Last week, all attention in Brazil was focused on the protests called by President Jair Bolsonaro for September 7, Brazil’s independence day. Still suffering from the consequences of the pandemic —thanks in large part to the president’s denialism and the federal government’s delay in taking measures to contain it— the traditional military parade did not take place, but thousands of people gathered in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and dozens of other cities to show support for Bolsonaro.
Meanwhile, thousands of truck drivers also closed roads all over the country in support of Bolsonaro during the September 7 demonstration and in the days that followed.
The call for the protests had begun at least two months before, through the social networks of the president’s supporters, and although they gathered a significant amount of people —more than 150,000 in Brasilia and São Paulo— the number fell short of the organizers’ expectations and demonstrated the fragility of the government that believed radicalization was the path to not promote dialogue, but to seek to hold institutions hostage.
The idea backfired. Bolsonaro is more isolated than ever. He is facing several investigations pending against him in the Supreme Court, with multiple allies arrested or threatened with arrest for spreading fake news or attacking democracy. He is also having greater difficulty negotiating with Congress which, in retaliation, decided to make it difficult for the president to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice a few months ago.
It cannot be said that Bolsonaro did not feel the blow. Two days after the protests —in which he threatened the Supreme Court, again defended the printed ballot for the elections, and called Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes a “scumbag“— he wrote a letter with the help of former president Michel Temer, in which he backtracked and apologized for his words.
There is no doubt that his retreat was more an attempt to survive than actual regret, but his political base resented it and began to question him harshly, damaging even further his already declining popularity.
Latino Rebels spoke to three experts in different areas to understand the political moment and what the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations —and his retreat— mean for Brazil and its democracy.
Felippe Ramos is currently a Ph.D. Student in Sociology at the New School for Social Research and his dissertation investigates the constitutional consequences of Brazil´s far-right populist government:
Most analysts have split up into two main positions regarding Bolsonaro’s behavior. The first one understands it as mainly performative, this is, not concerned with actual policies and results, but with the ephemeral impact of Bolsonaro’s rants in social media and rallies on the emotions of his hardcore supporters. For these pundits, Bolsonaro’s behavior presents a pattern of rhetorical attacks followed by retreats afterward. Bolsonaro, then, is seen as not as dangerous as he seems. A second position sees Bolsonaro as a truly authoritarian leader seeking to overthrow Brazil’s democratic regime and constitutional order but doing it gradually through attacks that erode the capacity of institutions to refrain from his abuses. For these analysts, Bolsonaro keeps his intention of staging a coup as soon as conditions are ripe for it.
My own position is a middle ground: Bolsonaro is both performative and truly authoritarian.
His performative side allows him to retreat whenever the institutional backlash is strong as long as he thinks he got good symbolic results from his rhetorical attacks among his followers. But his truly authoritarian side pushes him to keep attempting to undermine the core fundamentals of Brazil’s democracy such as the separation of powers and the legitimacy of elections. For instance, on Brazil’s Independence Day, the sequence of acts by Bolsonaro indicates he was both looking for symbolic gains and indeed urging his followers to intimidate the Supreme Court, much beyond a performative dimension. Bolsonaro’s speeches in Brasilia and São Paulo contained straightforward attacks on the Supreme Court and the fear of a mob attempt to break into the court’s building in the capital was real. The institutional backlash from Brazil’s most relevant stakeholders made it a fiasco for the president.
A strike of truck drivers that threatened to paralyze Brazil´s economy was the tipping point for an isolated Bolsonaro. His humiliating defeat was highlighted by a letter of retreat written by former President Michel Temer, who was invited to curtail the crisis. This sequencing makes it clear that Bolsonaro was bluffing and not bluffing at the same time. He was willing to go all-in, and he gave up going all-in. If a child is playing with gasoline, although performative, the hazard is real.
Guilherme Casarões is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV-EAESP):
Bolsonaro neither retreats nor conciliates. These are antithetical postures to the very essence of Bolsonarism, which is an authoritarian, violent, and exclusionary movement. Therefore, every retreat must be understood as tactical, that is, a way to gain time or to reposition himself towards the essential objective, which is to remain in power.
Knowing that he will hardly achieve this through the ballot box, he can only rehearse new attempts to usurp democracy. The rapprochement with Temer, who has enormous influence over parts of the centrist parties, is nothing more than a way of disarming Alexandre de Moraes against the possibility of putting the president’s sons at risk [Bolsonaro’s sons are currently under investigation], and at the same time to postpone (or even avoid) the impeachment in 2022, remembering that the governing base in Congress has weakened after the 7th.
The Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD), for example, have already announced their withdrawal of support for Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, the president will seek ways to reorganize his radicalized militancy toward a new attempt to overthrow the institutions.
Judging by what we have seen in the U.S., the anticipated narrative of electoral fraud seems to me the main path in this direction.
Rodrigo Cássio Oliveira is a professor of Advertising and Publicity at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG).
The Bolsonaro government has demonstrated from the beginning of its mandate that it depends on maintaining conflicts in order to exist. These conflicts are rotating and fluctuate based on the immediate needs of the president. The targets can be “communism,” some minister who has become a disaffected party, a certain “Chinese vaccine” or the Supreme Court, it makes no difference: the essential thing is that there is an enemy to be fought.
Bolsonaro’s ideology is thus established with war propaganda strategies that are typical of the mass society of the 1930s and 1940s. The differences from the historical version of this strategy are mainly operational and cognitive: Bolsonaro’s propaganda spreads in digital networks that form a kind of identity wrapper in which the boundaries between truth and lies lose their importance, and false content circulates freely because it feeds the group’s expectations, reinforces its worldview, and excites its members to political participation.
The September 7 demonstrations showed, once again, the effectiveness of this strategy.
Bolsonaro invested against the Supreme Court probably for fear of seeing himself and his sons being targets of investigations in the “fake news” inquiry, and yet he managed to get the support of a significant number of people who set out to take to the streets calling for the dismissal of the ministers and a new military intervention in Brazil.
It is important to say that the fear of institutional ruptures in the country has always been present since Bolsonaro assumed office, but this time, it proved feasible; not so much for the president’s ability to articulate this rupture, since Bolsonaro is politically errant, the institutional context is unfavorable to him and his power has been usurped by the deputies of the “Centrão” [Big Center, as the physiological parties in Congress are called, and which are fundamental for the maintenance of any government]. What really worries me today is the difficulty of predicting the results of the propaganda war machine that Bolsonaro has put in place.
In the U.S., where Trump used the same propaganda strategy as Bolsonaro, we saw the Capitol being invaded by militants motivated by absurd and unrealistic ideas, just like the truck drivers who hoped to leave the demonstrations of September 7th with a declaration of a “state of siege” in Brazil. Everything leads one to believe that Bolsonaro will follow in Trump’s footsteps until the end, and his probable defeat in the 2022 elections could lead to an escalation of violent actions, sustained by the lie that Brazilian ballot boxes are unreliable.
Increasingly, Bolsonaro’s impeachment is proving necessary to avoid serious problems in the near future. Considering the ample evidence of a crime of responsibility, we can only conclude that the failure to open the process reflects structural problems of our democratic right, which concentrates excessive power in the hands of the president of the Chamber of Deputies.