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Why Does the Media Think Brazil’s Populism is Authentic But Not America’s?

Family values, tough on crime—this is what got Jair Bolsonaro elected. What about Trump?

The mainstream media in the U.S. declares itself to be outraged that Jair Bolsonaro has just been elected president of Brazil. Okay, so maybe the MSM is outraged, but it really isn’t surprised. In fact, the MSM kind of gets it, however reluctantly. The MSM gets, that is, the right of people—at least in the Third World—to make their own choices, even if they seem distinctly politically incorrect.

Oh sure, many big outlets blazed away at the Brazilian president-elect: The New York Times greeted Bolsonaro with a volley of nasty headlines, including “Brazil’s Shift to Dictatorship.” And a header in The Washington Post snarled, “How the unthinkable happened in Brazil.”

Yet actually, a look at the media coverage prior to the election suggests that Bolsonaro’s victory was quite thinkable. For instance, in the days running up to the balloting, the Times noticed that even though Bolsonaro had been labeled a “misogynist,” women were supporting him. And the Post observed the strong support for his anti-crime message among ethnic minorities.

Here in the U.S., the crime issue is tangled up in ideology, and so it’s increasingly hard for a political figure to talk tough on crime without being labeled retrograde, or worse. Yet in Brazil, the crime issue is seen in simpler, starker terms. Why? Because the crime rate in that country is so high that survival seems more important than political correctness. That country’s murder rate, more than 29.5 per 100,000 population in 2016, is five times higher than here in the U.S. And other kinds of crime are high too, dragging down the economy. As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, “Shaken by violence, thousands of TV stars, bankers, lawyers and wealthy Brazilians are fleeing the country.”

Indeed, crime is so rampant that even the tourist hotspots of Rio de Janeiro are unsafe. In 2017, one horrified tourist reported seeing three muggings on the famed Ipanema Beach within a single half hour, all in broad daylight. Such rampant criminality, we might observe, is not a “construct” to be deconstructed by a wily professor. It’s terribly real, not only to the victims, but also to those who seek their livings as peddlers, waiters, and other functionaries in the service economy.

So it’s no wonder that earlier moves by authorities to get tough on crime were popular. Back in March, the same Washington Post reported on the decision to put military troops in big cities: “Rather than view the move as an invasion, violence-weary residents of the favelas, or shantytowns, hailed it as a liberation.”  

By this reckoning, Bolsonaro’s hard-nosed stance was less of a redirection, and more of an amplification. Or, one could say, an escalation, since the former military officer has aggressively moved to “own” the crime issue. As he likes to say, with a Dirty Harry-ish flourish, “A good thug is a dead thug.”  

Moreover, in pursuit of his goal of dead thugs, Bolsonaro is a staunch advocate of individual gun ownership. In fact, the informal “logo” for his campaign was a thumb and forefinger, cocked and aimed like a pistol. And while men might be expected to dig such a macho message, Brazilian women, too, were charmed. Undoubtedly, a 2018 video showing a woman in Sao Paulo gunning down a predator to save schoolchildren helped incline women toward Bolsonaro’s us-versus-them worldview.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to being, of course, half female, Brazil is more than half “minority,” which is to say, the majority of Brazil’s 209 million citizens are non-white. So if folks across the color spectrum didn’t like Bolsonaro’s tough message of lei e ordem, he wouldn’t have won, and certainly not by more than 10 points.

Of course, Bolsonaro is often compared to a tough guy up north. Indeed, he seems to revel in his nickname: “Tropical Trump.”  

Needless to say, any connection to President Trump is enough to make the American MSM see red. For instance, The Daily Beast’s headline spat nails: “Brazil elected their own Donald Trump in Jair Bolsonaro? No—it’s much worse than that.”

And yet even in that Beast article, a glimmer of understanding about the idea of popular sovereignty—or, if one prefers, national self-determination—seems to be peeping through. As the Beast piece put it, “On Sunday, Bolsonaro’s vision—of eradicating corruption, driving down crime, and promoting traditional family values—led him to victory.” We might step back and observe: it’s impossible to imagine that an American MSM outlet would acknowledge that “family values” are anything other than a horror for America, and yet in a Brazilian context, they pass without objection.

To be sure, nobody likes to be murdered. Giving ground to the right-wingers, the Beast conceded, “Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world: 61,619 homicides were committed in 2017—that’s 170 people killed every day, including a young black man every 23 minutes.” The purpose of that last clause, we can surmise, is to signal to progressives that they too should be appalled by Brazil’s crime problem. Indeed, just the night before the election, news broke that a Brazilian soccer star—a person of color—had been hacked to death.

The lesson seems to be that even the MSM realizes that if crime gets to be bad enough, people will focus on that before almost any other issue. In other words, more avant-garde goals will have to wait until a basic order is firmed up.

And that, of course, is the point that psychologist Abraham Maslow made back in 1943 when he set forth his famous hierarchy of needs. That is, for humans, the first priority is securing the concrete fundaments of life, including physical safety; only then can people think about more abstract goals.

Here in the U.S., most Americans have emancipated themselves from a hungry preoccupation with the Maslowian essentials, yet even here, in times of strife, candidates offering security do well. Back in 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency with a “law and order” message. And even in liberal New York City, at times when crime is high, the tough tend to win—that was the lesson of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral victory in 1993.

Today, the MSM, and the chattering classes overall, seem to have a reached a bit of a compromise: get-tough policies are okay in Brazil, because Brazilians are authentic. But such policies are still not okay in the U.S., because Americans are, well…you know. To put that another way, it seems that Brazilians, whose economic status puts them much lower down on the Maslowian hierarchy, are to be held to a different standard than Americans.

Yet here’s a question for progressives to ponder: what happens to U.S. politics if South Americans, especially the impoverished, come to North America? That is, what happens if poor folks from south of the border—including the Hondurans in the caravan currently making their way across Mexico—continue to arrive here in big numbers? Moreover, as their numbers accumulate and they become voters, will they begin to move American politics in a more Brazilian, even Bolsonarian, direction?

Without a doubt, the peoples of Latin America living in the U.S. today—clumped, for the sake of bureaucratic convenience, under the umbrella term “Hispanic”—tend to vote Democratic, and that certainly makes American progressives happy.

But are they really liberals? That is, once they get comfortable here, will the candidates they support embrace the ideology of Boston and San Francisco? Or will they be reflective of the ways and values of the old country?

As we have seen, American progressives can tolerate, barely, the thought of a Bolsonaro running Brazil. But what would they do if Bolsonaro happened here?  

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.



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