Latin American politics rarely draws sustained attention in the United States, even when it’s not competing with multiple hate crimes and violent threats against our own political leaders. But the triumph of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential runoff election on Sunday is a cautionary tale that Americans need to take note of. The situation in Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, bears some similarities to troubling developments in our own political system, and now they’ve elected a far-right leader nicknamed “Trump of the tropics.” However, Brazil’s problems are far more intense than ours — and in Bolsonaro, they’ve found a leader to match.
Bolsonaro has explicitly fashioned himself after Trump, down to heavy social media use and floating the idea that fraud could be the only explanation for a potential loss. Many have also noted that both men use incendiary rhetoric — though Bolsonaro goes much further. He’s declared he would rather his son die than be gay, told a female colleague she’s too ugly to rape, and suggested Afro-Brazilians are fat and lazy. Bolsonaro said years ago that if he ever became president he would “perform a coup on the same day,” and earlier this month he promised to imprison or exile his political opponents once in office.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro plays the outsider, but it’s largely an act; he has held elected office nonstop since leaving the Brazilian military in the late ‘80s, and served seven terms in the Brazilian legislature. It’s true, though, that his views — including the idea that Brazil would be better off under military rule — were once seen as impossibly far outside the mainstream.
There are also echoes of Trump’s rise in the conditions that took Bolsonaro from the far-right fringe to a sure thing in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s election: corruption, polarization, collapse of institutions, and the return of the military into politics.
Corruption, long a fixture in Brazil’s political system, may not have gotten any worse in recent years, but public perception of it has. Ironically, that has a lot to do with anti-corruption laws and investigations begun during the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from office in 2016 and indicted last year. The best-known investigation, “Operation Car Wash,” has yielded more than 170 indictments of political and business leaders — including Rousseff and her predecessor, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He is among the more than 80 people who have been convicted in the probe so far. Rousseff and da Silva’s Workers’ Party just lost to Bolsonaro, a member of the Social Liberal Party, in the second round of voting; with 98 percent of the vote counted Bolsonaro had 55 percent to Fernando Haddad’s 45 percent.
Public skepticism about corruption, and about politics, crosses party lines. A year ago, 95 percent of Brazilians told pollsters that corruption was a significant problem — and just a quarter thought that political instability would get better any time soon.
Those may be just about the only things Brazil’s left and right agree on. Supporters of the leftist Workers’ Party, and of the imprisoned former president da Silva, believe that the charges against him are baseless, and politically motivated to prevent him from running for president again. They see Brazil’s independent judiciary as compromised, indebted to da Silva’s political enemies and opposed to his redistributive politics. His opponents — and a significant number of alienated middle-class voters — figure he was corrupt, and that it’s time for Brazil to try something dramatically different. The Brazilian right “successfully monopolized the rhetoric on the fight against corruption,” analyst Chayenne Polimedio told New York. If you were anti-corruption, you were pro-Bolsonaro, whatever you thought of his nasty rhetoric.
Add to that a smart political strategy: explicit efforts by Bolsonaro to court Brazil’s evangelicals as a bloc, and his appeals to security fears among middle-class and women voters; the result is both a uniquely Brazilian landslide and a phenomenon that sounds more than a little familiar.
It’s Bolsonaro’s return of the military to politics that should unnerve Americans the most, though. During Brazil’s 21 years under military dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985, nearly 500 people were disappeared or killed, and thousands more were arrested, tortured, or forced to flee the country. Brazilians and outsiders alike had imagined that those memories were still strong enough to mute the appeal of uniformed law and order. But two things happened. First, crime skyrocketed — the murder rate is six times that of the United States. And second, Brazil’s young people are less confident than their elders that democracy is the best system of government. Last year, Brazilians under age 24 split evenly on whether a temporary return to military rule would be a good idea.
Bolsonaro’s campaign involved the military in ways Brazilians had long considered taboo — from an alleged cabal of generals plotting his policies, to a running mate (also a retired general) who has called for tearing up and rewriting the constitution, to his suggestion that the period of dictatorship be renamed the period of struggle against communism.
Now, like the many other far-right politicians making gains around the world, Bolsonaro is going to get the chance to remake the country according to this militaristic, undemocratic model. Voters in Brazil threw out record numbers of legislators as well, so he will have a relatively new congress to work with. Reporters are already filing stories about ways Bolsonaro’s key advisers don’t agree with him, and each other, on key policies, such as how to manage Brazil’s oil industry. President Trump called him promptly to wish him luck. He’ll need it. So will Brazilians — and the rest of us.