More than a hundred days have passed since the inauguration of the sixth elected President of the re democratization period in Brazil, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro. Time enough to observe that a few words of this first sentence appear not to fit together in the current governmental term, namely, “President”, “redemocratization”, and “Jair Bolsonaro”. In this brief article, I explain how those words are being settled apart, through an overview of what has been at the center of media and academic debates. Then, I show what has been the most problematic aspect of those debates, and how they are, consequently, reinforcing the Government’s strategy of resignifying Brazil’s history and reality. Finally, I define what I have termed anti-presidentialist regime, erected upon such strategy which, I argue, is the concluding part of the project presented to the population by the Legislative and Judiciary in 2016, with Dilma Rousseff`s impeachment. My intention here is not to assemble what several political scientists, journalists, economists, and also the political opposition have been expressing to the local and international presses. Instead, I aim to make sense of a broader change regarding the way Brazilians became to recognize themselves: how is such a shift taking place, who is it favoring, and what is the likely outcome?
At first, it is paramount to understand what Mr. Jair Bolsonaro is. He is more a “something” than a “somebody”, and I explain this point: Bolsonaro has made his path as a Congressman as a means through which to assure to his family and his surrounding community of friends and employees safe positions in politics. He is an instrument toward such goal and had succeeded. This becomes clear when one analyses his performance over near thirty years in the House of Representatives: polemic discourses in plenaries; offensive statements directed against homosexuals and women Deputies; a poor record of accepted propositions by his peers (two projects); and a wide range of ideas and proposals oriented to militaries – 53% out of the total, although none was approved in the House. While such performance appears to be low, it happened to be enough for assuring a loyal part of the electorate who had constructed a reliable identification with his “authentic and spontaneous” way of talking.
After his premature retirement from the Army with a granted military patent of captain, the politics turned out to be a space of opportunities to safeguard the economic future of his people. Aware of being a kind of “spokesperson” of the conservative strand of the society that, by this time (the 2000s), was enclosed in itself, Bolsonaro would escalate his style and convert it into a “label”. Although not yet taken seriously by many in the House and within the society, one of his sons was elected Councilor of Rio de Janeiro in 2000 with seventeen years old, under the minimum lega lage to assume the position, replacing his mother, Mrs. Rogéria Bolsonaro. Not by chance, this was the son who most quickly understood and reproduced the label: still a teenager, Carlos Bolsonaro held an active discourse in favor of the civilian armament and the reduction of the criminal age in his campaign. The Brazilian media evaluates that, currently, he is the one who has the most influence over the President – what was underpinned by the unexpected dismissal of Mr. Gustavo Bebbiano, the then Ministry of the General Secretariat of the Presidency and the President of Bolsonaro’s political party, the Social Liberal Party. Bolsonaro announced Bebbiano’s removal from office in 18th February, after an episode of disagreements with Carlos concerning a supposed WhatsApp (mis)communication between Bebbiano and Bolsonaro. It is argued that the event in itself might not have rendered Bebbiano’s dismissal if he wouldn’t have been in continuous disagreements with Carlos since the government’s transitional period.
Nowadays, we have Bolsonaro’s three sons occupying positions in the Legislative, throughout different federal spheres (National Congress and City Hall), and none of them is in the first mandate1. Therefore, we have a political clan, i.e., an instance of informal nepotism. Naturally, alongside the core of the clan constituted by the father and sons, there is an extensive network of collaborators, friends, and supporters that has been consolidated over the years. They might recognize themselves as part of a large family, but the core is tight and well defined. If there is something clear so far within the Government is that: how many more raise opposition to the core, how many more may fall out, either removed or resigned. Bolsonaro is then not a politician in the strict sense of acting towards the common good within the public sphere, seeking the most prepared ones to tackle the tasks. Besides the episode encompassing Bebbiano and his second son Carlos, we are collecting demonstrations of how the hierarchy of the government is built up – as an example, the third son Eduardo took part at the first official meeting with the US President Donald Trump, instead of the Chancellor Ernesto Araújo, in 19thMarch.
The politics is the space that has welcomed Bolsonaro after the Army, in which he could better act to the benefit of his peoples, i.e., professional, economic and material guarantees to his family first, then to the network around them. He has succeeded, as his own plan was just like that personal, simple and clear compared to other politician’s high ambitions. As President, he has been keeping his old discursive style – polemic, controversial, authentic (in his electorate’s words), interventionist and extremist – while strengthening the label Bolsonaro, which was meant to represent conservatism mainly in religious and behavioral terms, and actually represents the most significant far-right authority in Latin America.
Jair Bolsonaro is from the state of Rio de Janeiro, one of the most violent in Brazil. At the same time, one with the highest visibility and popularity, perhaps in the world. The city of Rio de Janeiro (the homonymous state capital) hosted several international mega-events during the last ten years, ranging from religion (the first apostolic journey of Pope Francisco, who is born in Argentina, was to RJ, where he celebrated the World Youth Day in 2013) to culture, sport and business. Alongside them, it had dramatically increased the number of murders, armed repression and forced evictions of poor black people from territories that have turned out to be on the way of those mega-events. Had Bolsonaro been a politician (again, in the original Greek sense of the term), in facing such scenario, and considering his strong discourse on public security – favoring an increase in weapons circulation and military police’s power of action -, he might have been elected Governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. However, he is not. He is solely the leader of a clan, who has never aspired to be the personification of a national leader.
Here, I argue, lies the most problematic aspect of the debates concerning the last ten months of Brazilian politics, assembling the electoral period, the transitional government and the almost five months of Bolsonaro’s Presidency: the expectation of an Executive that acts according to the coalition presidentialism is indeed wavering. Coalition presidentialism has been the regime since the redemocratization of the country in 1985 with President José Sarney4. There are two irreconcilable logics at play: on the one side, intellectuals and pragmatics struggle to find in Bolsonaro’s Presidency plausible elements to delineate either a strategy or a personality that fits within the overarching framework of the coalition presidentialism regime. Although nothing resembles the other five Presidents of the redemocratization period5, there is still a considered segment of the society committed to explaining the over-reluctant behavior of the President, which inevitably contaminates the Executive, without putting the regime itself into question.
On the other side, the logic of Bolsonaro does uphold the unfolding developments: as the leader of a conservative clan consisted of white middle-to-upper class heterosexual men, since his first mandates at the House of Representatives he plays solely on the customs agenda, openly displaying no sympathy to democratic principles. He was elected in October 2018 precisely due to such biography and, over the empty presidential campaign that did not have debates nor a minimum exposition of a government program, he never held the promise of diversification. After all, he was not interested in politics, but in raising polemics about traditions, habits, norms, and myths. His last frictions with the President of the House, Mr. Rodrigo Maia (of the Democrats Party, which is center-right and part of the government’s support base), make clear his complete apathy concerning politics.
He plays according to his logic, which is instrumentalized by mechanisms able to promote chaos and polarization – social media, ideological discourses, delegitimation of the opposition as an interlocutor, empty promises and doubtful declarations later falsified by the ministers, and a real war against the press. Nonetheless, chaos and polarization are indeed effective methods to misconduct a country with 34.5 million informal workers6, more than 12 million of unemployed7 and 15.3 million people living below the line of extreme poverty8. As long as press and academic debates keep focused on the failures and shortcomings of this sixth elected representative of a supposed democratic coalition presidentialism regime, we all fail.
Therefore, we urgently need to change the focus and the language, to construct a possible resistance. The focus, away of Twitter and the partisan dichotomy left-right, which is in the clan’s usual rhetoric, toward the proper Executive agenda of reforms and public measures. The language, away of personal adjectives and aggressive responses, toward an assertive and confrontational oratory related to the paralysis of the Executive. Here I use the word paralysis referring to the fact that, with more than ten percent of the term of office spent, we have no real program for Health, Education, Environment, Human Rights, Culture, Work and so on. What we have is still a robust ideological plan of action, replicating the ton used during the campaign. The National Congress is still recalcitrant with the Pension Reform, which has just gone through the first round of voting at the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship Commission (CCJ, in Portuguese) of the House.
Although the political horizon is still unclear, the present is so far undoubted: Bolsonaro is not playing by the rules of the coalition presidentialism, neither is personally attached to the principles of liberal democracy. Bolsonaro has no clue about how to balance the distribution of functions, roles and positions among the ministries and state companies, let alone how to manage the amendments in the budget – recently, the House has approved, in a surprisingly fast majority of 448 votes vs. 3, the Proposal of Constitutional Emendation 2/2015 known as the “authoritative budget”, which substantially restricts the government’s power over the allocation of funds. This is seen as a significant defeat of the Ministry of Economy Paulo Guedes. For Bolsonaro himself – who has already publicly declared against the Pension Reform which is, in turn, the main flag of his mandate proposed by one of the two so-called “super Ministers”, Mr. Guedes – it is all under control.
To highlight the challenge to so-called coalition presidentialism, I will call this particular way of managing government, daily affairs, and (anti)politics a regime of “anti-presidentialism”. Through this specific regime, Bolsonaro’s government simultaneously control the government and the opposition mainly through the setting of the agenda – restricted to customs, myths, contentious issues, and random opinions – employing direct communication with the population via social media.
He won the presidential election with 39.3% of the total electorate who went to the poll and currently needs to preserve the rate of 30% of overall approval to move forward with the reforms, according to companies of data surveys and to the economic press. Today, we have 37% of Brazilians that evaluate Bolsonaro Government as “good”. There is a parcel of the electorate that would remain loyal to the label Bolsonaro: openly chauvinist, homophobic, sexist, conservative, interventionist and safeguard of the patriarchal roots of the Brazilian society. During the Workers Party’s terms (Lula, 2003-2011; Dilma, 2011-mid-2016), this parcel of the electorate – composed mainly by white men of middle and high economic classes, former militaries and evangelicals – has seen a double movement going on in the country: on the one hand, the growing and spread of progressive ideas in the fields of social policies, customs and human rights, which were celebrated by the low classes who are generally the target of security forces’ narco-politics. On the other hand, the lowering of purchase power as an effect of the international economic crisis of 2008 that was felt hard by the middle class, which is generally the target of austerity measures.
The welfare policies of President Lula (Bolsa Família, Fome Zero) did not alter the inequality structure of the country, and there are several plausible critics about Lula’s double strategy of making poor people and the bourgeoisie compliant, through providing access to consumer goods and the reconciliation of conflicting interests, respectively. What is relevant to highlight, however, is the social consequences of this political articulation undertaken during the Workers Party’s terms: the rise of gender activism, feminist movements, human rights advocacy, naming and shaming of racist politicians, and a feeling of empowerment among the poor people. The silenced low class has become louder and proud of its color, race, and sexual orientation. The intolerance grew concomitantly, both among the political-economic elite, and the ordinary people eager to have the “normal order” back, i.e., privileges of gender, class, and race.
Political scientists, journalists, economists and also the political opposition have been struggling to keep up with the daily twists promoted by Bolsonaro and his team, to understand them in light of the democratic principles and the coalition presidentialism regime, which normativity is in effect for the last thirty-four years of the Brazilian history. That is where I claim they are reinforcing Bolsonaro’s strategy of resignifying Brazil’s history and reality. Bolsonaro’s team is, on the one hand, made by a majority of militaries already responsible for more than one-third of the Ministries that, together, have a budget more prominent than the Ministry of Health and Education. Naturally, it is inescapable to cope with the old issue of military hierarchy vs. submission to civilians, which has been proved difficult in the negotiations of the Pension Reform.
On the other hand, the team is made by several people who were entitled due to their consent and conviction concerning the conservative customs agenda — nothing beyond that. The Ministers of External Relations, Human Rights & Family, Environment and Education are the most notable examples of what is at stake for Bolsonaro: to ideologically resignify the frontline channels of telling Brazil’s history and reality, inside and outside the country. This agenda has been featured “anti-intellectualism” by the opposition, denoting precisely the denial of facts, statistics, studies, and historiography. The ambivalence is that, even though such denial is already identified, the opposition insists on the intellectual language to confront such an agenda. That is, while Bolsonaro speaks his own truths and manifests his conception of the facts (not the facts themselves), the opposition complains about the lack of accuracy with numbers and narratives about the trending-topics selected by Bolsonaro himself.
As an example, the order launched in the last 31st March to celebrate the Military Coup of 1964 that has initiated the twenty years of the barbaric Brazilian dictatorship, has prompted a massive reaction within the national and international societies 9 . We are witnessing an entire miscommunication that, in the end, has been monopolizing the opposition toward raising a reaction against nothing with the wrong toolkit, as Bolsonaro does not recognize the sound of intellectualism. In other words, would not be the national opposition an echo of Bolsonaro’s anxieties, reverberating his desires and perspectives, they will start to see a backlash before whom he cares about, the international market.
I wrap up this article with the questions concerning the broader change upon the way Brazilians came to recognize themselves: how is such a shift taking place, who is it favoring, and what is the likely outcome? I claim that Bolsonaro is a by product of such change and that it is crucial to highlight the path, the conditions of possibility for his election and continuous support among still 30% of voters. I already mentioned above few concrete facts of the Workers Party’s period in power that contributed to catalyze changes on Brazilians perspectives about themselves. And I would say that, by no means, we are alone: such changes are following an international trend of conservatism. However, Bolsonaro is conservative, to say the least. To be precise, he is located at the far-right part of the political spectrum, what is an unthinkable image for Brazilians historians, social scientists and anyone else who has been thinking of the country since 1985.
Notwithstanding the traditional assumption of Itamaraty that Brazil is a successful example of multiculturalism and harmonious coexistence of differences, Brazilians are carving a deadly version of racism and persistent racial and economic inequality, as “Black Brazilians earn, on average, 57 percent less than white Brazilians. They make up 64 percent of the prison population. Brazil’s Congress is 71 percent white”10. Jair Bolsonaro spurs these numbers. His vocabulary is ideological, and his agenda is no longer part of the progressive path of emancipation that Brazilians were experiencing. He reinforces an illiberal democracy in the country, cheating people’s hope of better days and boosting actual crusades against intellectual discussions and teaching on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Simultaneously, he speaks out in favor of economic liberalism, which is a promise to re-establish the pre-2008 living conditions of the middle class through the privatization of vital national companies.
I named anti-presidentialism regime all this configuration that encompasses an original label shaped over Bolsonaro’s years as a Congressman under which his clan currently acts; a specific language, vocabulary and “functional ignorance” that works to silence substantiated critics; an exacerbated use of personal social media as the official communication channel of the Government; an ability to shape a customs agenda and to monopolize the public engagement around it; and, lastly, a profound lack of knowledge and skills to employ the instruments of the coalition presidentialism regime, which he calls “the oldpolitics”.
We are then reinforcing such anti-presidentialism regime by interacting with its elements, either misunderstanding or complaining about them, or even being sick of delusion. Bolsonaro has won more than sixty thousand new followers on Twitter during Carnaval through the promotion of chaos and polarization with a given video he posted. In Brazil, there is an elected Congressman who resigned from his third mandate and is living abroad in 2019; a Councilor who was a relentless human rights defender brutally murdered in 2018; and uncountable number of politicians who have occupied high positions in the national or local governments in prison due to corruption and support to militias. Liberal democracy is crumbling in Brazil at least since August 2016, with Rousseff´s controversial impeachment, and civilian restrictions are in a fast track of enlargement. The latest measure announced by the Minister of Education was to significantly “decentralized” public funding for superior studies of philosophy, sociology, and social sciences, as “they do not give an immediate return to taxpayers”, according to Bolsonaro.
Eduardo, his third son who is conducting Brazilian foreign policy, seeks for inspiration among the Hungarian Viktor Órban, the Italian Matteo Salvini, the Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu, and the North-American Donald Trump. Each manifestation from those countries’ peoples of non- acceptance of topics of the world far-right agenda is, after all, an engagement. In Brazil, due to the notorious unpreparedness of the President, resistance might be more successful by firstly ignoring posts and tweets of the clan that holds no other goal than to spawn social chaos. Resistance must require liberal democracy, constitutional rights, the rule of law and public policies, with expected outcomes and data. We must pressure the Executive parliamentarians and the media to focus on the democratic agenda. We must organize ourselves around specific flags such as funding for superior education and the combat to narco-politics as it is currently undertaken in favelas, where the state forces drive the genocide of black people. We cannot engage anymore with Bolsonaro’s strategy that is constructed, daily, through a discourse of normality. We need to urgently recover people’s power to shape conceptions of the normal.