The Global Left is Gunning for Brazil’s Bolsonaro
With Trump gone, the political elite has set its sights on a different anti-establishment leader.
Now that the global institutional left has claimed the scalp of Donald Trump, they are setting their sights on other populist leaders. At the top of their list is President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.
When Bolsonaro won election in October 2018, the global media and political elite had a meltdown similar to the one they experienced when Trump won in 2016. They have attacked Bolsonaro relentlessly ever since and tried—often with success—to thwart his every move.
Bolsonaro is regularly compared to Trump by both his supporters and his detractors. However, an important difference between the two men is that Bolsonaro actually takes conservative positions on all social issues. Unlike Trump, he is aggressively pushing back against LGBTQ activism.
In the early years of his long political career, Bolsonaro was mainly known as a spokesman on military issues. He has expertise on this topic, having served as an Army captain before running for office. However, something changed in the early 2010s. Bolsonaro started becoming vocal against abortion and particularly against the LGBTQ agenda. This earned him a loyal following among Brazil’s large and deeply conservative evangelical voting bloc.
I lived in Brazil from 2017 to 2020 and interacted with many evangelicals. They are extremely concerned about social issues. They observe what is happening in the rest of the world—abortion laws get more relaxed and transgenderism is promoted to children—and they want no part of it in Brazil. They see Bolsonaro as the defender of their values. However, the global media either misunderstands or deliberately ignores this aspect of his appeal.
Gabriel de Arruda Castro, a journalist who was embedded with Bolsonaro’s election campaign in 2018, believes the concern Bolsonaro shows for social issues is due to the influence of his third wife, Michelle, a devout evangelical. “You can trace his conservatism back to her,” says Castro. The birth of his first daughter in 2011 also played an important role. Bolsonaro already had four sons, but the arrival of a daughter made him take much more interest in the influences on Brazilian children.
Brazil’s previous president, Michel Temer, was uninterested in social issues. He was a centrist focused on the economy and public administration, but he gave LGBTQ activists free rein to push their radical agenda via influential government positions. Bolsonaro put a stop to that. He and his allies reshaped the government’s Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, which had been a hotbed of transgender activism. He appointed an evangelical, Damares Alves, as minister. Alves puts most of her focus on issues like child trafficking. She helps transgender people via programs like assistance for transvestite street prostitutes. However, in no sense does she promote the transgender agenda in the ways we see in the United States and other countries.
When it comes to abortion, Brazil’s laws are highly restrictive. Thus, Bolsonaro’s policy is to maintain the status quo. This is hardly insignificant given that Brazil’s neighbor Argentina legalized abortion in December.
Bolsonaro won the presidential election in 2018 with around 55 percent of the vote. However, when evaluating his prospects for re-election, the important number to keep in mind is 35 percent. Brazil has a two-round election system, and 35 percent is the share of the vote Bolsonaro got in the first round when several other right-wing candidates were also running. That number represents his evangelical base. The additional 20 percent voted for him in the second round mainly because they did not want the Workers Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, to win.
Despite the turbulence of his presidency, Bolsonaro’s base of 35 percent has largely stuck by him. He lost some support over the high-profile resignation of his Justice Minister Sergio Moro. Moro led the massive anti-corruption investigation called Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) that briefly sent Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (widely known as “Lula”) to prison.
Bolsonaro also disappointed many on the right by appointing a left-winger rather than a conservative to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. Brazil’s Supreme Court leans heavily to the left. So Bolsonaro passed up an opportunity to start shifting the balance a little. Moreover, he had previously pledged to appoint an evangelical to the Supreme Court. Some commentators wonder if the appointment was part of a backroom deal to protect his son Flavio who is facing low-level corruption charges. Until two years ago, Flavio held local office in Rio de Janeiro, but then he was elected to the national Senate, which means his case will be judged by the Supreme Court. However, a more benign explanation is that the appointment was an attempt by Bolsonaro to build bridges with Brazil’s political center so that he could enact more of his agenda.
The biggest storm of Bolsonaro’s presidency is, of course, the COVID-19 crisis. Brazil has had a particularly bad run with the virus, with one of the highest death rates in the world.
The global media is working overtime to pin all the blame on Bolsonaro. While this is unfair, Bolsonaro also scored some own goals. From the earliest days of the crisis, he has been a staunch opponent of shutdowns. Millions of Brazilians live in abject poverty. Shutdowns mean hunger or even death for many of them, and he is moved by a genuine concern for their plight. However, he took his opposition too far by appearing at rallies with hundreds of people without any social distancing. He also urged the reopening of soccer stadiums filled with thousands of fans as early as last July.
Moreover, his administration failed to take steps to buy vaccines. He was opposed to buying the Sinovac vaccine when it became available because it was made in China. Joao Doria, governor of the state of Sao Paulo who is likely to run for president next year, did buy the Chinese vaccine for his state. It is now being produced by the Butantan Institute, a Brazilian research institute which is respected internationally. Eventually, Bolsonaro’s government had to buy the vaccine from Doria—a major embarrassment.
Bolsonaro’s other COVID-19 missteps include firing his first and second health ministers, who were both reasonable, well-respected men. His third health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, was an Army general with no background in healthcare. Pazuello bungled vaccine distribution before also being fired.
Despite the global media’s relentless focus on Bolsonaro’s mistakes, until recently his re-election in 2022 seemed likely because he had few serious opponents. However, on March 8, the Brazilian Supreme Court turned the political landscape upside down. One of the justices vacated ex-President Lula’s conviction on corruption changes, opening the door for him to seek the presidency again next year. Lula, who cofounded the Workers Party and served as president from 2003 to 2010, is still the country’s most popular politician.
Many moderates in Brazil groan at the prospect of a match-up between Bolsonaro and Lula. They dislike both options. Thus, it remains to be seen how the election will unfold.
Bolsonaro’s campaign might get a boost from an unlikely quarter: President Joe Biden. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the global media was trying to blame Bolsonaro for fires in the Amazon rainforest. Allegedly, his rhetoric was emboldening illegal loggers to set more fires. This is a baseless accusation since data about fires in the Amazon is conflicting. There is no basis for saying fires have increased since he took office.
However, Biden raised the issue again during the first presidential debate in September 2020. He said,
The rainforests of Brazil are being torn down, are being ripped down. More carbon is absorbed in that rainforest than every bit of carbon that’s emitted in the United States. Instead of doing something about that, I would be gathering up and making sure we had the countries of the world coming up with $20 billion, and say, “Here’s $20 billion. Stop tearing down the forest. And If you don’t, then you’re going to have significant economic consequences.”
Brazilians of many political stripes resent international meddling in the Amazon rainforest. They see it as Brazilian sovereign territory and object to the notion that it is some kind of international property. Right after the debate, Bolsonaro issued a lengthy, impassioned response to Biden in English on Twitter.
Biden’s administration has wasted no time in pressing the issue. This will play to Bolsonaro’s strengths since he is always at his best when he has a battle to fight.
However, Bolsonaro is a lone warrior. He is bad at building coalitions. At the moment, he doesn’t even have a political party. He has been trying to set up his own party, but they lack enough signatures because they are not well organized.
More significantly, Bolsonaro has failed to build a larger conservative movement in Brazil. He sees his sons as his political successors and doesn’t think in terms of raising up new, younger leadership to advance his ideas.
Brazil’s conservative movement is growing but in a disorganized and inefficient manner. Brazilians are learning about conservative ideas largely from American sources like social media posts. This stands in contrast to the well-organized and highly funded left-wing groups promoting feminist, LGBTQ, and racial agendas in Brazil. These groups see their mission as being international whereas American conservatives tend to focus exclusively on America. American conservative groups make their ideas available, but they don’t usually fund efforts in other countries.
A Brazilian friend of mine who is black told me that in the 1990s he and his wife regularly received offers of scholarships to study critical race theory from the Ford Foundation and other American groups. They turned the scholarships down, but some of the people who accepted them now hold prominent positions in Brazil. Conservative institutions failed to do something similar.
That means Brazil’s turn to the right may be over whenever Bolsonaro leaves office. Castro, the journalist, compares Bolsonaro to El Chapulin Colorado, a classic Mexican TV show about a bungling faux super hero who wins the day by sheer good luck. “Bolsonaro doesn’t have the skills and virtues that we need, but somehow by accident or by instinct he does the right thing most of the time,” says Castro. Bolsonaro’s instincts have helped him weather the relentless assault of the global institutional left. Whether Brazil as a whole will escape their agenda remains to be seen.
Emma Freire is a freelance writer who has been published in The Federalist, Human Events, and others. Over the past decade, she has lived with her husband and three children in Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, but she identifies as American.