Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency: when ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Friday the 13th’

. May 03, 2020
groundhog day brazilian politics Under Bolsonaro, Brazilian politics is like 'Groundhog Day.' Photo: Carolina Arantes/PR

Covering Brazilian politics since Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power feels a lot like living in 1993 cult classic ‘Groundhog Day.’ In the film, Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors finds himself trapped in a loop, reliving the same day over and over again. Phil eventually concludes that there are no consequences for his actions and indulges in a sequence of wanton debauchery before losing hope and attempting to kill himself, again and again. 

But, every morning he wakes up in the same bed and breakfast in rural Pennsylvania.

While the level of absurdity and tragedy has certainly increased since Jair Bolsonaro took office as Brazil’s president — not helped by the arrival of the novel coronavirus — those of us unfortunate enough to be covering the administration have essentially been reliving the same news day for nearly 16 months.

</p> <p>First, you wake up and do what has become second nature to journalists: <a href="">log on to Twitter</a> and find out what scandal is on your plate for the day. The misdeeds of the president’s brood, the next cabinet minister to claim the Earth is flat, or that euclidean geometry is a communist plot, or the latest anti-democratic provocation of the president.&nbsp;</p> <p>Then you frantically attempt to come to terms with the level of insanity on display, check what those in the know are saying about the scandal, file a piece, only to find out that the government has only doubled down despite facing widespread international condemnation, rebuke from the Supreme Court or Congress, and the <a href="">outrage of respected Brazilian commentators</a>.</p> <p>If you are unlucky, you will be besieged by a legion of suspiciously robotic Twitter accounts, or locked into the black hole of trying to interpret the logic of the scandal. Someone will inevitably insist you don’t worry too much, because there are still “adults in the room” that will prevent the situation from getting too out of control.</p> <p>Then, as always, Mr. Bolsonaro will make a sort of <a href="">token move in the direction of moderation</a> after having pointed gun fingers at a communist toddler and defended it on a Facebook live broadcast. Some will say that the government is finally coming to its senses. Then, Carlos Bolsonaro — the president&#8217;s second-eldest son and general of his father&#8217;s social media army — will post an absurdist stream of consciousness on Twitter in the form of a poem.&nbsp;</p> <p>Then, we go to bed and start the day all over again.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="997" height="552" src="" alt="goundhog day" class="wp-image-37946" srcset=" 997w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 997px) 100vw, 997px" /><figcaption>Like Bill Murray in &#8216;Groundhog Day,&#8217; Brazil seems to be stuck on the same loop. Photo: Still via Wiki</figcaption></figure> <h2>From comedy to horror</h2> <p>Like Phil, we initially welcomed the raw meat and ease of covering this government of flat-earthers as an opportunity to indulge in our coverage. This shifted to despair as we realized that the <a href="">flat-earthers were in power</a> and enjoyed the support of much of the Brazilian elite and the general population. Even as Brazil faces utter catastrophe in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic — and the economic chaos it will leave in its wake — we are still reliving the same news day, except now the genre has changed from black comedy to slasher horror.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has turned himself into Jason Voorhees without a hockey mask, terrorizing the nation with his <a href="">brood of unruly sons</a>. Now, as the Covid-19 body count piles up, we are reliving a horror movie day-in, day-out.</p> <p>This is not to discount the great and brave work of Brazilian journalists in the firing line of the president’s army of online trolls, from <em>Folha de S.Paulo&#8217;s </em><a href="">Patrícia Campos Mello</a> to <a href=""><em>The Intercept</em></a>. The sad truth is that journalism alone cannot hold a president to account. Strong institutions, mobilized social movements, and an organized opposition can, but Brazil lacks all of these things at the present moment.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has always been <a href="">consistent</a>. He never backs down and always aims to increase his level of offensiveness and escalate crises. So far, the opposition has been largely toothless and focused on showing &#8220;outrage,&#8221; while those who are hostage to the news cycle have been trapped in the endless loop of trying to explain the latest grotesqueries for a general audience.&nbsp;</p> <p>I have been doing this for an international — mostly South African — audience since the very beginning. My appreciation for the absurd has turned into numb hopelessness, with the realization that the government has life in it still.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the president’s <a href="">indifference</a> to the suffering of his people and the government’s refusal to tackle a <a href="">systemic crisis</a> with a measure of responsibility, Mr. Bolsonaro is far from finished. The political opposition is too weak and fragmented to hurt him, and Congress still thinks impeachment is not worth the effort. The mainstream opposition to Mr. Bolsonaro has been more guided by the presidential ambitions of the likes of São Paulo Governor João Doria and his Rio de Janeiro counterpart Wilson Witzel, than any sort of real concern for the Brazilian people.&nbsp;</p> <p>Democratic institutions, such as the Supreme Court, might prevent Mr. Bolsonaro from appointing his son’s close friend as the new Federal Police Chief, but they cannot force the government to take action to save lives and the economy. Meanwhile, its Groundhog Day again for those of us who cover Brazil, with no prospect of relief. Even if Mr. Bolsonaro does get forced out, there is no guarantee that those who replace him will have any more respect for democracy.</p> <p>Like Phil, we are waiting for the groundhog to emerge from its burrow and signal the beginning of a new season. But Spring has not arrived in Brazil, and it may not arrive for some time.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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