Brazil’s sitting President Jair Bolsonaro built his political trajectory based on two complementary strategies. On one hand, he cultivated a faithful base of voters among members of the Armed Forces and law enforcement—thanks in part to his fierce defense of their corporatist interests. On the other, he became notable for his penchant for hate speech, always taking it a notch higher than his peers in politics.

For decades, Mr. Bolsonaro got the media’s attention thanks to his outrageous remarks. Blacks were “not even fit for procreation.” A “cop who kills on the job must be decorated, not punished.” During an argument in Congress, he told a female colleague that she was “not worth raping,” and she wasn’t his “type.” Mr. Bolsonaro has described himself as “a proud homophobe,” who believes “minorities should bend to majorities or be crushed.” The list of such inflammatory statements is endless.

It was this second facet of Jair Bolsonaro’s political identity that made him known to the general electorate, eventually propelling him to the presidency. But one doesn’t exist without the other—the politician would never exist without the military officer. The president entered politics after his military career came to a premature end, following a disciplinary trial. A lieutenant at the time, Mr. Bolsonaro led a group demanding higher salaries. Their strategies included publishing unauthorized op-eds in the press and an unsuccessful attempt to drop flash grenades inside Army barracks.

The conspiracy didn’t prosper, but its leader did. The sudden notoriety earned Mr. Bolsonaro a seat in Rio’s City Council and, two years later, in Brazil’s lower house.

Sexism politics Brazil

Rep. Maria do Rosário was told by Rep. Bolsonaro she “wasn’t worth raping”

Corporatism and radicalism

Within Mr. Bolsonaro, corporatism and radicalism were never separated. They are at the very core of his personality and those of his sons. The three Bolsonaro brothers gave their father’s style a younger face, but they all share the same principles: spreading political rhetoric based on hate, violence, intolerance, and authoritarianism, but also based on the blind defense of the corporatist interests of the men in fatigues—which includes cozying up to members of armed urban militias.

It would have come as no surprise to see Jair Bolsonaro morphing into someone more statesman-like once reaching the country’s highest office. After three months in the job, we are witnessing quite the opposite. With more power and exposure, the Bolsonaro clan has sustained its violent discourse, outrage, and ideas of doing politics—and have given up on fact-based decision-making to become mere ideological zealots.

No wonder the government seems to be starting fires at every turn.

Members of the administration have gone after one another in the press. The president’s ideological guru, Olavo de Carvalho, persecutes allies who don’t share his ideological fervor, not even giving a pass to the military wing (which includes calling the Vice President, a former Army General, an “idiot”). Day in, day out, Mr. Bolsonaro and his family undermine democratic institutions and question the rule of law—feeding what could become an institutional crisis.

Some believe that there is method in this chaos—suggesting that Mr. Bolsonaro and his acolytes want an institutional crisis, which would give them room for a proper rupture of the Brazilian republic. That it just conjecture, however, and would assume the government has an immense strategic ability (which it hasn’t shown so far). However, it is not an outlandish possibility.

Celebrating the dictatorship

The government’s spokesperson has confirmed that Mr. Bolsonaro ordered the Armed Forces to hold the “due celebrations” of the 55th anniversary of the 1964 military coup—which heralded the beginning of a 21-year dictatorship. The decision is totally in character for this administration. It makes sense for a president who lives out of enhancing radicalization, and who believes in extreme views, to worship a mythical glorious past in the form of the military dictatorship. Nothing more natural to celebrate it, then.

This past month, Mr. Bolsonaro has praised former dictators Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay) and Augusto Pinochet (Chile). The former was not only corrupt, but was also a notorious pedophile and rapist. General Pinochet also got rich at his country’s expense. And that’s without even addressing the most obvious: they both headed bloodthirsty regimes, capturing, torturing, and killing opponents. For Mr. Bolsonaro and his sons, however, that seems to be the best part.

His comments were so outrageous that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (a moderate conservative) publicly repudiated Mr. Bolsonaro’s remarks. Before him, members of the Chilean Congress had boycotted a lunch meeting with the Brazilian president due to compliments paid to Gen. Pinochet by Mr. Bolsonaro’s Chief of Staff.

The moral of this story is that this latest piece of dictatorship praise is not surprising. Mr. Bolsonaro delivers what is expected of him. The “legend” (as he is called by his supporters) has his own legends—the dictators that a little over 30 years ago were torturing their own people.

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BY Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.