Play their game?

Image: Plato Terentev


Considerations on the discursive strategy of the extreme right

The non-resolution in the first round of what are certainly the most significant presidential elections since the country's redemocratization inevitably produced a climate of high tension. Aggravated by the mismatch between the predictions of the electoral polls and the actual result of the vote, the fear of the possibility of Jair Bolsonaro's re-election was raised to the second power, and rightly so. For those who allowed themselves to believe in an easy victory, Sunday night was the trigger for a reaction, at times clumsy, in the sense of reinforcing the impulse of electoral mobilization, either in favor of the former president, or in disfavor of the current president. .

In this inflamed space, the spark that started the fire was the release, last Tuesday, of a video in which the “good Christian” Jair Bolsonaro is seen speaking in a Mason temple. A fact that for many was new, both the Catholic and Evangelical churches, pedestals of the self-image that Jair Bolsonaro aims to project, do not get along well with Freemasonry. It was immediately noted that this material could provoke a negative reaction in those voters of the president most fond of his religious nods. The virtual lulist militancy took advantage of this immediately: the video went viral, searches on the internet about Jair Bolsonaro and Freemasonry soared to the clouds and, in a short time, reports of the high effectiveness of this investment began to pop up: votes, if not turned over , were cancelled.

Given the virulence and intensity that this movement reached, having scared off the Bolsonarist campaign itself with some success, the Lulista side felt the power of this weapon that it had just used. It wasn't the hundreds of thousands of deaths from the pandemic, poorly managed by the president, nor the insults that he constantly babbles, not even the galloping inflation, much less the administrative ineptitude of his management. What apparently moved these persistent votes effectively was proof of the president's religious betrayal. There was no need to explain much, or question, investigate or elaborate, just a “look at this” and the expected reaction would come. This fact, although duly frustrating, is also a strong indicator of the ideological foundations that keep Bolsonarism standing.

Many were quick to point out that such an endeavor could be “playing their game”, that is, using elements of the extreme right's discursive toolbox against itself. They did not speak in a vacuum: the influencer André Janones, even before last Sunday's shock, already recognized this strategy as a campaign slogan: “to fight Bolsonarism as equals, Federal Janones”.

Faced with such an urgent situation, experiencing a taste of the power of influence that such tools seemed to possess, the reproach that insists that “we must not reduce ourselves to their level” did not take hold. In fact, a certain moral purism, which financed so many null votes when the most urgent action was needed, needs to be, at the very least, relativized in the face of the imminent catastrophe: it is necessary to stop a furious fascism with all the weapons at its disposal.

The warning, however, is not completely unreasonable. We are on shaky ground here. The border that separates us from spreading lies and creating false scandals, only reversing the sign and thus reinforcing fascist manipulation and lies, is porous and tempting to cross.

However, although this more direct confrontation of the discursive arsenal of the extreme right can bring us closer to a kind of “reduction to their level”, a serious and real risk, I believe that, when carried out with critical clarity and caution, it can prove to be a powerful tool of counterpropaganda, giving way to some dismantling of a lying and manipulative campaign.

For this, it is good to start with the most essential: what does the discursive strategy of the extreme right consist of?

First of all, it's not a new game, but it's already well known, before any social network or internet. Political scientist André Singer, in the wake of many other analysts, has noted that the “technique used by Bolsonaro to deceive the other actors on the scene” is an element that brings the current candidate closer to the great leaders of Nazi-fascism of yesteryear. The discursive tactic we are dealing with, therefore, has already been seen and heard in the mouths of Hitler, Mussolini and other minor fascists.[I]

Relying on the consecrated tradition of the Frankfurt School, André Singer points out that the effectiveness of fascism as a political movement would be, in essence, in its ability to reach unconscious traits of individuals. This would be one of the findings of a set of empirical research carried out by members of this sociological tradition, aiming to understand not only the structure and effects of the discourse of fascist leaders, but also the traits that made up the “authoritarian personality” predisposed to their attacks.

Besides being, primarily, a speech that aims to provoke affective reactions, that is, immediate, emotional gratifications, in listeners, instead of attracting them by the force of arguments and rational explanations, the Frankfurtians also discovered that the fascist “game” has well-defined parts. This tactic of stirring up the emotions of the public to extract political mobilization from them would be operated through a not very broad set of “devices”, calibrated to provoke the expected reactions.

One way of making clear what this means is the distinction, proposed by Adorno's and Horkheimer's companions Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, between the revolutionary, the reformist, and the agitator. For the latter, all three types present themselves as “spokespersons for social change”. This means that everyone, in their own way, aims to articulate and respond to the dissatisfactions of individuals in the face of social problems and frustrations. To these listeners, the reformist would seek to circumscribe the cause of dissatisfaction to a delimited social problem that, as it does not appear immediately in frustration, would be rationally related to it, and thus a solution would be elaborated. The revolutionary, not so different from his previous colleague, would go further and relate the problem to the social structure as a whole, proposing, with arguments and explanations, a general transformation of this structure.

The agitator, in turn, chooses a completely different path. Instead of defining the nature of the problem through rational concepts, it seeks to further disorient its audience, destroying, instead of building, the rational supports of a possible solution, and seeking to convince its audience to adopt, instead of a way out. rational, “spontaneous” behaviors. It goes without saying that there is no spontaneity here, but a reaction prudently directed by the influence of the agitator himself, who will channel it according to his interests.

Therefore, instead of describing problems, the agitator names enemies. His words do not seek to clarify the situation, raising the troubled individual to a clearer and more effective understanding of his affliction. Rather, their primary function is "to release reactions of gratification or frustration whose total effect is to make the audience subservient to your personal leadership."[ii] The agitator knows very well that he will find a public that bears resentment, since it is a generalized social phenomenon. His bet, however, is not to propose an understanding of this emotion, but to reinforce it.

It will be those discursive devices that will carry out this task. It is here that, among many others, the famous “us and them” arises, that is, the radical distinction between a in group, to which the leader and his follower belong, if he chooses to follow him, and a outgroup intolerable enemy. All the frustration and anger, which give reason to the resentment felt, are thus channeled towards an enemy to be chosen, strengthening the feeling of gratification of those who feel part of the in group. In Nazism, the enemies were the Jew and other minorities. Now, it's the “PT”, the “communists” and, again, the minorities.

Religion, in turn, can play a key role in this far-right arsenal. In the mid-1940s, Theodor Adorno analyzed in detail the radio speeches of an American fascist agitator, a type bizarrely similar to our “father of the June party”, who made himself the leader of an important fascist movement on the American West coast – his name was Martin Luther Thomas. He discovered, therefore, that Martin Luther Thomas used religion as a way to appeal to those most considered religious in order to “transform their religious zeal into political partisanship and subservience”.[iii] Its fascist propaganda, in this sense, "secularized" elements of Christianity, perverting them into their opposites. In reality, Martin Luther Thomas' purposes were – just as Jair Bolsonaro's are – anti-religious. Religion, for both, served only as a pedestal to mobilize a believing public towards it.

And here lies Theodor Adorno's hope for a possible form of counterpropaganda, which may prove useful in our present condition. Says the Frankfurtian: "if it were unequivocally presented to the groups he [Thomas] addresses that his objectives completely contradict the Christian ideals he professes and claims to defend, these religious sentiments could be expressed in the opposite direction".[iv] In a way, I believe, it is something close to what may have happened with the Masonic scandal of Jair Bolsonaro.

This means that a possible form of counter-propaganda would be to seek to shake, directly at the bases, the supports of the misleading image of our agitator, clearly showing the deception in operation, thus seeking to dismantle the affective bond that he sought to establish with his followers. A greater, critical and theoretically oriented understanding of how the extreme right “game” operates could, therefore, pave the way for a more effective response to Bolsonarism.

However, this response, it is essential to remember, needs to be much more than discursive, but must be accompanied by an impulse for radical social transformation (in the honest sense of one that seeks the problems at the roots). And here, significant risks arise, which show how we find ourselves on a dangerous frontier.

The first and most obvious one is to miss the found counter-advertising opening, just stealing the enemy's microphone to sing the same song. This is unfortunately what André Janones seems to be doing, who in his response to the leaking of the video scandal of Freemasonry only reinforced the use of religious themes for political mobilization purposes, believing that he could simply change the target, in a sequence of provocations and speeches that need to be faced with great caution. Stated as clearly as possible, it is one thing to irrefutably demonstrate the falsity of Bolsonaro's speech, it is another thing to arrogate the role that the other claimed to have, that of a true Christian. Even worse would be to embrace the whole “game” once and for all and go around spreading lies and scandals: the technique is not politically exempt, and this shot would inevitably backfire.

The second risk, which seems more present to me, is that of trying to discursively attack the extreme right without facing the true social causes that give it objective ground, that is, trying to convince voters to support a government program that will not, with that good radicality, present and face the problems that are at the root of their discontent. Therefore, the accusation that “it's all flour from the same bag” becomes true, and it becomes more difficult to convince this voter once again, and he is right. In this last condition, the extreme right would at least offer the advantage of being more gratifying in its spectacle.

*Daniel Pavan graduated in social sciences from USP.



[I] SINGER, André: “Between the ridiculous and the threatening”, available at:

[ii] LOWENTHAL, Leo; GUTERMAN, Norbert. Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950, p.9.

[iii] ADORNO, Theodor W. “The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas' Radio Addresses”. In ADORNO, TW Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkham Verlag, 1986

[iv] Ibid.

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