Former Bolsonaro allies turn ‘anti-fascist’ as government opposition grows

. Jun 01, 2020
Former Bolsonaro allies turn anti-fascist as government opposition grows São Paulo Mayor João Doria gives an interview to Italian TV station RAI. Photo: GOVESP

Brazil’s political crisis seems to be intensifying at about the same rate as the country’s Covid-19 cases. Attacks on the country’s institutions from President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters appear to be occurring on a daily basis. And while the president’s support base seems to have held up so far, a number of new opposition forces are emerging.

This week, for instance, a new campaign dubbed “We are the 70 Percent” emerged, launched by “We’re In This Together” movement backed by major political figures across the political spectrum — such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Rio de Janeiro congressman Marcelo Freixo, São Paulo congressman Alexandre Frota and TV personality Luciano Huck — calling for the defense of Brazil’s democratic institutions. 

</p> <h2>The new anti-fascists</h2> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has turned many a former ally into an ardent foe. At first, São Paulo Governor João Doria and his Rio de Janeiro counterpart Wilson Witzel both <a href="">rode the Bolsonaro wave to victory</a> in the 2018 elections. Mr. Doria veered as far into pathetic opportunism, calling on voters to support a &#8216;Bolsodoria&#8217; ticket; Mr. Witzel, if anything, took Mr. Bolsonaro’s vision of change through the barrel of a gun to new extremes, parading around with police during armed operations in favelas, and telling law enforcement to shoot drug dealers &#8220;in their little heads.&#8221;</p> <p>Now, less than two years after Mr. Bolsonaro was elected, the pair have become two of his most vocal political enemies. Both have attempted to rebrand themselves as responsible moderates, standing against the president’s now-trademark toxic melange of Covid-19 denialism and unrepressed authoritarianism.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Witzel has gone as far as to <a href=",1150783/witzel-acusa-bolsonaro-de-fascismo-e-que-flavio-deveria-estar-preso.shtml">call Mr. Bolsonaro a fascist</a>, after the Rio Governor&#8217;s home was raided by the Federal Police in relation to a corruption investigation. The banner of anti-fascism is now being waved by those who helped bring Mr. Bolsonaro to power — or were elected on his coattails — and who advocate many of the same policies, especially unmitigated police violence against the poor.</p> <p>Were it not for the scale of the tragedy encompassing Brazil, the <a href="">gross hypocrisy</a> might be too much to stomach.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="bolsonaro &quot;I will keep fighting against fascism,&quot; says Rio Governor Witzel, who in 2018 promised to &quot;dig graves&quot; to fight crime. Photo: GOVERJ" class="wp-image-41224" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>&#8220;I will keep fighting against fascism,&#8221; says Rio Governor Witzel, who in 2018 promised to &#8220;dig graves&#8221; to fight crime. Photo: GOVERJ</figcaption></figure> <h2>Surfing the Bolsonaro wave</h2> <p>It is worth remembering why many public figures allied themselves with Mr. Bolsonaro in 2018. For Mr. Doria, it was a useful way to rebrand himself following a disastrous and <a href="">short-lived stint as Mayor of São Paulo</a>. After his first-round victory in 2016, scandal, gaffes, and incompetence plagued his time in office and turned much of Brazil’s largest city against him. By embracing Mr. Bolsonaro and moving far to the right, he was able to successfully leech off the president&#8217;s support base and win political advantage over his moderate rivals in the Social Democratic Party.</p> <p>Mr. Witzel, a former judge, was an unknown entity before he hitched his wagon to the Bolsonaro campaign. By portraying himself as the candidate of Bolsonarismo in the Rio gubernatorial race, he was able to surf the electoral wave to a surprise victory.&nbsp;</p> <p>Since the beginning of his term, Jair Bolsonaro has not changed, or gone back on his campaign platform in any meaningful way to justify Mr. Doria and Mr. Witzel jumping ship. In fact, Mr. Bolsonaro has been remarkably consistent through his <a href="">30 years of public service</a>.</p> <p>He’s always been a family-oriented, small-time player who has never been shy to voice his homicidal desires, bigotry, or open hostility toward democratic governance. This is, after all, a man whose first political act was a terrorist plot that saw him &#8220;invited to leave&#8221; the Army, with a brand of extremism that was too much even for former military dictatorship President Ernesto Geisel, who called a 30-something Mr. Bolsonaro a “<a href=",um-mau-militar,70003293375">bad soldier</a>” and an “abnormal case”.&nbsp;</p> <p>Ally after ally — including the late Gustavo Bebianno, highly decorated Army general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, and <a href="">Senator Major Olímpio</a> — has fallen out with the president after earning the enmity of one or more of the president’s adult politician sons. The president didn’t change after taking office, everyone who has paid attention to his career in public office is aware that personal loyalty was never his strong suit and that politics is the family business: meaning that he would always side with his sons against anyone perceived to threaten their interests.</p> <h2>Eyeing up the top job</h2> <p>Mr. Witzel and Mr. Doria both openly covet the presidency. These days it is more opportune to sell their grift as moderates, opposing Mr. Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <p>João Doria is perhaps Brazil’s most opportunistic politician, refounding his image over and over again: from maverick businessman to Botox enhanced technocrat, and then from outsider authoritarian into a responsible moderate. It is hard to predict which incarnation of the governor will be present in the 2022 elections.</p> <p>Meanwhile, it is nothing short of astounding to see the likes of Mr. Witzel decrying President Bolsonaro, or even speaking of ‘anti-fascism.’ It was not long ago that Mr. Witzel joined the ranks of respectable pundits openly mocking those who pointed to the possible dangers of a Bolsonaro presidency.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro hasn’t changed, but it is clear that there is more political capital to be gained from posing as a moderate than waiting to fall out with the president. While it is to their credit that Mr. Witzel and Mr. Doria have been somewhat responsible in their handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the bar has been set so low by the president’s antics that simply acknowledging the severity of the disease is apparently enough to earn a reputation as a responsible moderate.

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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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