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A loss for Trump is a loss for Bolsonaro? Not so fast

. Oct 26, 2020
trump bolsonaro conservatism Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden, in March 2019. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

October was not a good month for conservative forces around the Americas. In Bolivia, one year after being pushed out in a right-wing military coup, the left-wing Movement for Socialism party was swept back into office by an electoral landslide. In Chile, a referendum to rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era constitution passed with an overwhelming 78 percent of the vote. And in the U.S., incumbent President Donald Trump is edging ever closer to a defeat at the polls, when the country decides its future on November 3.

But in Brazil, one of the largest countries in the world to be run by an openly far-right government, are there any signs of President Jair Bolsonaro’s grip slipping?

</p> <p>November will be a crucial point for the Bolsonaro government. Elections in the U.S. have ripple effects on practically every administration around the world, but few more so than Brazil&#8217;s, where much of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s first term has been spent hitching his political future to Donald Trump&#8217;s. Were his political idol to lose next Tuesday&#8217;s election, there are suggestions that this would impact his own political clout. Brazil&#8217;s municipal elections later in the month could also signal a change in the winds of Brazilian politics.</p> <p>However, analyses that suggest a defeat for Mr. Trump will ultimately <a href="https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/jamil-chade/2020/10/26/derrota-de-trump-completaria-isolamento-do-brasil-diz-ricupero.htm">bring down the government in Brazil</a> ignore much of the characteristics of Bolsonarism, which thrives when its back is against the wall.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/3ulkklC6bRRy1yXQvDqUjH" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>No-one likes us, we don&#8217;t care</h2> <p>In a previous article for <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> back in July, I wrote that “Mr. Bolsonaro’s biggest foreign policy gamble was pursuing total alignment with Donald Trump, mimicking the notoriously erratic U.S. president in an attempt to build some sort of <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2019/03/20/jair-bolsonaro-donald-trump/">&#8216;special relationship&#8217;</a> with his northern neighbors.” And “without a friend in the White House, Brazil could well be relegated to complete pariah status.”</p> <p>Indeed, the subject of Brazil cropped up during the shambolic first debate between Mr. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. The latter declared that Brazil should face “significant economic consequences&#8221; if the devastation of the Amazon continues and suggested that foreign powers should give the country USD 20 billion along with an order to halt Amazon deforestation.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro responded in a typically truculent social media rant, referring to the candidate as &#8220;John Biden&#8221; and saying that he, &#8220;unlike left-wing presidents of the past, does not accept bribes, criminal land demarcations or cowardly threats against our territorial and economic integrity. Our sovereignty is non-negotiable.” While obviously aware that he could be <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/10/19/what-a-biden-administration-plans-for-brazil-and-latin-america/">dealing with a Biden White House</a> for the next two years, Mr. Bolsonaro ignored pragmatism and pulled no punches.</p> <p>In a normal political scenario, the prospect of the country becoming an international pariah would be an unmitigated political disaster for any Brazilian president. However, in the case of Jair Bolsonaro, it is only likely to strengthen his internal political position by adding further evidence to his conspiracy-addled hardcore support that the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/03/brazil-foreign-minister-ernesto-araujo-president-bolsonaro/">liberal globalists and communists are against him</a>.</p> <p>Brazil would not be a priority for a potential Biden government, and with Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters mainlining conspiracy theories that make <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/28/qanon-crackdown-election/">QAnon</a> appear moderate, the status of being global undesirables would likely fortify the wills of the president&#8217;s core electorate. While it is too early to declare a Biden victory inevitable, I suspect Mr. Bolsonaro and his movement would embrace the possibility of becoming the most despised government in the world.</p> <p>While Mr. Bolsonaro and his crew are unabashed fanboys of Mr. Trump — and the U.S. president’s surprise victory in the 2016 elections undoubtedly helped legitimize Mr. Bolsonaro’s extremist politics in the run-up to Brazil&#8217;s vote in 2018 — it would be a mistake to view Brazil’s far-right as derivative of their counterparts in the U.S.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro’s rapid rise to power was only made possible by the Brazilian scenario at the time: the <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/05/03/brazilian-economy-crises-history/">2014 recession</a>; the loss of legitimacy suffered by Brazil’s political class in the wake of Operation Car Wash and the <a href="https://www12.senado.leg.br/noticias/materias/2016/12/28/impeachment-de-dilma-rousseff-marca-ano-de-2016-no-congresso-e-no-brasil">2016 Dilma Rousseff impeachment</a>; the radicalization and eventual collapse of Brazil’s center-right opposition after four successive election losses, and, of course, the jailing of the man who led the polls in the 2018 elections.</p> <p>While Brazil remains locked in its polarized cycle of economic and political crisis, the country&#8217;s far-right will prosper.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Never waste a crisis</h2> <p>At every turn in his presidency, Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly gambled on accelerating Brazil&#8217;s crisis in the hope that the fragmented opposition will have no response and he will eventually enjoy the spoils of victory. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this has proven to be a winning formula, at least for the time being.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite having recorded almost <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/">5.4 million cases and over 157,000 deaths</a>, in large part due to the government’s denialist and catastrophic public health response to the coronavirus, Mr. Bolsonaro has been the principal political beneficiary of Brazil&#8217;s Covid-19 epidemic. He has been able to transfer most of the blame for the crisis to Brazil’s state governors and city mayors, who he accused of &#8220;killing jobs&#8221; with their isolation measures.&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, while Brazil’s divided opposition knocked heads on a <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/10/21/podcast-electoral-calculations-around-covid-19-vaccine/">reasonable solution to the crisis</a>, it has been increasingly easy for President Bolsonaro to simply argue that the population must get on with their lives as normal.&nbsp;</p> <p>And Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity soared to new heights thanks to his government&#8217;s emergency salary program, which initially paid unemployed and informal workers BRL 600 per month during the pandemic, causing a huge temporary impact on poverty figures. Indeed, once this program comes to and end in January 2021, we will see whether this popularity has stuck.</p> <p>In summation, regardless of the result in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro remains free of organized and credible opposition and should hold on to his relatively strong position.</p> <p>&nbsp;While Brazil’s international image and reputation will continue taking hits and the coronavirus claiming lives, there isn’t much of an alternative to Mr. Bolsonaro’s far-right government and conspiratorial politics on offer right now. Brazil&#8217;s municipal elections will be a crucial bellwether to predict the near future of the country&#8217;s politics, and the electoral standing of the president. If his allies take a beating nationwide, which seems unlikely, then alarm bells will start ringing — Trump or no Trump.

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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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