There were moments during 2020 when it seemed like the former U.S. president and the still sitting president of Brazil were in a competition to see who could be more irresponsible in confronting the novel coronavirus. Both men would eventually catch Covid 19, likely due to the fact that they’d politicized basic health measures like masking and social distancing not just in their public pronouncements, but within their own administrations.
There was little question early on that Jair Bolsonaro was even more callous than his American counterpart in his disregard for those struck down by the disease, saying in a television interview in March of last year, when the threat was growing exponentially, “I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life. You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”
This attitude has led to more than 586,000 dead in a country with around two thirds of the population of the United States, the only country whose official accounting shows more fatalities from the pandemic (although there are questions about the numbers in another much larger country run by a far right nationalist, India).
Earlier, after Donald Trump’s surprising win in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Bolsonaro already seemed to be trying to follow in the former president’s footsteps, saying, “Mr. Trump faced the same attacks I am facing – that he was a homophobe, a fascist, a racist, a Nazi. But the people believed in his platform. I was rooting for him.”
Just like Trump before him in the U.S., Bolsonaro began to question the fairness of elections in his country this year, making similar accusations about electronic voting machines to those made by Trump surrogates and far right conspiracy theorists on the American right. Perhaps having learned from his idol’s failure to successfully contest the results after the fact, he’s doing so long before the vote planned for October 2nd, 2022, which he seems almost sure to lose against one of the most compelling voices for social democracy in the global south, former president Lula da Silva.
These kinds of dishonest attacks against the integrity of elections are one of the biggest threats facing representative democracies globally and have extended to smaller races in the U.S. like the recall vote in California where Trumpist radio host Larry Elder initially floated the idea that he would fight a losing result as fraudulent, which he thankfully walked back after a decisive loss to Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday night.
In terms of democracy in Brazil, there are also fears that Bolsonaro’s supporters, a clear minority according to polling released in July, may try something similar to the January 6th attack on the U.S. capitol to prevent a loss, even prior to the election.
Also worrying, long before the current rise of so-called ‘populism’ on the right, the current Brazilian president was a marginal congressional deputy calling for a return to the military rule in effect from 1964 to 1985, claiming that the main mistake the junta he’d served under as an army captain had made was in torturing rather than simply killing its opponents on the left.
Protests called for by the Brazilian president last week focused on intimidating the country’s Supreme Court and continuing to cast doubt on the fairness of next year’s elections.
In a speech at the largest of a number of rallies in support of the president and seemingly intended to intimidate the country’s Supreme Court, Bolsonaro told a crowd in Sao Paulo, “I want to tell those who want to make me unelectable in Brazil: Only God removes me from there. There are three options for me: be jailed, killed or victorious. I’m letting the scoundrels know: I’ll never be imprisoned!”
Someone very close to Bolsonaro who bears watching in relation to the now mainstream far right in Brazil and its growing links to other countries, especially the United States, is the man the president refers to as ‘03’, his youngest son, Eduardo. The president’s 3rd child, 37, has been a deputy in Brazil’s congress since 2014 and is chairman of the Brazilian house’s Foreign Relations Committee. He was named as a possible ambassador to the United States in 2019 but reportedly was never able to garner the necessary political support to take the post.
Eduardo Bolsonaro was actually in Washington, DC on January 6th. apparently at the invitation of Ivanka Trump. During that trip, he would also meet with Mike Lindell, the My Pillow CEO who he would join at his Cyber Symposium last month, a much hyped event that failed to offer the promised evidence that the 2020 U.S. election was ‘rigged’.
The youngest Bolsonaro son was also photographed with the former president in New York during the same August trip, where he was said to have tried to talk Trump into appearing at a CPAC Brazil event.
Eduardo is often likened to Donald Trump Jr., a pretty lazy comparison on the part of those who make it. Although both owe most of their success to nepotism, the younger Bolsonaro at least started outside of politics in Brazil’s federal police before becoming a congressperson in 2014. His links to law enforcement are one of the things that make him somewhat dangerous in a potential coup scenario.
He spent some time in the United States from 2004 into the following year, making him at least a little more knowledgeable about the world outside of his bubble of privilege than Don Jr. appears to be.
Besides the links he has cultivated to Trump world, Bolsonaro has established ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Until the 2020 election I had assumed that Bannon’s influence over the right wing populist movement had waned after making the mistake of taking some of the spotlight off of Donald Trump after 2016 got him fired and the troubles he appeared to be having gaining traction with his brainchild, ‘The Movement’, which was meant to bring rightwing nationalists together under one international umbrella. Charges brought by prosecutors in New York for fraud last year seemed like they could be the final nail in his coffin until the former president pardoned him in one of his final acts in office.
That Bannon and Eduardo were in contact was made clear in the summer of 2019, with Bolsoaro tweeting “It was a pleasure to meet Steve Bannon, strategist in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. We had a great conversation and we share the same worldview. He [is] said be an enthusiast of Bolsonaro’s campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural marxism.”
Bolsonaro later announced in a press release that he would be leading Bannon’s ‘Movement’ in Latin America, “We will restore dignity, freedom and economic opportunity to our great nation and her neighbors. We will walk through our program of uniting the forces of nationalism. Mr. Bannon’s work in Europe is vital and we support his effort against the dangerous Global Pact on Migration. We’ll be able to do more as we join our forces to promote prosperity and our shared western culture.”
It’s disturbing that the new populist right is becoming ever more internationalist while the left is fragmented, with many voices seeming unwilling to create links across borders, especially when it means protecting others from unfair attacks that inevitably filter out of rightwing media into more mainstream sources. Although there were some prominent people on the left in North America and Europe who showed solidarity with Lula Da Silva when he was imprisoned on obviously false charges in 2018, a tendency to navel gaze rather than engage with the global left has become more and more pronounced in recent years.
One of the progressive left’s strengths has always been a willingness to offer support and learn from others around the globe, it’s a mistake to cede internationalism to a xenophobic, ‘western culture’ obsessed right.