Maximum Cultural War, Minimum Governance: How Jair Bolsonaro Runs Brazil

Brazil seems to be trapped in Bolsonarist rhetoric of hate against the Other. Is there is a way out for the country? A Brazilian academic is trying to find an answer by delving deep into the far-right mindset and their tactics.

Sao Paulo: Much of Daniel Silveira’s fame rests on notoriety. Last week, the parliamentarian from Rio de Janeiro went “live” on social media for his tens of thousands of followers. With his biceps bulging from the sleeves of a chest-hugging T-shirt, Silveira launched into a profanity-filled rant against the Brazilian Supreme Court, lasting 19 minutes and 9 seconds.

Dropping cusswords at the rate of 2.5 per minute, the former policeman went nuclear on the judges, abusing several of them by name. In the middle of his rage, Silveira turned his attention to Justice Edson Fachin as he called for public beating of judges. “If someone wants to hit his face with a dead cat until he [Fachin] meows, preferably after every meal, it is not a crime,” said Silveira, gesturing angrily at the camera.

Silveira, 38, who was a member of Rio’s military police till 2018 when he won a seat in the Lower House, unloaded on Justice Fachin because on February 15 he had condemned the former army chief, General Eduardo Villa Boas (retired), for revealing in a book that the top brass of the armed forces had jointly pressured the Supreme Court in 2018 to reject a habeas corpus plea of former president Lula da Silva, who was leading the opinion polls for the presidential election at the time. Reacting to the general’s admission, Justice Fachin called it “extremely serious and against the constitutional order”.

A close ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, Silveira, the congressman from Rio, is known for his thuggish behaviour. But on February 17, he broke all barriers as he called Justice Fachin “a brat, a spoiled boy, a bad character, a leftist militant” and reminded him of AI-​​5, a law enacted during the military dictatorship, which suspended all constitutional rights and paved the way for torture of people. “You were part of a communist alliance of Brazil, an idiot activist, lobotomised, who attacked the military along with Dilma [Rousseff], that thief…,” said Silveira, lashing out at Brazil’s first female president as he dared the judge to “arrest General Villa Boas”.

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The video, which went viral on social media and landed Silveira in prison, looks like a meltdown of an unhinged man. But given his record and where Brazilian politics stands today, there was a method to his madness. It was the real picture of an authoritarian project that is haunting Brazil. “The level of verbal violence in the video just goes up by notches. The metaphor used by Silveira is that of lynching. All the terrible moments of persecution and mass murders in history have been preceded by a few years of increasing symbolic violence,” says João Cezar de Castro Rocha, historian and professor of comparative literature at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “There was a debasement of the Jewish people in Germany before the Holocaust,” adds the academic, speaking to The Wire in an interview.

Much of Silveira’s politics rests on hate. After his six years in the police, during which he received 60 disciplinary actions and spent 26 days in prison, Silveira became known nationally when he tore down a street plaque put in the honour of Marielle Franco, a black, gay councilor who was murdered by the militia in Rio in 2018. At that time, Brazil was in the middle of a contentious election and Bolsonaro was using violent imagery to mobilise his far-right base. Jumping on the bandwagon, Silveira committed violent against an assassinated politician – and made it to the parliament.

The book Cultural War and Rhetoric of Hate: Chronicle of a post-politics Brazil analyses the rise of the Brazilian far-right politics.

“Daniel Silveira is part of an authoritarian project of Bolsonaro that is based on the symbolic and – if possible – physical elimination of everything that opposes him,” says Rocha, who recently released a book titled Cultural War and Rhetoric of Hate: Chronicle of a post-politics Brazil.

In search of enemies

On April 17, 2016, when Brazil’s parliament was debating the impeachment of then president Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro, then a congressman, began his speech by paying “tributes” to Carlos Ustra, a former army colonel who was accused of illegally arresting and torturing some 500 persons in the 1970s. Rousseff, herself a victim of Ustra, was impeached in 2016. In 2018, Bolsonaro moved into the presidential palace. Two years down the line, Brazil is in a very different place. With its democracy sliding backwards and public discourse filled with hate, Brazil now looks like, says Rocha, what Brazilian thinker Rui Fausto called a “democratura (democratorship)” – a system where a democratically-elected leader works to establish a dictatorship.

A specialist in Shakespeare, the Rio-based academic spent the year 2020 pouring over books, articles, blogs and scanning videos and social media posts of the Brazilian far-right to analyse the phenomenon called “Bolsonarism” and how it works. “It was important not to create a caricature of Bolsonaro. Exploring the insides of Bolsonarist thinking is more important than expressing my point of view,” says the professor, who is also the author of Shakespearean Cultures: Latin America and the Challenges of Mimesis in Non-Hegemonic Circumstances. “I believe I have found the origin of the rise of the extreme-right wing in Brazil, especially its discourse,” adds the professor.

At the core of Bolsonarism, says Rocha, lies a cultural war which is always looking for an enemy. Trying to decode Bolsonarism, the academic worked to find how the Brazilian president attracts crowds with mental manipulation. “The first step in the rhetoric of hate is to demonise the Other to the point of turning them into nothing,” he says.

That’s what Bolsonaro did when he eulogised a torturer during Rousseff’s impeachment. This is what Silveira did when he ripped apart the Marielle Franco’s plaque – and when he vowed to hit the judge with a dead cat.

The tripod of Bolsonarism

Brazil is not the only country where a cultural war between the right and left makes the core of its politics. In the United States, the Donald Trump-fuelled cultural war led to an invasion of the Capitol Hill in January. While many suspect Brazil to be hurtling down the same path, the conflict here has different roots. In his book, Rocha points out that a Brazilian tripod sustains the Bolsonarist cultural war. One leg of the tripod, says the professor, was a secret army project that aimed to identify the enemy between the mid and late 1980s. The enemies in the project were “the communists, the red danger”, who had “infiltrated” the Brazilian institutions, according to the military.

The project espoused a conspiracy theory, says Rocha, that civil society groups, media, show business, schools and institutions associated with human rights and the environment had been “infiltrated” by the left. Bolsonaro, a former captain who joined the army during the dictatorship, is still carrying the torch for the project. At the beginning of his government, at a dinner with a far-right group in Washington, Bolsonaro declared that before building “you have to deconstruct a lot” in Brazil.

The second leg of the tripod, says Rocha, is the National Security Law of 1969 which shaped Bolsonaro’s warmongering worldview: his mission was to eliminate everything that is not like him. “During his training, that law was in force. It was not just a law, but a cult of death. In its 107 articles, the noun death appears 32 times and 15 articles prescribed the death penalty. The purpose was the identification and elimination of the internal enemy. This is the heart of the Bolsonarist mentality,” explains the professor.

The third leg of the tripod is the hate speech spewed on a daily basis by a shadowy Brazilian figure called Olavo de Carvalho. Based out of Virginia, US, the conspiracy theorist, also notorious for his filthy tongue, is an ideological guru of Bolsonaro and his  two sons who are themselves under investigation for spreading hate with fake news. “This cultural warfare exists permanently only through conspiracy theories. You create an enemy and it fuels the rhetoric of hatred,” says Rocha.

Fake news, real crimes 

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. Neither are the hate and politics they drive. But the cultural war by the far-right in Brazil – and in other countries – is a different beast altogether. Rocha believes what makes this phenomenon more potent is modern technology, as it allows communication with many at the same time and in real time. “The great power of social networks is that everything happens in real time. It is not the excess of information that is a problem. For the first time in history, events are transmitted and received as they happen. That can alter even the outcome of the actual event,” he notes. “This real-time dissemination of information produces a potential for violence because there are no filters.”

The speed of the digital world also makes any fact-checking in real-time impossible, giving a free run to far-right groups which have mastered the art of concocting “facts”. Politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, says Rocha, have used this gap to push alternative facts and create a narrative of good and evil. “A polarising narrative is the ideal instrument in the era of digital politics to keep the masses mobilised, to escalate violence and to maintain a climate of permanent electoral campaign,” says Rocha, who calls this trend “post-politics”.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha, a historian and professor of comparative literature at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

In the universe created by the far-right, fake news is made to go viral by bots paid for by invisible hands, but the damage they do is real. Since Bolsonaro’s rise to power, the country has seen a spike in hate crimes. In 2019, after he assumed presidency, Brazil recorded a total of 12,334 hate crimes, with the majority of victims being blacks, women, followers of African religions and LGBTQ members. As per official figures, from 2018 to 2019, there was an increase of 80% in the number of crimes against women. In 2019, the number of racial crimes went up in 19 states. The rise in crimes against these groups is not a coincidence. These categories are mostly the target of hate circulated on social networks, with the president often leading the pack.

Even during the pandemic, with almost 10 million infections and close to 250,000 deaths, the far-right groups have continued to spread fake news about non-existent treatments. More than 70% of the fake news about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine originated in Brazil, with Bolsonaro himself championing the unproven drug. With a very high use of WhatsApp (second only to India), more than 35% of the population received false information about the pandemic, thus doing more damage to the country already ravaged by the virus.

But Brazil may be in for even gloomier days as the cultural-war machine continues to run, uninterrupted.

A carnival of guns 

On January 6, 2021, after the whole world watched in horror the riot on Capitol Hill, most world leaders expressed their shock and concern at the “attack on democracy” by Trump supporters. Bolsonaro, a self-declared admirer of Trump’s, did not condemn the invasion. Instead, the Brazilian leader repeated Trump’s claims about “lots of fraud” in the American elections. And then he issued a warning. “We will have a worse problem than the US if Brazil does not use paper ballots for the 2022 elections,” said Bolsonaro, who often, without any evidence, questioned the country’s electronic voting system.

Politicians and pundits across the spectrum in Brazil are concerned that Bolsonaro, given his authoritarian streak, is planning something sinister if he loses the next election. They have a reason to be suspicious. On February 12, on the eve of Carnival, when most Brazilians were sitting at home, Bolsonaro issued four decrees that will make it easier for people to buy firearms. While one decree allows ordinary citizens to buy six firearms, another one allows law enforcement officers to buy up to eight weapons. The most drastic step, as permitted by a decree, is to let registered shooters, hunters and arms collectors keep up to 60 weapons. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of registered firearms in this category has already increased by 120%.

In a country where buying weapons is quite tough, such a change in the law, fear many, could allow the president’s base to stockpile an arsenal of war. Marcelo Freixo, a leftist Congressman from Rio, has raised an alarm about collectors, shooters and hunters, a group that has approximately 4,00,000 people, being allowed to buy 60 weapons per person. “The main objective of the president is to arm his fanatical supporters and put democracy in the crosshairs,” Freixo said in a recent post.

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Bolsonaro has often talked about “arming the population” while calling for flexible gun laws. His latest decrees, warns a former defence minister, could trigger a civil war and the country can witness a Capitol-like invasion after the 2022 election. In an open letter to the Supreme Court judges this week, Raul Jungmann, the former minister, called for shooting down of the decrees. “The arming of citizens for ‘the defence of freedom’ evokes the terrible scourge of civil war, and of the massacre of Brazilians by Brazilians. It is inevitable. There is no other motivation or purpose for such a nefarious project,” Jungmann said in the letter.

The next election is due in October 2022. A lot can happen between till then. But on current form, Bolsonaro is on a sticky wicket. With the government faltering on the pandemic front, his popularity has plunged and the economy is in free fall. Running an extremely inefficient administration, Bolsonaro has little to show for his work, except for keeping his core base fired-up all the time. Rocha attributes Bolsonaro’s failure on governance to his cultural-war politics. “There is a paradox: the success of the cultural war means the failure of governance. In the cultural war, it is necessary to keep the digital warriors always mobilised. But that leads to the denial of objective data and reality. That hinders the governance. If you govern with cultural war, your government is that of destruction,” says Rocha. “Donald Trump was wrong to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and lost the election. The same may happen with Bolsonaro.”

But given his investment in the cultural war, Bolsonaro is not likely to change tack easily. With the country trapped in the cycle of disease and death, besides rising poverty and joblessness, Brazil may be in more despair situation than it was in 2018. In such a situation, Bolsonaro may actually ramp up his hate machine. Prof Rocha says the far right is more efficient in inciting hatred, which is a “very powerful glue for bringing people together”.  But the professor, who has spent the pandemic days dissecting Bolsonarism, offers a solution about how to counter the game. “We must stop fighting the far right narrative so we don’t become hostage to Bolsonarism. We will always lose if play their game,” says Prof Rocha.

A different narrative based on facts and figures, says the professor, can be built. He believes that even a dialogue in a clear and calm way is possible with the Bolsonaro voters. In 2018, Bolsonaro won some 57 million (55%) votes over defeating Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party who received 47 million (45%) of votes. The two men are likely to face each other in 2022 too.

Rocha believes a dialogue with those who voted for Bolsonaro can change the outcome next time. “About 20% of his voters are diehard supporters. With them, any dialogue is difficult. But we have 70 to 80% of Bolsonaro’s electorate to talk to. To let go of this dialogue, to me, is insane,” says the professor who hopes his book can help the Brazilians society understand Bolsonarism. “I hope that Brazilians begin to decode what is happening.”

Florencia Costa and Shobhan Saxena are independent journalists based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.