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Bolsonaro’s Long Shadow

Anti-democratic forces have long been at play in Brazil

The mob met little resistance. For hours, thousands ran rampant through the halls of power, breaking windows and furniture, destroying art, stealing firearms and documents, defecating on the floor—a chaotic expression of an intensely held belief that South America’s largest democracy had failed them. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, inaugurated one week earlier to a third term, was not, in their view, Brazil’s legitimate president; that title belonged to Jair Bolsonaro.

The January 8 insurrection certainly did not arise from nowhere. Bolsonaro never formally conceded, nor did he attend the inauguration. His allies adopted an ambiguous tone when referring to the elections and the transition of power, allusively presenting Lula’s victory—by a historically narrow margin—as a sham. Blockades on highways in the immediate aftermath of the run-off in October and subsequent encampments in front of military headquarters across the country revealed the consolidation of reactionary dissent. Indeed, that thousands stormed the gleaming modernist government buildings in Brazil’s capital on January 8 came as no surprise; it was simply the most virulent manifestation of anti-democratic forces long at play in the country.

Bolsonaro first came into the national spotlight during the impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, in 2016. An MP and former army captain, Bolsonaro delivered a speech paying tribute to the late Colonel Brilhante Ustra, a torturer during the country’s military dictatorship. In the event, several of Bolsonaro’s fellow legislators ignored the specific allegations of misconduct lodged against Rousseff when justifying their votes to impeach and used the floor to criticize the president’s economic and social policies, showing that the case indeed addressed other interests. Rousseff’s removal from power on legally precarious grounds brought an end to thirteen years of Workers’ Party rule—and marked a turning point in a crisis of democracy initiated in the massive demonstrations of 2013.

Bolsonaro was not the elite’s first or favorite choice but was fully embraced to preserve and expand their privileges—no matter the consequences.

Initially progressive in nature, the so-called June Journeys were also a pivot for the reorganization of the Brazilian right wing and the reappearance of a far-right in the country. On the one hand, the demonstrations expressed the limits of the Workers’ Party’s program, whose model of inclusive citizenship brought tangible changes yet failed to modify the structure or defy the forces at work in Brazilian society. From this perspective, the demonstrations manifested a desire to go beyond what the Workers’ Party proposed, reorienting the country away from inclusivity through the market and aiming at a more robust conception of social rights. On the other hand, the June Journeys opened the floodgates to a range of reactionary forces, such as the libertarianism inspired by the Austrian School of Economics, religious fundamentalism grounded in neo-Pentecostalism and prosperity theologies, and a rebranded anticommunism nostalgic for the military dictatorship. Reinvigorated, the right wing was not able to win the following elections, in 2014, but gathered enough strength to redefine the political debate in Brazil—the commitment to the “rules of the game,” established since the end of the dictatorship, was no more a basic expectation.         

The ousting of President Rousseff should be understood as a coup in that the impeachment was an abrupt move by Brazilian elites to restore a regressive socioeconomic project, supported by middle classes’ aversion to upward social mobility of the working poor and obsession with social distinction from them. Indeed, Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, the former vice president, swiftly passed an orthodox neoliberal agenda for the country in his short tenure, suspending public investment for twenty years and eviscerating worker protections. But a new majority had to be created to make the project viable in the long run. Jair Bolsonaro was the one to weave together the newly reorganized right wing and expand its base.

While Bolsonaro is commonly dubbed the Brazilian Trump, his rise to power is not merely a manifestation of a global crisis of democracy considered abstractly; it’s a direct consequence of the Brazilian elite’s inability to tolerate even modest fixes to the country’s gross inequality or the meaningful participation of the marginalized in the decisions of the state. Bolsonaro was not the elite’s first or favorite choice but was fully embraced to preserve and expand their privileges—no matter the consequences to the rest of the country and its institutions.

Stressing the particular path of democracy’s decline in Brazil is not to diminish the existence of a reactionary global wave and the links of the far-right around the world—for example, Eduardo Bolsonaro, a prominent politician and one of Bolsonaro’s sons, has never been shy about his connections with Steve Bannon. Some conservative organizations that have emerged in Brazil over the last two decades, such as Estudantes Pela Liberdade (Students for Liberty Brazil) and Instituto Millenium, are financially supported by national and transnational companies as well as American foundations, notably the libertarian Atlas Network. Exchanges across borders have been crucial to hone the discourse of the far-right, and gradually establish its fundamental frame in Brazil: the safeguarding of the “traditional family,” heavily leveraged by Bolsonaro himself over the past years. Regarding the distinct strain inequality puts on Brazilian democracy is crucial, however, to understand that Bolsonaro is the manifestation of unresolved dilemmas in Brazilian society.

Attention to the particularities of the Brazilian descent into authoritarianism is also key to grasping the way Bolsonaro advanced the regressive socioeconomic project he was assigned to execute. President Rousseff’s removal made clear that Brazil was to return to an aggressive neoliberal model, closer to the 1990s recipes for Latin America that favored economic deregulation and openness to external investors. Indeed, the Bolsonaro administration continued the work of the brief Temer administration, accelerating the reduction of social rights and the transfer of state companies to private initiative—notably through pension reform, the privatization of Brazil’s largest electric power company, Eletrobras, and the expediting of the denationalization process of strategic companies such as Brazil’s postal service and the state oil company, Petrobras. But a combination of factors—from personality clashes with allies to the Covid-19 pandemic—prevented Bolsonaro from delivering all of his promised reforms. At the same time, these conditions paved the way for an exceptionally destructive stage of neoliberalism in Brazil.  

Rather than overtly attacking the enjoyment of basic rights or the country’s resources, core features of “old” neoliberalism in the periphery, Bolsonaro shifted his offensive to the state itself. The point was to render the Brazilian state inoperative, causing a collapse from within. Such an offensive was threefold.

First, the Bolsonaro administration ceased to provide competent staff and funding to several government programs and agencies. Highways across the country went unmaintained; surveillance of the Amazon was curbed, resulting in the expansion of illegal mining, a 59 percent increase of deforestation rates, and overspread violence against indigenous peoples and their allies; funding for public schools plummeted; immunization programs were curtailed; long-term food security programs were dismantled, contributing to rising hunger and food prices—and more.

Second, Bolsonaro modified the country’s fiscal practices and delegated the nitty-gritty of the federal budget to legislators, enacting the so-called “secret budget.” Under the claim that decentralization begets efficiency, this move promoted a complete disarticulation of state intervention: funding was distributed according to the interests of politicians rather than the needs of the population in such a large country as Brazil. Unsurprisingly, politicians across the political spectrum have gathered immense leverage, despite the accusations of corruption.

Third, Bolsonaro halted data collection on a broad range of government initiatives, established strict secrecy regarding certain areas of the administration—including one-hundred-year confidentiality on logs and documents on Bolsonaro, his family, and certain cabinet members—and undermined the mechanisms of popular participation in and accountability of the state. 

While citizen oversight diminished, the number of military officers holding government office increased dramatically under Bolsonaro. Following the end of the dictatorship in the late 1980s, the armed forces reentered Brazilian society by presenting themselves as management and logistics masters—ample evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The new profile rendered members of the military a growing number of positions in democratically elected governments since the 1990s while advancing within their ranks and among “admirers” the idea that civilians are not competent enough. Indeed, the military was crucial in echoing Bolsonaro’s allegations that voting machines are fraudulent, further sowing distrust of elections and, more broadly, of democracy and the division of powers. That the January 8 insurrectionists stormed the buildings of all the three branches is not a coincidence—the destruction they left behind was the materialization of Bolsonaro’s project.   

The new administration will have to allocate significant effort to simply rescue the state. While Lula’s transition team was able to negotiate a spending package to cover the temporary return of Bolsa Família, the Workers’ Party’s flagship social program, and modestly raise the minimum wage, several gaps persist, and calls for austerity disguised under “fiscal responsibility,” so common over the past years, will dog Lula in the coming months. Negotiations with legislators were indeed intense during the weeks of transition, confirming that Lula will have to deal with empowered legislators in the years ahead. (The secret budget was formally declared unconstitutional by Brazil’s Supreme Court in the last days of Bolsonaro’s administration, but legislators have kept the prerogative to decide which areas or projects are to be funded regardless.) The administrative “blackout” promoted by Bolsonaro will affect the pace of Lula’s third term since “We don’t know what needs to be done because performance indicators don’t exist,” as stated by vice president Geraldo Alckmin. Finally, the presence of military officers in civil posts has become even more complicated in the aftermath of January 8.     

Bolsonaro’s attack on the Brazilian state is remarkable not only for its immediate, material implications. Despite some ambiguities and shortcomings, Brazil’s 1988 post-dictatorship constitution enacted a vision of a welfare state in which a strong federal government, in both scale and scope, is crucial. Previous governments’ drive toward precarization, spending cuts, and deregulation have clashed with the heavy ideological appeal of the “Citizen Constitution.” But by undermining the state’s ability to function and the very understanding of democracy, Bolsonaro found an effective way to root out these constitutional principles and solidify a new, distinct ideological landscape. The very idea of public has been severely damaged. Lula’s frequent statements about restoring solidarity, brotherhood, and love in the lead-up to the elections and at the inauguration should be, thus, considered a riposte to the highly individualistic conception of society that has gained ground in Brazil—and found its violent expression on January 8.

But how was Bolsonaro able to carry out the destructive project described here? The answer is multipronged and gives a better sense of why Bolsonaro remains so popular.  

When he assumed the presidency, Bolsonaro nominated Sergio Moro—the judge who jailed Lula, preventing him from running in 2018— to be his minister of justice. Later on, Bolsonaro and Moro would have a momentary “break-up,” but this early decision signaled his predilection for manipulating institutions for his own benefit. Over four years, Bolsonaro nominated two Justices, settling “20 percent” of himself inside the Supreme Court; weakened the Federal Prosecutions Office, a formally independent body; and made several attempts to interfere with the investigations and investigators of the federal police. The result was a shield protecting Bolsonaro, his family, and close allies from legal scrutiny. This was reinforced by the close relationship Bolsonaro established with the federal highway and military police—in addition to the armed forces themselves.

Bolsonaro’s long shadow will not go away until structural issues in Brazilian society are addressed.

The federal highway police, whose original domain is the guarding of the road system, was revamped under Bolsonaro—more funds for upgraded weapons, equipment, and personnel, as well as enhanced responsibilities and powers. As a result, the organization increasingly embodied the bolsonarista ethos of excessive violence and the routine violation of due process encapsulated in the saying “a good crook is a dead crook,” much celebrated by the former president and other right-wing figures. On the day of the run-off election in October, federal police officers carried out voter suppression efforts to benefit Bolsonaro; when Bolsonaro supporters started to block highways on the next day, they kept quiet.

Heinous remains of the dictatorship and one of the deadliest forces in the world, the military police follow an army structure and culture—rigid hierarchy, obedience to superiors and military code, an inclination toward belligerence—and have naturally leaned toward Bolsonaro given his military background. Throughout his term, Bolsonaro leveraged these affinities and pushed for increased benefits for military police officers (including those who decide to participate in politics) and less oversight—on top of his endless public statements characterizing the police as heroes. Leadership and rank-and-file regularly voiced support for or even participated in pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations—sparking fears of police rebellions across the country following Bolsonaro’s loss.

The atmosphere of intimidation cultivated over the Bolsonaro years culminated in the insurrection, when the main police contingents showed little resistance to bolsonaristas who stormed Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace. Despite advance warning that a sizeable contingent of military police officers would be needed to block access to the Three Powers Plaza, in the event, the insurrectionists vastly outnumbered the officers on hand—and were even escorted toward the area where destruction would unfold. The early inaction of the army contingent tasked with protecting the government buildings corroborates the extent to which bolsonarismo is meshed with the repressive apparatus.                  

Yet Bolsonaro’s project did not articulate itself through coercive means only. The spread of “fake news” was a core electoral tactic of Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign and became a key mechanism of governmentality during his administration. Misinformation was never randomly distributed; instead, a digital militia of influencers, bloggers, “alternative” news sources, politicians, and other allies worked in coordination to create pro-Bolsonaro content and circulate it across multiple platforms. Over the last years, this digital militia flourished, tearing apart the overstretched social fabric, destroying any common ground for conversations, and dislocating dissatisfaction away from the plight of the country and toward the potential “return of the left.” Bolsonaro may now be out of power, but the January 8 insurrection showed that this militia will not disband any time soon given that such an infrastructure now goes beyond serving Bolsonaro as an individual.

Of course, Bolsonaro and his band did not conjure a parallel reality out of thin air. Bolsonaro has been successful because he was able to translate the anxieties that portions of the country felt in face of profound transformations over the last twenty years. His praise of masculinity can be considered a response to the frustration with the empowerment of women via social programs, political representation, and legislation under Lula and Dilma. His strident cries against corruption are a reaction to the criticism of the ideologies of a meritocratic and colorblind democracy, both so prevalent in Brazilian society before the Lula-Dilma era. But most important, Bolsonaro stormed the national stage in a moment of deep crisis and successfully broke through to the lower classes that were hit hard by the exhaustion of the Workers’ Party’s paradigm of inclusivity through the market, as well as the aggressive neoliberal reforms enacted in the wake of the Rousseff impeachment. Although he is the carrier of an elitist project, Bolsonaro seemed to many the solution to a hopeless situation—even if this solution involved remarkable contradictions.

Bolsonaro’s long shadow will not go away until structural issues in Brazilian society are addressed. The events of January 8 made painfully clear the formidable challenges Lula faces, but these were obvious even before his inauguration. First, Bolsonaro’s party elected alone the highest number of representatives in both the House and the Senate, and the right-wing bloc will hold a clear majority through the present legislative term. Given the party system in Brazil, the existence of such a majority does not mean that Lula will not be able to approve measures, but the room for maneuver will be narrow—and the pressure to negotiate high. Second, a riot by bolsonaristas when Lula’s victory was certified and a failed bomb attack in Brasília, both in December, indicated the right’s willingness to work within and outside political institutions, relying on both ordinary movement tactics and extraordinary measures to enact its vision. The January 8 insurrection fully marks a new phase.

The Workers’ Party has a rare chance to reestablish democracy in Brazil.

The durability of Bolsonaro’s prominence on the right remains uncertain. He must be held accountable for the crimes he committed while in office, his attack on the legitimacy of Brazil’s elections, and his promotion of violence. Recently found documents outlining a plan to nullify the results of the run-off show that his administration indeed considered a coup. But at the dawn of this new phase of the Brazilian right-wing movement, Bolsonaro’s renouncing of its formal leadership indicates the complexity of the far-right’s structure, in which he is less of an orchestrator than a symbolic unifier. Coordination exists, but, as an ecosystem, the structure is hydra-headed, with several foci working to galvanize followers, create narrative lines, and break new ground.

The scenario from the post-run-off until the insurrection is illustrative. As he kept silent and stopped public appearances in the last months of his administration, the encampments that spread across Brazil—with alleged support from several companies and entrepreneurs—began decentering Bolsonaro in favor of resolute calls for intervention by the army forces. The insurrection on January 8 was meant to create, first and foremost, a scenario in which the latter could intervene—absent a clear proposal for what would follow. The existence of such a movement points to a grim horizon: protests against democracy are to continue and oftentimes escalate given the less rigid chain of command—take the attacks on power transmission towers following the January 8 insurrection. The possibility that a new centralizing figure might emerge cannot be disregarded.

And what is to be done by the Workers’ Party and the broader left now? Lula’s immediate response to the insurrection—including mass arrests, the termination of the head of the army, the commencement of an investigation into the funding streams for the far-right, and a tightened grip on police—shows his willingness to counter the powers of reaction. The dismantling of bolsonarista encampments across the country and the responsibilization of the capital’s authorities for their failure to act, pushed by the judiciary power, were also important measures following the Three Powers Plaza attack. But to defeat the neofascism embedded in Brazilian society, Lula and the Workers’ Party must go further. Conciliatory efforts toward the military and to incorporate some of Bolsonaro’s old allies into the government should be abandoned, as the new configuration of the movement will only lead right-wingers in office to sway between friendliness with and distance from “extremists” as necessary. Repealing Bolsonaro’s policies and prosecuting him, his band, and the perpetrators of the insurrection should be considered means—not ends.                

When the 2013 demonstrations broke, initiating the process culminating with Bolsonaro, the Workers’ Party vacillated before crowds seeking further change in the country. Ten years later, the Workers’ Party has a rare chance to reestablish democracy in Brazil, reorienting the police and armed forces and enacting a socioeconomic program that meaningfully addresses the crises that brought about the reemergence of authoritarianism. This opportunity should not be missed.