The new face of Jair Bolsonaro



Finally, right-wing populism

The video sponsored by the Ceará Conservador movement, with a music clip celebrating the alleged reconciliation between Bolsonaro and northeasterners, is a glaring example of the most significant movement in Brazilian politics since the 2018 election: the president's change in political strategy. To the sound of a baião and with an edition reminiscent of the classic Lula campaign videos, this advertising piece shows Bolsonaro as the newest father of the poor in the Northeast, with abundant references to Bolsa Família, to God and to the figure of the president.

As I have already written here and elsewhere, the tactic of Bolsonarist politics was until very recently to maintain the same attitude despite the change in situation. The former captain won the election by radicalizing to the right and speaking only to his audience. Elected president, he continued to speak to his followers and to harass his political opponents, the media and democratic institutions. The pandemic came and he insisted on the conflict, exacerbating it to the point of producing threats of institutional rupture.

Continuity was not only in the form of the action, but in the content of its message. Bolsonaro, like a broken record player (sorry for the antiquarian reference), has maintained the simplicity of his platform throughout the changing circumstances. He won the election embodying the figure of outsider, as a champion of anti-politics and anti-PT, and continued in government to express contempt and anger against what he calls old politics. By bringing Sergio Moro to his ministry, he attracted the car wash public to him. With Moro, the message of the (false) outsider gained consistency, reinforcing the reduction of politics to the moral question.

Imagining himself protected by maintaining the form and content of his political strategy, Bolsonaro has put together a government that is a true bag of cats – combining olavists from the so-called ideological band; soldiers in pajamas nostalgic for the times of the AI-5; ultraconservative evangelicals; and radical neoliberals, gathered around the figure of minister Paulo Guedes. The only attribute that united these groups was negative, namely the lack of competence to minimally manage the Brazilian State. In a year and a half of government they produced only destruction and dismantling. The incompetence even extended to the minister of the economy, whose combined role with his supporters of the “market” was exactly that: “to destroy and dismantle”. Not even that the former newspaper columnist The Globe managed to do it right. Bolsonaro, however, did not seem to be shaken by the lack of results, as long as he was able to preserve the political strategy that seemed successful to him.

But, as the ancient Greeks already knew, with the passage of time, everything degenerates. The maintenance of the political strategy in the exercise of the presidency robbed Bolsonaro of the ability to schedule the Congress, as the studies of the Brazilian Legislative Observatory (OLB), a project of which I am one of the coordinators, show repeatedly. As if some of his government’s decisions were reversed by the Legislature, the judiciary, particularly the Federal Supreme Court, began to react to Bolsonaro’s attempts to govern in spite of the robed aristocracy, or often preaching against it. If the conflicts with the houses of Congress affected governability, those with the judiciary went beyond governability to affect close members of the president's political support group, including two of his children. Furthermore, in the name of combating fake news, judiciary, legislature and media began to attack the alternative communication network that has been the backbone of maintaining the president's popularity.

At the end of April, Bolsonaro would still lose Sergio Moro, who left the government publicly accusing the president of trying to influence the Federal Police in an immoral and illegal way. The combination of these negative factors, combined with a very unfavorable coverage by the mainstream press, in a context of pandemic crisis, had the effect of causing serious damage to the president's popularity. Harassed, Bolsonaro finally decided to transform.

I can't pinpoint the exact day, but approximately two weeks ago he completely changed his attitude, starting to present himself in public in a more serene manner, with very visible signs of being under the effect of a good dose of anxiolytics. Its alliance with Centrão, which had a rather lukewarm and uncertain start, began to gain momentum, with the appointment of nominees from the parties to occupy first and second-level positions of great symbolic and budgetary importance.

The crazy Weintraub, who recently had the support of the president to even leave the STF audience carried in the arms of the Bolsonarist hosts, was defenestrated and treated coldly by the leader in an embarrassing farewell ceremony. Now the newspapers report that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Olavista Ernesto Araújo, and the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, the one who uses ruralist metaphors to talk about his portfolio, could be fired at any time. Completing the series of movements, the Bolsonaro government announces the launch of “Renda Brasil”, a minimum income program that aims to replace Bolsa Família.

All these signs point to a radical change in the president's political strategy. If the alliance with Centrão was interpreted as a desperate act to stop an impeachment, it is slowly starting to take on the air of a governance project. By silencing the Olavist radicals, Bolsonaro also makes a gesture to appease the judiciary, which let us not forget will now be led by Luiz Fux, the one who is said to have appealed to football metaphors to win a seat on the Supreme Court.

Finally, faced with the loss of part of his car wash base, the president seems to orchestrate a massive co-option campaign of the Lulista electorate, in the Northeast and elsewhere, through Renda Brasil. If it is too early to talk about electoral realignment, there are already concrete signs of change in the base of support for the government, with growth in support for the president in the lowest income bracket, up to two minimum wages, according to a recent survey by DataFolha.

Some time ago I wrote an academic text showing that despite being called a populist, in Brazil and abroad, Bolsonaro did not have some fundamental characteristics of this concept, including a strong idea of ​​​​the people. We analyzed a lot of his campaign material and found the lack of this element in Bolsonarista discourse. Not that the concept of populism lends itself to great interpretative endeavors, particularly given the way in which it was appropriated and abused in Brazil, as Ângela de Castro Gomes and Jorge Ferreira so brilliantly showed.

But by launching himself into the fight against poverty and misery, Bolsonaro begins to acquire the characteristics that are attributed by literature to right-wing populists. There are still many elements missing for its total conversion to occur, but the change in direction has already taken place and the direction seems to be this. Whether the contradictions inherent in his new stance, particularly with regard to the neoliberal agenda of dismantling the state, will allow it to stabilize – that is another matter. Unfortunately, the crystal ball I bought online is coming from China and the delivery is very late. Pandemic stuff.

*João Feres Junior is professor of political science at IESP-UERJ. He is coordinator of the Affirmative Action Multidisciplinary Study Group (GEMAA) and of the Media and Public Space Studies Laboratory (LEMEP).


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