own opponents “into exile or into prison”.

Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew d'Ancona

He has previously remarked he would “prefer my son to die in an accident than be gay”, described his fathering of a daughter as “a moment of weakness” and, in 2014, told congresswoman Maria do Rosario that, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.”

Some international commentators have interpreted this disgusting man’s victory as an opportunity for Brazil to curb corruption, shrink its overgrown state and reform its pension system.

And no doubt Bolsonaro will promise to initiate many such measures. But, as is always the case with populists, his priority will not be the efficient delivery of policy but the nurturing of recrimination, hatred of minorities and emotive nationalism. This, rather than statistically measured success, is what keeps autocrats in power.

Brazil’s election of an unabashedly far-Right strongman leader marks, definitively, the end of the so-called “pink tide” of Left-of-centre governments that came to power in Latin America in the early years of the 21st century. But it is also part of a global trend away from the conventions of liberal democracy and towards the brutish embrace of authoritarianism.

It is no accident Trump was so quick to congratulate Bolsonaro and to tweet: “We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on trade, military and everything else!”

The US President knows a kindred spirit when he sees one on Fox News.

"President Trump was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro. He knows a kindred spirit when he sees one"

As the people of Chile still recall with particular horror, there is nothing new in the axis between repressive governments in South America and successive US administrations. But, there is a difference between Cold War realpolitik and overt authoritarian enthusiasm. What Trump likes the most about Bolsonaro is not that Brazil’s president-elect may support the US national interest but that they are cut from the same cloth.

Increasingly, we live in a world of networks rather than rules-based supranational institutions. The affinity that Trump feels for Bolsonaro is typical of the informal global understanding that is growing between authoritarians of all stripes.

It links the Oval Office to the Kremlin; the refusal of Tory MEPs to denounce Viktor Orban to the rise of the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany; and Trump’s denunciation of the press this week as “the true enemy of the people” to the government-funded campaign in Hungary portraying opposition groups as pawns of the Jewish billionaire George Soros.

It is no accident Bolsonaro has been pictured with Steve Bannon, the ubiquitous guru of the new nationalist Right. Bannon, and others like him, are nurturing this uncodified but powerful web of individual politicians and parties — including prominent Brexiteers — bonded by a common loathing for liberal élites, the constraints of traditional institutions, and the free press.

They prey upon the anxieties of the post-crash era, the tensions within pluralist societies, and the uncertainties spawned by technological change. They have also mastered the power of social media much more quickly and adroitly than their political opponents.

In his fine book, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder remarks of the old system’s decay: “To experience its destruction is to see a world for the first time. Inheritors of an order we did not build, we are now witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.” True enough. And those who assume history has an autocorrect facility that will quickly ensure the restoration of the centrist liberal ascendancy are in for a big shock.

There is no once-size-fits-all solution to the crisis of liberal democracy, only the long haul of recovery, the development of fresh answers to new questions, and the recognition that 90 per cent of politics is sheer bloody-minded stamina. Above all, there must be respect for the scale of the task. In a world of hectic volatility, Bolsonaro and his friends are just getting started.