By Genaro Oliveira
When Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll passed China’s some days ago, a local reporter asked Jair Bolsonaro his thoughts on the morbid figures. The president’s first answer “E daí?” (“So what?” in Portuguese) shocked even those who thought they had become numb to the divisive public statements so characteristic of his first months in office.
Due to his antagonistic personality and unscripted press conferences, Bolsonaro has often been compared to Trump. Some analogies are valid. Like his US counterpart, the ‘Trump of the tropics’ also rose to power in unconventional ways. At first, his candidacy was equally taken as a joke. Brazil’s presidential race until very recently had been a repetitive clash between two big parties (PT and PSDB) representing centre-left and centre-right alliances respectively. In that predictable political arrangement, in which mainstream candidates held virtual hegemony over TV and radio ad time, a lower house representative from an obscure political party, running a relatively low-budget campaign, seemed non-threatening.
Bolsonaro’s ferocious anti-corruption tirades – usually blended with attacks on identity politics and political correctness – were seen as noises of a healthy democracy at best, or, at worst, as just venting the antiquated yet fringe views of conservative Brazilians. But like Trump, Bolsonaro’s campaign made brilliantly disgraceful use of social media together with a calculated effort to reach out to Brazilians feeling disenfranchised after years left-leaning governments. His election triumph, and the ‘cultural war’ backlashes that followed it, again parallels events in the USA. Just as the chauvinistic, buffoonish, orange and passionate figure of Trump contrasted with the cosmopolitan, academic, Afro-cool aura around Obama, so does the macho-athletic, pro-military, European-looking Bolsonaro could not be more different to Brazil’s previous presidents: the mestizo, dad bod, cachaça-drinker and unionist “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rouseff, the country’s first female president and former guerrilla fighter. Similar to Trump, Bolsonaro also managed to cast himself as an outsider.
Although Brazil’s capital, Brasília, was built upon one of the driest regions in the country, Bolsonaro promised Brazilians something comparable to swamp draining: to halt the ‘mamata’, the Portuguese colloquial word for embezzlement, whose etymology derives from the verb ‘to suckle’. Just as killing mosquitoes offered Trump a catchy slogan that both antagonised and reduced the stature of his political opponents, Bolsonaro’s milky metaphor also captured the imagination of local voters desperately seeking to dry up the insatiable greed of Brazil’s politicians. While adversaries poke fun of their inarticulate use of formal language, both presidents pride themselves in speaking in plain and unmediated terms with their electorate. Different from the North-American ‘Tweeter-in-Chief’, Bolsonaro relies heavily on WhatsApp, Brazilians’ preferred social media tool with more than 120 million users. Echoing the White House’s clashes with CNN and MSNBC reporters, Bolsonaro has also pointed fingers at the money-driven motivations and political biases of local media conglomerates, such as Folha and Globo. Still, no different than Trump’s impromptu speeches and serial retweeting, Bolsonaro himself is accused of being a mass producer and propagator of ‘fake news’.
But comparisons are also misleading. Bolsonaro is much better at being worse. Trump’s genitalia-grabbing ‘locker-room’ bragging sounds almost naïve beside Bolsonaro telling a congresswoman upfront, in live TV, she was not worthy to be raped. Trump’s blasé ‘good people on both sides’ response following white supremacy violence in Charlottesville was repugnant. But it does not compare with the Brazilian president’s sadistic assessment that the great mistake of the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-85), of which he is still a supporter, was that it just tortured and not killed political opponents. Trump’s twisted interpretations of constitutional amendments for political gains may be revolting but not as chilling as Bolsonaro’s recent declaration, à la Louis XIV, that “I am the constitution”. By staging interviews with Lincoln’s image on the background, Trump infuriates Americans who think he dishonors that 19th-century leader’s anti-slavery legacy. Bolsonaro’s historical crush is Col. Brilhante Ustra, Brazil’s most infamous military torturer.
Here’s is the crucial problem of any analogies. Although both men share scandalous charisma, populist appeal, social media virtuosi, anti-scientific bigoted worldviews, misogynist acts, Bolsonaro trumps Trump by having an added militarist coat. Trump’s megalomania comes from the tangled history of dollars over ethics in US politics. Bolsonaro’s paranoia comes from his direct lineage to banana republic dictators. While Trump bluffs with money in his pockets, Bolsonaro hints using guns on his holster.
Still, like Trump, we cannot stop talking about Bolsonaro. Yesterday, his ecocidal denial of Amazonian fires, today, his genocidal response to COVID-19. But, how to cover such a breed of politicians without providing them with even more stage, or being played by their liberal-baiting tactics? Even more complex: how to genuinely talk with – and hopefully sway opinions of – seemingly unconditional supporters? Local and global headlines antagonising Bolsonaro have done nothing except fuel loyalty from the 1/3 of voters he has and needs to win Brazil’s next election. Rising above their flaws, supporters claim that they appreciate Trump and Bolsonaro’s ‘authentic’ styles. Understandably, after decades of overly prepared, boringly predictable – and ultimately hypocritical – political babble, both men’s imperfections are seen as qualities. Like Greek Gods, by showing human contradictions, they feel relatable. In doing so, they also raise the question: how do we ‘humanise’ media coverage, academic criticism and political opposition to them?
In this spirit, I conclude by confessing my very own bias since the beginning of this article. Bolsonaro’s answer to the reporter was more nuanced. After his polemic “So what?”, he also showed solidarity to families who lost their loved ones. In an all too human fashion, he displayed cold-bloodiness and compassion at once. But the bait was set. I have lost count of the times I have tried to give my well-intentioned NZ friends a more multifaceted view of what’s happening in Brazil. Being a federation, state governors have relative autonomy to defy federal directives, and have, in many cases, implemented responsible responses to the pandemic. Being a materially challenged and 210 million+ population, Brazil’s coronavirus statistics would always be high. But, as the state governors have been showing, humans are also able to display compassion and take responsibility for problems. Also, despite of the federal government’s delusional denial and lack of concrete support, favela residents have been active since the beginning of the covid-19 crisis; many informal groups have efficiently organized themselves to disseminate information about the virus’ threats, collect donations, distribute hygiene kits and masks, and help low-income residents with water and food supplies. The point is, similar to NZ and the US, there is leadership and science in Brazil as well. So what? Shouldn’t these defiant acts be the real story of Covid-19 in Brazil? Rather than add endless fuel to Bolsonaro’s fire – BolsoNero, as Brazilians aptly nicknamed him – shouldn’t we make the efforts and struggles of many Brazilians to beat the pandemic into a catchy headline as well?
A version of this piece was originally published in the Dominion Post and has been republished with permission.
Genaro Oliveira is a Lecturer in the Institute of Education at Massey University. Oliveira is an expert in Latin American history.