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Bannon arrest doesn’t change a thing for Brazil’s far-right

. Aug 21, 2020
steve bannon arrest Anti-Trump rally in Chicago. Photo: VNews TV/Shutterstock

Steve Bannon, the former top adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, was arrested on fraud charges this week. Strangely, that piece of news appears to have generated more buzz in Brazil than in the U.S., where Mr. Bannon is no longer seen as a major political player. But in Brazil, his connections to the Bolsonaro clan have turned him into a bogeyman for the Brazilian left — which lost no time in foretelling the backslide of the far-right in the country.

Many in Brazil sincerely believe that Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power was orchestrated by Mr. Bannon, after they were pictured alongside one another on multiple social media posts.

That is why, from former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to former presidential candidate Ciro Gomes, everyone on the left seemed to celebrate Mr. Bannon&#8217;s disgrace as a blow against the Bolsonaro administration. Political columnist Matheus Leitão, of weekly magazine Veja, went as far as saying that “[Mr.] Bannon’s arrest is <a href="https://veja.abril.com.br/blog/matheus-leitao/prisao-de-bannon-e-pior-para-o-bolsonarismo-do-que-para-o-trumpismo/">worse for Bolsonarism than it is for Trumpism</a>.”&nbsp;</p> <p>For Lula, the arrest was “an important victory for democracy” because Mr. Bannon &#8220;represents evil&#8221; and wished the same for [Mr.] Bolsonaro’s Virginia-based far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho, who <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2018/10/23/guru-brazil-right-wing-olavo-de-carvalho/">profiled in 2018</a>. Indeed, many Brazilian commentators have referred to Mr. Bannon as Donald Trump’s answer to Olavo de Carvalho.</p> <h2>What is the real connection between Bannon and the Bolsonaros, if any?</h2> <p>Mr. Bannon supposedly served as an “informal advisor” to the Bolsonaro campaign in 2018. And the president&#8217;s son Eduardo, a congressman, was once named the Latin American representative for Mr. Bannon’s botched attempt to construct a <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-47388774">reactionary international</a> simply known as “The Movement.” The entire Bolsonaro clan has used every chance it gets to grab a photo op with Mr. Bannon on their infrequent trips to the U.S., despite the fact that he is more or less a political non-entity after being evicted from the Trump White House.&nbsp;</p> <p>Eduardo allegedly even offered Mr. Bannon <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/25/brazilian-diplomats-disgusted-bolsonaro-pulverizes-foreign-policy">a say in Brazilian policymaking</a> during a dinner in the U.S., The Guardian reported.</p> <p>Mr. Bannon has infrequently commented on Brazilian affairs before — labeling Vice President Hamilton Mourão as “useless and unpleasant,” and claiming that the investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s oldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, is part of “the cultural Marxism movement’s war against the family.”</p> <p>But the truth is much less juicy. Mr. Bannon’s influence anywhere has been greatly overstated. While he might have strategically been important during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, he’s hardly the visionary who single-handedly revived the far-right, pulling the strings that made things such as Brexit or Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory possible.</p> <p>A lot of ink has been spilled on Mr. Bannon’s influence, but short of actual details of what he supposedly has done.</p> <p>There is an element of simplistic conspiratorialist thinking that negates the actual reasons for the rise of these extremist forces — reducing it all to the Machiavellian genius of Mr. Bannon, who is more of a grifter than a visionary. Mr. Bannon, if anything, is closer to Jair Bolsonaro in that he has spent much of his career operating small- to medium-sized scams, and has a gift for capturing the popular mood.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, he lacks any real sort of political or strategic coherence.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bannon hardly knows anything about Brazil and doesn’t speak Portuguese. Quite frankly, too many people who should know better have mistaken Eduardo Bolsonaro’s fanboy love for Mr. Bannon for actual political influence. The scam that Mr. Bannon went down for involved defrauding a fundraising campaign to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.&nbsp;</p> <p>If anything, this represents the reality of Mr. Bannon as a petty grifter who enriched himself off bigotry at the expense of democracy.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/1emM0oO0osG1HINQnKHvGB" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The (real) significance of Bannon’s fall</h2> <p>Mr. Bannon’s tenure as a White House strategist combined gross bigotry and incompetence as part of a populist crusade against “globalism” and &#8220;the party of Davos.&#8221; But this was short-lived because in the end, Mr. Trump didn’t need Steve Bannon —&nbsp;nor did he genuinely trust his judgment. The forces propping up Mr. Trump’s administration are in the Republican establishment — which proved far more influential than the rogue populists that supposedly brought him to power.</p> <p>While not all the dark and mysterious forces behind Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory and the sophisticated disinformation campaign behind it were Brazilian, the real evil genius was not some washed-up red-faced bloated huckster, but cynical tech companies looking for a quick buck from far-right forces who sold them the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/10/25/whatsapp-scandal-jair-bolsonaro/">technology used for disinformation campaigns</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro’s “office of hate” disinformation network is funded by Brazilian businessmen. The messaging was designed by Brazilians. But the microtargeting tech was foreign made.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Supreme Court’s inquiry into their <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/06/18/covid-19-pandemic-brazilian-elections-more-exposed-fake-news/">underground fake news operation</a> has revealed as much, raising no reason to believe that Mr. Bannon and his “Movement” actually accomplished anything in Brazil.</p> <p>To watch the downfall of a character such as Steve Bannon might be cathartic to many, but believing the bogeyman hype can distract attention away from the dangerous forces effectively <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/12/06/brazil-election-social-media-democracy/">undermining Brazilian democracy</a> — such as members of Congress, big business, and the military who enabled a leader that has, in less than two years in office, mulled over sending troops to shut down Congress several times, as Débora Álvares reported earlier this week.</p> <p>The sad reality facing Brazil is that the political opposition to Mr. Bolsonaro remains weak and the president is enjoying record polling numbers despite his mismanagement of the pandemic, thanks to the biggest cash-transfer program in Brazilian history — which prevented tens of millions from falling below the extreme poverty line.</p> <p>Mr. Bannon’s fall won’t change this political reality in the slightest.

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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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