The strategy of Bolsonarism and the dilemma of the left

Clara Figueiredo, series_ Brasília_ fungi and simulacra, national congress, 2018


Not all Jair Bolsonaro voters are Bolsonarists. Not every Bolsonarist is loyal to Jair Bolsonaro

Waxing Bolsonarism as the political movement of Jair Bolsonaro is reductive and dangerous. Not all Jair Bolsonaro voters are Bolsonarists. Not every Bolsonarist is loyal to Jair Bolsonaro.

The word Bolsonarism designates the social and political form assumed, over the past decade, by the hatred towards the left, channeled towards its main expression in Brazil, the PT, extending to social movements, individuals, governments and other parties of the left. As is known, such historical hatred takes different forms from time to time, with the PT as a priority target since its foundation.

Several factors have concurred to feed the extreme hatred that takes place in the current situation. Probably the most relevant are Operation Lava Jato and its ostensive media exploitation, the extraordinary advance, in the last two decades, of discourses in defense of (and eventually rights for) blacks and browns, women, LGBTQI+ people and native peoples, and, what is less remembered, but, in my opinion, the decisive factor, the explosion of unemployment and the abrupt drop in income triggered by the announcement, by Dilma Rousseff, of Joaquim Levy as Minister of Finance in 2014, shortly after the second round of the presidential election, and the fiscal adjustment that followed. On that occasion, among the mass of victims, in which Dilma Rousseff's voters were concentrated, the prevailing feeling was one of betrayal, producing a deep-rooted and extreme anti-PT attitude.[1]

Until then, a marginal federal deputy, Jair Bolsonaro was skilful enough to, taking advantage of the occasion opened by the wear and tear of the PT, give unity to hatred.[2] Nearly thirty years of hate speech as a parliamentarian finally paid off. It is no coincidence, however, that it was precisely this figure who managed to do so. Among those who, with guaranteed media exposure, have fed on hatred and fed it back in recent years, it is not by chance that a military man has the leading role.

It was not just the positive image that Brazilians had of the Armed Forces, in contrast to the negative image – amplified by the events of 2013 – of parties and other institutions of the Republic, which favored the captain of the army in the middle of the last decade. It was above all the image of the Armed Forces as a symbol of order and authority. Who better than a military man, herald of order, to be a spokesman for dissatisfaction in a world that seemed increasingly taken by chaos?


Bolsonarism's strategy

Don't let your guard down. Stay in the spotlight. Keep morale high. Stay organized. There is no doubt: such is the strategy of Bolsonarism. That Jair Bolsonaro's goals and motivations are not identical to the goals and motivations of each of the people who took part in the Bolsonarist camps and in the Invasion of the Three Powers Square, it matters little in the face of a greater ideal: hatred of the left. The reasons for hatred are many, they do not always converge and sometimes they are in opposition, but the target is the same.

From this perspective, any half dozen people who hate the left and who happen to come together to express their indignation is potentially an expression of Bolsonarism, which does not mean that Bolsonarism does not have its forms of organization. There is overwhelming evidence that the invasion was orchestrated, planned, financed. One of the evidences is the fact that there was no invasion and confrontation during President Lula's inauguration – which, for many, would be the most obvious. However, images of confrontation between two crowds and of injured people and the news of possible deaths would have less popular appeal than images of invasion and depredation of the symbols of palace power, not by chance on a Sunday. The bet is that, ten years later, the dissatisfaction of 2013 still has fuel to burn.

The basis of the Bolsonarist strategy is the fact that President Lula was elected with a 43% rejection rate, according to the latest survey conducted by Datafolha on the eve of the second round.[3] It is worth remembering that Lula's rejection grew in the months leading up to the election, as a result of Jair Bolsonaro's campaign and the action of Bolsonarism – a learning that its action makes a difference.

It is necessary to retain the essential in the already trivial notion of polarization. Each side defends itself, its mode of existence, its values ​​and convictions, but, above all, completely rejects the other. It is true that the rejection of Jair Bolsonaro was, throughout the campaign, superior to the rejection of Lula. The difference is that, now, Jair Bolsonaro is out, while Lula is in the presidency. Never has a president been elected with such rejection.

For this reason, it is also necessary to take into account the horizon that lies ahead. What to expect from Lula's third government? Will it be, as many expect and have claimed, a government more to the left than the previous two? The issue is not simple and requires a specific article. For my purpose here, two data are sufficient: on the one hand, it is known that the international economic situation is worse than that of the first decade of this century; from another, higher education enrollment rate has grown exponentially from 2010 to date, and tends to continue growing, given not only the existing demand, but also the Lula government's own commitment.[4]

The first two Lula governments and the Dilma government created high expectations, which were only partially met. On the other hand, extremely harsh living and working conditions led to growing frustration. Will the third Lula government be able to escape this script? Will there be qualified jobs for all higher education graduates, in a less favorable economic scenario and with a greater and growing demand for qualified jobs? It's unlikely.

This is the ticking time bomb in Lula's lap, which the expected policies to expand rights, social policies and measures to increase the occupancy rate and income will not be able to compensate, despite their inestimable importance. Everything indicates that an increasing number of engineers, administrators and lawyers will have to settle for jobs that fall far short of the qualification they have achieved – of which acting as an application driver is emblematic. If so, resentment, the source of dissatisfaction that broke out in 2013, and which originates, preserves and feeds all sorts of right-wing discourses and ideologies, tends to grow.

Crises are also opportunities.[5] Bolsonarism knows this and wants to keep its spirits high so that, in times of crisis, it can take advantage of the situation, presenting itself as an alternative. Corruption scandals are only part of the dissatisfaction – and there is no guarantee that new scandals will not surface. Its main source resides in the economy.


The action in Brasilia

The action of Bolsonaristas in Brasília on January 08, one of the most serious attacks against democracy in Brazil in recent decades, must be seen in the larger picture of the political situation in Brazil and the strategy of Bolsonarism.

Whichever label you give to the multitude of invaders and predators, it makes little difference. Even less the fate of those who have been and will still be identified, parts of a political process they know little about and which unfolds in the long term. The invasion was successful and served a tactical purpose: in an age of permanent instability, it sent the message that hatred of the left is alive, and that a legitimately elected government will not be tolerated.

In this sense, I think it is a mistake to see the action as a central attack against institutions, or against the democratic rule of law. Such a reading makes it incomprehensible why the action took place on January 08, 2023, a week after Lula took office, makes it incomprehensible that invaders and predators have appealed to the support of other institutions – notably, the Armed Forces – and that certain institutions and relevant public agents have at least been lenient in the face of the action, and makes incomprehensible, above all, the adequate understanding of the speeches that it tends to produce in the short, medium and long term and of the affections that it tends to feed. No doubt institutions have been attacked, but the target is the left and those who, in the minds of the crowd, shelter or support the left.


The Dilemma of the Left

Since the beginning of demonstrations by Bolsonarists on the highways and in front of barracks, in which the appeals for military intervention were renewed shortly after the elections, defenders of the democratic rule of law have had a major dilemma: being anti-democratic, how to demobilize such demonstrations, that have become permanent, if the only legal means of demobilization are exactly the same forces to which the coup-protesters appeal and within which the sympathy towards the demonstrations is representative?

There was talk of leniency and negligence on the occasion of the action in Brasilia, especially on the part of the Military Police of the Federal District. It's too little. There is evidence that the same police acted to encourage and even logistically support the Bolsonarist crowd. In the same direction, the security secretary of the Federal District, Anderson Torres, who had been Bolsonaro's Minister of Justice, was in Florida during the action, and the press reported that he had met the former president. An eloquent coincidence.

Since 2013, coup demonstrations led by demonstrators dressed in green and yellow have become common. These are the protesters in defense of Lava Jato and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. It is ironic that these demonstrators, who today have the privilege of demonstrating with everything paid for by Bolsonarist businessmen (breakfast, lunch, dinner, transportation, chemical toilets, etc.), yesterday accused the left of “mortadella”.

What can be said about the difference in treatment that the police give to the Green-Yellow protesters and left-wing protesters? Homeless and landless students and workers close public roads in large cities to protest for rights and against measures that restrict rights, and the military police often intervene with all violence, using stun bombs and bullets. rubber, always in the name of the right to come and go – as if pedestrians and cars could not come and go by alternative routes. As for the recent blockades on the highways, which resulted in nothing less than shortages, the highway police did nothing. There are images of police officers supporting the demonstrators.

The conduct of the police forces and the Armed Forces, not only in the recent action in Brasília, but in several other episodes, since at least 2013, just proves what we all know: that institutions are composed of individuals and groups, and that in these institutions a feeling of hatred towards the left and the current government prevails. And we know that the same feeling is strong in other relevant institutions, such as those that make up the so-called “justice system”.

Jair Bolsonaro's censorship of the action sets the tone for the interpretation that, within these institutions, tends to take place: the action of Bolsonaristas is repudiated, just as the action of the left is repudiated. It will not be surprising if people begin to say that the action of Bolsonaristas, which is reprehensible in itself, is, however, a reaction to the crisis… caused by the left.

The dilemma of the left is not, for Bolsonarism within the police forces and the Armed Forces, a dilemma, but, paradoxically, an opportunity. The more appeals are made to these institutions for the reestablishment of the democratic order, the more it is strengthened and the more importance and evidence is given to actors whose interest and motivation is coup-mongering, and the more the contact and solidarity between such actors and a multitude with extraordinary strength of spirit, willing to do anything in defense of God, the homeland, property, morals, honor, family, in short, order, a sacred value for those same forces. Are the abundant and recurrent images of police and military declaring support for demonstrators in recent years not enough?


the policy back

With the German historian Reinhart Koselleck, we know that changing the horizon of expectations alters the field of past experience. If today the majority of the population tends to reject the action – Jair Bolsonaro and his circle know this –, future crises may change this experience, making it acceptable and fair in the eyes of the same majority, or part of it. This is the wager of Bolsonarism. Therefore, the condition is to be alive, active and in evidence.

Bolsonarism’s strategy is to remain in the spotlight by feeding (and feeding on) hatred of the left – and of individuals and institutions that it considers itself allies –, seen as an enemy because it produces chaos, a threat to greater values ​​and ideals. , even transcendent, and the type of existence that, from the perspective of Bolsonarism, must be defended and preserved at any cost.[6] Staying alive and active to, given the opportunity, present itself as an alternative power – with or without Jair Bolsonaro.

Against Bolsonarism, there is no remedy but the elaboration and very well calculated conduct of a political strategy that, in addition to facing the deficits and setbacks that have accumulated since 2014, effectively meets the high expectations that the government itself will create, and that have less to do with discourses and ideologies – even though this is a relevant dimension – than with very concrete conditions of life and work.

*Antonio David He holds a doctorate in philosophy from USP.


[1] During the 2014 election campaign, Dilma Rousseff avoided declaring whether or not she would implement the fiscal adjustment demanded by the market, while accusing her opponent, Aécio Neves, of defending policies that would result in unemployment and a drop in income. In the end, Dilma won Aécio by a narrow margin (51,64% against 48,36% of the votes), with emphasis on the tie in the family income range of 2 to 5 minimum wages (50% for each), according to the survey of Datafolha held on the eve of the second round. The austerity policy was the main vector that led to a drastic loss of popular support by the president – ​​the biggest in the historical series up to that moment. According to Ibope, in December 2014, shortly before Levy's announcement as Minister of Finance, the government was evaluated as good or excellent by 40% of the population, fair by 32% and bad or terrible by 27%; in March 2015 – therefore, just three months later – only 12% considered the government good or excellent, 23% regular and an exponential 64% evaluated the government as bad or terrible.

[2] I recommend to the reader the report of the ethnographic research coordinated by the anthropologist Isabela Oliveira Kalill: Kalil, IO (coord.). “Who are Jair Bolsonaro’s voters and what do they believe?”. São Paulo School of Sociology and Politics Foundation – FESPSP, Oct. 2018. Available in>.

[3] Among those who reject only Lula. The rejection of Bolsonaro was 48%. The rejection of both, 3%.

[4] According to the sample profile of the Datafolha survey of October 29, 2022, in the age group of 25 to 34 years old, the percentages of voters with primary, secondary and higher education were, respectively, 12%, 53% and 35%, and, in the age group of 16 to 24 years, 6%, 70% and 24%.

[5] I use “crisis” in the trivial sense of the term.

[6] With this, I follow those interpreters for whom Bolsonarism was the one that, by acting based on the notion of enemy – against the grain, therefore, of the current discourse of “pacification” –, reintroduced politics in Brazil to its maximum degree, as established by Carl Schmitt .

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