Jair Bolsonaro has openly cheered dictatorship and publicly insulted women. Now he’s deploying Trump-like tactics in his race for the presidency
Jair Bolsonaro’s disciples had packed the arrivals hall of this far-flung Amazonian airport, united by their contempt for the left and an unbreakable determination to score a selfie with the man they call “the Legend”.
“He’s Brazil’s hope! A light at the end of the tunnel! A new horizon!” gushed Fernando Vieira, one of hundreds of fans there to greet a far-right firebrand who cheerleads for dictatorship but could soon become leader of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
When flight 2020 delivered the presidential hopeful to his sun-scorched destination in the northern state of Roraima, pandemonium broke out. “Legend! Legend! Legend! Legend!” the crowd chanted, hoisting their idol into the air and outside through a crush of police officers and partisans.
There, Bolsonaro boarded a carnival float painted like a leopard and began an ear-splitting, hour-long procession through town.
“The Legend has arrived! The Legend is in Roraima! The big democracy party has begun!” bellowed an MC as the rally crept south, pursued by a honking tide of SUVs and motorbikes.
Many would question that last claim, for Bolsonaro – who has been described as “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world” and possibly the most repulsive politician on earth – is not known as a fan of the ballot-box.
Since the Pinochet-praising former paratrooper entered politics three decades ago, he has repeatedly called for a return to the kind of military rule Brazil endured until 1985. “I am in favour of a dictatorship,” he boasted during the first of seven terms as a congressman.
Such incendiary remarks were long dismissed as the ravings of a irreverent and irrelevant extremist – as were his equally inflammatory attacks on women, black people, gay people, foreigners and indigenous communities, for which he was last week charged by Brazil’s attorney general with inciting hate speech.
Now, however, Bolsonaro’s ideas have taken centre stage, with the father of five leading the race to become Brazil’s next president after the jailing of his nemesis and main rival, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In a sign the world is starting to take the prospect of a Bolsonaro presidency seriously, Britain’s ambassador to Brazil recently held what he called an “interesting meeting” with the 63-year-old.
Reunião interessante com o pré-candidato à presidência @jairbolsonaro. Falamos sobre investimento, cooperação bilateral, questões sociais, segurança e diversidade. É fascinante e válido entender com clareza as diversas visões políticas p/ o país, mesmo sob diferentes perspectivas pic.twitter.com/9XxIUA1u8Q
“I think it’s unlikely but very possible [he will win],” said Brian Winter, the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, who has spent time with the Bolsonaro clan.
“To his supporters Bolsonaro represents law and order and that’s a very compelling message in a country with 60,000 homicides a year and the biggest corruption scandal ever detected anywhere.”
In his bid to capitalise on Latin America’s lurch to the right, Bolsonaro paints himself as a tropical Trump: a pro-gun, anti-establishment crusader set on draining the swamp into which Brazil’s futuristic capital has sunk.
On the stump he lambasts not slimeballs and bad hombres, but vagabundos (losers), canalhas (creeps) and bandidos (crooks). He accuses critics of peddling fake news, vows to be tough on crime and repeatedly bashes China. “We will do business with the Chinese – but we will not hand our territory over to anybody!” he told supporters in Boa Vista, to loud cheers.
His speeches, like Trump’s, are often rambling, fact-light assaults on syntax that appear nonsensical when transcribed but are strangely captivating when watched up close.
Asked by the Guardian at a press conference following his Amazon motorcade what his first act as president would be, Bolsonaro replied: “You’re from the Guardian, OK? You’re here because you are interested in Brazil and in this area. If you were poor you wouldn’t be here. If you were poor you wouldn’t be here. Right? This is such a rich area and open your eyes because the Chinese are buying Brazil. OK?”
After that slaloming riposte, Bolsonaro, who broadcasts his views to more than 5 million Facebook followers, vowed to downgrade the environment ministry and evict meddlesome foreigners. “This cowardly business of international NGOs like WWF and so many others from England sticking their noses into Brazil is going to end! This tomfoolery stops right here!”.
Finally, he waxed lyrical about Israeli agriculture. “Israel has nothing – just sand … [and yet] they raise fish in the desert!”
Winter said he was convinced Bolsonaro was “openly copying aspects of the Trump strategy” and believed it could prove a winning formula. “Donald Trump got elected saying that crime in the inner-cities was out of control, that the economy was a disaster and that the entire political class was corrupt … All three of those things are indisputably true in Brazil. So if Trump could get elected, imagine what is possible in a country like Brazil right now.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro, the candidate’s son and fellow congressman – who was last week charged with threatening a female journalist – rejected his father’s portrayal as a far-right politician, claiming he was part of a “global movement” that included Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen as well as Trump. The Brazilian establishment was terrified, he claimed, “because they know how much we are going to change things”.
Bolsonaro’s Boa Vista reception committee certainly hopes so.
“He’s the guy who says you combat violence with violence – and this is something we support,” enthused Wellington Vasconcellos, 28, a security guard who was among the overwhelmingly male crowd.
Bruno Queiroz, a 23-year-old student, hailed Brazil’s “redemption”: “We need someone who has a firm wrist to re-establish order – even if it is through force.”
But for millions of progressive Brazilians the prospect of a death-penalty supporting, torture-condoning, self-confessed homophobe as president is petrifying.
Guilherme Boulos, who plans to run for president for the Socialism and Liberty party, said thwarting Bolsonaro’s candidacy was now among the left’s most urgent tasks. “Bolsonaro presents himself as someone who is going to combat criminality but he himself is a criminal,” Boulos said. “He’s not Trump. He is a caricature of Trump.”
Salvation for Bolsonaro’s detractors seems likely to come in the form of Brazil’s electoral system, which requires a second-round runoff if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in the October election.
Winter said polls showed support for Bolsonaro had plateaued at about 18%, indicating many voters considered him “crazy and dangerous”.
For this eventuality, too, the Bolsonaros appear to be preparing a Trumpian tactic, raising the spectre of electoral fraud just as the US president did in 2016.
Eduardo Bolsonaro said he was convinced his father would win in the first round – unless his fears of a rigged vote were confirmed. “As we say around here, there’s a dog in that there forest,” the 33-year-old said.
And with that casual claim of conspiracy, the crew-cut-sporting congressman turned away to return to the campaign trail.
Alongside an image of an assault rifle, an English-language message to Brazilian voters was stamped onto the back of his shirt: “Instead of gun control how about terrorist control,” it said. “Defend freedom, defend America, defend yourself!”