Jair Bolsonaro is often called a "fascist."

Like many people, I resist throwing the word “fascist” around too often. Logically, if anyone is a “fascist,” then nobody is – which ends up being extremely disrespectful to victims of real fascism and banalizing what should never be banal. One could go to the other extreme, saying that no-one today is really a “fascist,” as fascism was something limited to a certain period of history. OK, but that would mean ignoring that historical fascism continues to inspire many people – explicitly or not.

If you try to seek a textbook definition for the term, you’ll find they vary a lot. However, they all converge to an essential element, which may or may not be associated with others. Fascism is defined by the belief that social organization (politics) is built through physical violence against the “other,” whether this other be “Jews,” “communists,” “incapable people,” “degenerates,” “gays”… Order doesn’t come from communication, but rather from the murder, torture, or beating of the “other.” Society organizes itself around the promise, expectation, or practice of such violence.

Other elements could be associated with this, such as nationalism, collectivism, excessive masculinity, etc. This definition of fascism also means that, though nearly every example of fascist regimes in history was conservative, nothing prevents a post-revolutionary state that calls itself “communist” to cease being “communist” and derail into fascism, in which the “other” is the “bourgeois,” the “capitalist.”

Any person or organization that preaches violence as a political driving force is, at the very least, flirting with fascism. I say “flirting” because, as it is with almost any concept, fascism is more a spectrum than a monolith. Without getting into specifics, it is possible to say that the “good criminals are dead criminals” idea is fascist – but not everyone who expresses it is a fascist. To be a fascist, this idea must be the core of this person’s understanding of politics.

So, back to the title question: is Jair Bolsonaro, a fascist?

Well, he certainly talks like one. His political platform revolves around physical violence against two kinds of “other”: the bandido (common criminals), and the petralha, a derogatory nickname for leftist militants (in his view, political criminals). Time and again, Mr. Bolsonaro has spoken about the need to annihilate these people – openly promising to strafe favelas and Workers’ Party supporters. His most important political hero is a colonel known mainly for torturing people during the military dictatorship.

In this video, Jair Bolsonaro delivers an anti-minority speech.
“We will make Brazil for the majorities. Minorities have to bend to the majorities. The law must protect majorities. Either minority groups adapt to this, or they simply disappear.

Also like a fascist, he has constructed an idealized counterpoint to these “others”: the good, law-abiding citizen. In his words, these “good citizens” are conservative, religious, “honest,” male, heterosexual, and – implicitly – white and well-off. More than that, these “citizens” are (falsely) portrayed as defenseless victims of bandidos and petralhas.

I say that this is his platform because, even though he has other ideas, these stances were the ones responsible for making him the frontrunner of this election, with 28 percent of voting intentions. Moreover, almost every other proposal in his incredibly vague government program is either a variation of this violence (gender policies, for instance) or has been delegated to a third party (such as his economic platform).

However, there is no known indication that, in his 27 years as a representative, Mr. Bolsonaro has behaved like a fascist politician. This is a significant aspect of his trajectory. In contradiction to his discourse, he has mostly abided by the basic democratic rules. He hasn’t mounted a coup d’état, plotted against a government or organized an armed militia. However, one wonders that he just hasn’t yet had the opportunity to do so.

Indeed, as soon as it became clear that he has a legitimate chance of being elected, Mr. Bolsonaro and his vice-president candidate began to consider authoritarian solutions to Brazil’s crisis publicly. Equally alarming are the reports of his supporters beating up rivals on the streets.

Therefore, it seems safe to consider Mr. Bolsonaro as a fascist in-waiting, a proto-fascist, if you will. He is not there yet – but does profess the core ideological predecessor that, historically, has led to institutional fascism. We can’t know for sure whether, if he gets elected, he will instill a fascist administration. Maybe his wishes will be tamed by the state’s checks and balances, or by other spheres of society. Perhaps he’ll change his mind altogether.

But understanding his proto-fascism, in these terms, may be helpful to understand the unprecedented risk he represents to Brazil’s already feeble democratic order – and the extraordinary irresponsibility of those who empower, enable and normalize him.

BY João Carlos Magalhães

João Carlos is a journalist and Ph.D. researcher at the London School of Economics.