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Bolsonaro and the peril of permanent outrage

. May 14, 2020
Bolsonaro and the peril of permanent outrage "Bolsonaro genocidal," reads one message projected on a building in São Paulo's city center. Photo: Guilherme Gandofi/FP

Another week, another institutional crisis in Brazil, once again unlikely to result in the impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro. The latest scandal was triggered by footage of an April cabinet meeting that reportedly shows Mr. Bolsonaro promising to change the heads of the Federal Police before the force could “f*** [his] family over.” According to people who watched the video, cabinet members also joined in, voicing their violent fantasies of imprisoning Supreme Court justices and governors who are critical of the Bolsonaro administration.

Despite this latest crisis and the 30-plus impeachment requests sitting on the desk of House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Bolsonaro will be forced out of office anytime soon.

As I wrote for The Brazilian Report last week, Brazil’s recurring absurdist crises have led to a news cycle that is part ‘Groundhog Day’, part ‘Friday the 13th’: a cheap slasher flick stuck in the same perpetual time loop. Recent polls confirm this.

Despite Brazil passing 13,000 deaths and registering over 10,000 new cases per day, only 42 percent of Brazilians believe the government is doing a bad job handling the pandemic— and around 52 percent figure that the administration is actually doing O.K. Over <a href="https://noticias.uol.com.br/saude/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2020/05/13/pais-registra-mais-de-mil-cidades-com-registros-de-mortes-por-coronavirus.htm">1,000 of Brazil&#8217;s 5,570 cities have recorded deaths</a> as a result of the virus. Due to a lack of testing, the true number of cases in the country is believed to be up to 15 times higher than official figures.</p> <p>Even if Mr. Bolsonaro’s approval figures are dwindling, his core base is still firmly behind him. Rather than a sense of collective outrage against the government’s continued anti-democratic provocations and Covid-19 denial, the overwhelming mood in Brazil is a mix of apathy and indifference. The angriest bunch are the president’s most fervent supporters.</p> <p>What public protest there is has largely been the domain of the most rabid pro-Bolsonaro groups, who flout quarantine measures, stage blockades in front of hospitals, physically assault journalists and healthcare workers, while claiming that the pandemic is a communist conspiracy.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro’s continued public violations of social distancing measures and callous disregard towards the victims of the pandemic should come as no surprise. This is a man whose main campaign promise was to increase the number of police killings in the country that already recorded the highest number in the world before he took office — 6,220 last year. Mr. Bolsonaro has frequently gone on record calling for violent solutions to his political opponents. One shouldn’t expect empathy from someone who promised he could shoot his way through Brazil’s problems.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-twitter wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-twitter"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-width="550" data-dnt="true"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">VIDEO: Bolsonaro&#39;s response to <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Covid19?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Covid19</a> as deaths pile up <a href="https://t.co/BoaBfWG9NC">pic.twitter.com/BoaBfWG9NC</a></p>&mdash; The Brazilian Report (@BrazilianReport) <a href="https://twitter.com/BrazilianReport/status/1256270801952739328?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">May 1, 2020</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> </div></figure> <h2>Lives v. Jobs</h2> <p>The truth is that the crisis the world is facing is extremely difficult to comprehend. It is an epochal calamity, meaning things won&#8217;t return back to normal in the near future. Brazil faces perhaps two years of political uncertainty, massive deaths, and economic chaos. The world that will emerge from the pandemic will be substantially different —&nbsp;and perhaps significantly worse than the one we knew before the arrival of Covid-19.&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the scale of this radical uncertainty and the continued denial of the federal government, it is easier to understand <em>why</em> a significant proportion of the population has opted to sink back into the relative comfort zone of indifference —&nbsp;or dismissal&nbsp;— rather than try to come to terms with the crisis. In addition, there remains a large voter base who would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro regardless of what he did, simply to keep the center-left Workers&#8217; Party out of office.</p> <p>The political crisis that has enveloped the country since 2013 and the knock-on effects of the anti-corruption Operation Car Wash have discredited, for millions of Brazilians, the idea that government can improve their lives. If public authorities cannot help people, indifference and individualism will prosper. If the debate remains between lockdown and the economy, existing polarization will continue. Outrage feeds off of outrage and rarely leads to concrete political change.</p> <p>This state of affairs has been enabled by the failures of Brazil’s opposition parties, who seem stuck in an endless loop of indignation, responding to every one of the president’s ceaseless provocations with strong-worded yet ineffective statements of anger. Permanent outrage more often than not translates to political impotence.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has attempted to turn the crisis into a choice between lockdown and starvation, while trying to let state governors take the blame for economic hardships due to federal government inaction. But he has been enabled by an opposition that has failed to substantially challenge this premise and craft a credible counter-narrative that says one doesn’t need to choose between the economy and saving lives. After all, outrage about Mr. Bolsonaro’s denial and callousness is easier than advancing a credible alternative to the false choice being placed before Brazil’s population.</p> <h2>All the president&#8217;s (new) men</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro’s trajectory in power, if anything, resembles that of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985. After coming to power promising to rid Brazil once-and-for-all of its corrupt parasitic political class, they ended up aligning with the regional oligarchies that dominated much of the country. It was easier to govern in alliance with them than try to rule without the help of Brazil’s political class.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has come to the same conclusion, by way of his recent overtures to the so-called “<a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/07/31/brazil-big-center-2018-president/">Big Center</a>” — a loose coalition ready to join any administration for the right price. If he is to save his government and his family from prosecution, it is easier to embrace the “old politics” of patronage, horse-trading, and pork-barrelling. Ironically, many of the parties he has begun to speak with are direct descendants of Arena — the official political party of the military dictatorship. His embrace of the “Big Center,” far from motivating mass anti-corruption protests or anything of the like, will most likely further sow the seeds of indifference among the population.&nbsp;</p> <p>So long as there isn’t a credible alternative, it is likely that Mr. Bolsonaro will get away with his disastrous handling of the pandemic, provided the majority of victims fit the right profile — poor, black, and out of sight. After all, he was elected on a platform that was based on increasing violence against this same demographic.&nbsp;</p> <p>Endless outrage is a sign of political weakness and in Brazil, it increasingly feels like no force wants to take responsibility for offering a course out of this crisis.

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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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