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Recent Bolsonaro tantrums a known (but effective) diversionary tactic

. Nov 11, 2020
Bolsonaro celebrated a suicide and threatened the U.S. to control the headlines. Photo: Alan Santos/PR Bolsonaro celebrated a suicide and threatened the U.S. to control the headlines. Photo: Alan Santos/PR

In recent months, media outlets in Brazil had praised President Jair Bolsonaro’s restraint. After celebrating an alliance with traditional pork-barrelling parties in Congress (a group known as the “Big Center“), Mr. Bolsonaro reined in his frequent diatribes, giving uncautious observers a sensation that he might have decided to act more “presidential.”

Readers of The Brazilian Report were not about to fall into that trap. We explained that Mr. Bolsonaro’s true self is not one that is prone to conciliation and that a return to his belligerent ways was only a matter of time.

That happened on Tuesday — in a big way.

</p> <p>In the span of an afternoon, Mr. Bolsonaro drew the attention of the media by saying Brazil should stop being a &#8220;country of sissies&#8221; complaining about the pandemic, celebrating a suicide that led to the <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/11/11/in-one-day-bolsonaro-hits-out-at-both-china-and-biden/">suspension of clinical trials</a> of a Chinese-made vaccine, and made violent threats against the world&#8217;s number one military power.</p> <p>Today, the reason for that spectacular fall off the rails seems to have been revealed.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to weekly magazine Época, state prosecutors in Rio de Janeiro are close to <a href="https://epoca.globo.com/guilherme-amado/mp-do-rj-perto-de-concluir-investigacao-de-funcionarios-fantasmas-de-carlos-bolsonaro-24739754">concluding an investigation</a> against City Councilor Carlos Bolsonaro — the president&#8217;s second-eldest son — who is suspected of siphoning public funds by employing dummy employees in his office.</p> <p>Carlos Bolsonaro is running for re-election, and should any damaging information be released before the November 15 vote, it could seriously harm his chances at another four years in the municipal legislature.</p> <h2>Diversion through outrage</h2> <p>Ever since his election campaign in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s leading strategy has been to <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/03/06/risks-letting-jair-bolsonaro-hijack-news-brazil/">dominate the news cycle</a>, often with cutting and offensive remarks on social media. It only began being used as a method of attack, however, around June 2019, some months after Fábio Wajngarten became head of the government&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/03/17/brazil-coronavirus-deniers-positions-power/">communications team</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Today, Mr. Wajngarten is the executive secretary of the recently-formed <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/08/06/brazil-communications-ministry-snubbing-huawei-5g-talks/">Communications Ministry</a>.</p> <p>With the help of Carlos Bolsonaro, Mr. Wajngarten convinced the president that he had to take control of the &#8220;rhetoric&#8221; of the news cycle. A frequent complaint of the head of state was that the press never spoke highly of his administration and would not show the &#8220;good things&#8221; his government had achieved. Thus, he began giving daily interviews outside his presidential residence, as a way of setting the record straight, in his view.</p> <p>At the time, the more conservative wing of his government believed this was not a good idea and that Mr. Bolsonaro should preserve himself from such activities. One of these skeptics was former presidential spokesperson Otávio Rêgo Barros, who often saw himself forced to appear in public and smooth over his boss&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/10/28/the-growing-wedge-between-bolsonaro-and-the-military/">inflammatory comments</a>. Mr. Rêgo Barros was sacked in August.</p> <p>For the more radical ideological side of the administration, however, the only thing that mattered was that Mr. Bolsonaro was dominating the headlines, regardless of the outrageous things he might say.</p> <p>This offered him a smokescreen, to draw attention away from upsets within his government — such as, in the current incident, criminal investigations against one of his sons — or to steal the limelight from any of his cabinet ministers who &#8220;got too big for their boots,&#8221; with the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/09/25/sacked-health-minister-lifts-lid-on-bolsonaro-covid-19-response/">downfall</a> of former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta being a prime example.</p> <h2>No such thing as bad publicity</h2> <p>To show this strategy in action, we can go back to July 2019, when Jair Bolsonaro grabbed myriad headlines by criticizing the Brazilian Bar Association&#8217;s work in the criminal case of Adélio Bispo, the man who <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/09/06/jair-bolsonaro-stabbing-changed-brazil-one-year-removed/">stabbed Mr. Bolsonaro</a> in the abdomen during a campaign rally in 2018.&nbsp;</p> <p>He attacked the president of the organization, Felipe Santa Cruz, by referencing his father, Fernando Santa Cruz, who was disappeared by the military dictatorship when Felipe was just two years old.</p> <p>&#8220;One day, if the president of the [Brazilian Bar Association] wants to know how his father disappeared during the military days, I&#8217;ll tell him. He won&#8217;t want to hear the truth. I&#8217;ll tell him.&#8221;</p> <p>Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Dias Toffoli, had just suspended all criminal investigations containing data from Brazilian control agencies, directly benefiting the president&#8217;s eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro. This led to his case — concerning accusations of corruption and money laundering — being paralyzed for four months on the desks of Rio de Janeiro prosecutors.</p> <p>While it was a wholly unpopular decision, the media focused its attention on President Bolsonaro&#8217;s explosive and cruel comments, thus allowing his son to benefit without the gaze of public scrutiny.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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