Brazil has a Donald Trump, and his chances at the presidency are looking better every day

Is this the future president of Brazil?
Is this the future president of Brazil?
Image: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
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“I’m not good. But the others are very bad. They try to bring me down, but I continue to rise in the polls.”

No, that’s not something Donald Trump said during last year’s US presidential campaign. Those words come from a man who could be the next president of Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro. And while Americans might not know the name, the story of his political rise will sound very familiar.

If Trump’s election has taught Americans anything, it’s that a candidate, no matter how fringe he may seem, should be taken seriously by everyone before it’s too late. Brazilians need to take note of that now.

Bolsonaro, who represents Rio de Janeiro in Brazil’s House of Representatives, has been steadily making racist, homophobic, and xenophobic claims since he entered politics in 1988. “This idea of ‘oh poor little black person, oh poor little poor person, oh poor little woman, oh poor little indigenous person, everybody’s a poor little something!’” he told Vice News. “I don’t try and please everybody.” Yet he’s pleasing some. He’s a “popular phenomenon” in Brazilian politics, and has already been compared to Trump a handful of times.

And just when one might think his latest claim has crossed a line that will hurt him in the polls, his popularity rises. Bolsonaro’s stump speech focuses on his conservative views on a slew of social issues. Bolsonaro said he’d “rather have a dead son over a gay son.” He thinks that “fundamentalist homosexual groups are trying to take over society” and that these groups “want to reach our children in order to turn them into gay adults to satisfy [homosexuals’] sexuality in the future.” He has compared gay couples’ rights to adopt to pedophilia, and argued that homosexuality is a result of drug use.

Bolsonaro is running for president in the 2018 election. And given the seemingly never-ending revelations of corrupt dealings for almost every politician who could have run for president next year, Bolsonaro’s chances begin to look better and better.

Bolsonaro is taking advantage of two separate forces pushing him up in the polls. First, the ongoing revelations and indictments from a historic corruption probe has led to a culling of establishment politicians (almost 1,400 cumulative years of jail time and counting) and created space for non-traditional, non-establishment candidates like Bolsonaro to fill that void.

Brazilians, much like Americans, are thirsty for change. Inflation is high, crime is high, unemployment is high, but the cadre of politicians are corrupt and rich, and only a few elites reap the benefits of Brazil’s economy. Bolsonaro has a different message that fits the times: “I’m an authentic person. My proposals… are different from everything that’s out there,” he says.

For Bolsonaro, a return to law and order means changing human rights policy in Brazil, because “we can’t treat criminals as victims.” “You fight violence with violence,” he says. “If the criminal is carrying a 0.380 pistol, you must have a rifle; if he has a rifle you have to have a bazooka or a war tank. It’s not with peace and love. Nobody can stand political correctness anymore.”

There are many examples of misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia in Brazil, but they were previously kept at the fringe of political debates and deemed retrograde and unacceptable. But something has changed in Brazilian society, and those views are less frowned upon. With such high levels of distrust of the mainstream views of political and media elites, an alternative has filled the void.

The second force propelling Bolsonaro is Brazil’s evangelical movement, whose main political strategy is to win the presidency. In Congress, the Evangelical Bloc has become increasingly powerful, with the majority of its members voting to impeach Dilma Rousseff last year dedicating their votes “to God” in the nationally televised proceedings. In 30 years, the percentage of Brazilians who identify as evangelical Christians went from 6.6% to 22.2%—the largest growth amongst different religious denominations. In a country where voting is mandatory, it’s easy to see how Bolsonaro’s base could grow. Support from key leaders in the evangelical community like Silas Malafaia (from Assemblies of God Church) and Edir Macedo (from Universal Church), have also solidified his candidacy.

But Bolsonaro may widen his appeal outside the evangelical base to a growing socially conservative segment of the Brazilian population that feels that their country has lost its way with far too socially liberal policies. In a country where abortion is illegal and where almost half of the population is against same-sex marriage (despite it being legal in Brazil since 2013), it’s safe to say there is fertile ground for some of Bolsonaro’s views to take root.

Bolsonaro certainly has the passion and charisma anyone running for public office should have. He can take a joke, he’s funny, and speaks in a very accessible, jargon-free manner. What he lacks, however, are any concrete plans to actually improve the lives of millions of Brazilians. When asked if he has a plan, Bolsonaro doesn’t hesitate to say “No: there are no easy solutions for our situation. And there’s not one single person who can do that.”

Brazil is facing its worst economic recession since the 1930s. Four out of 10 Brazilians cite unemployment as one of the two biggest problems in the country right now (the other is health care). But Bolsonaro seems to spend more time in his speeches talking about what Sexual Education books should teach (he claims the current books are, “Gay Kits”: primers on homosexuality) than about how he plans to create jobs and improve the country’s health-care structure.

Bolsonaro’s rise has been covered popular Brazilian TV shows and high-circulation magazines, which have given him a platform to share his vision for government. “I make news, so of course people come after me,” he says. He’s right. The media has given him free publicity because of his claims.

But Bolsonaro still believes that the media portrays him unfairly. The narrative of how the media and the opposition are trying to stifle his movement—a story Americans are familiar with—is also present in Bolsonaro’s pitch. He compares himself to other far-right candidates: “In the same way the opposition is trying to stifle Le Pen’s movement in France, they are trying to hurt [my] chances in 2018.”

Bolsonaro’s chances of being elected have begun to rise. On April 30, he was trailing Lula (Brazil’s former president, who might be running in 2018) with 15% of the votes. But Lula is currently under investigation for seven charges of corruption and 64 charges of money laundering. If Lula’s convicted most alternative scenarios of how the 2018 election might play out show Bolsonaro could win; especially after Aecio Neves, a senator who came in second place in the 2014 presidential elections, also became another name in the sweeping corruption probe. The same happened with Geraldo Alckmin, Sao Paulo’s Governor, who fell from 28% to 17% after being included in the same probe for receiving R$10.7 million (3.3 million U.S. dollars) in bribes from a Brazilian business conglomerate. Without Lula in the race, Bolsonaro has the majority of the votes.

And for those who still think Marina Silva, a Green Party candidate who has been left untouched by the slew of corruption scandals, and who trails Bolsonaro in the polls, Bolsonaro argues that poll results can be misleading, too. He cites the mishap with American public opinion polls that did not foresee Trump’s victory: “despite the media’s portrayal of him, he still won.” And even if Bolsonaro doesn’t win next year, that loss doesn’t rule out future campaigns. His Facebook page has over 4 million likes, more than former presidents Dilma Rousseff and Lula. Much like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, he has become the face of a movement.

Pundits like Gustavo Muller, a prominent columnist for O Globo, still don’t see Bolsonaro as a real contender. Muller says that “even though Brazilian democracy has seen better days, Bolsonaro’s candidacy would only prosper in a situation of social chaos and rampant violence.” He might be right. But again, while the establishment sees Bolsonaro as a fringe candidate, voters seem to welcome him with open arms.

Earlier this year, Bolsonaro was welcomed at an airport in Paraiba, a state in the northeast of the country, with chants: “Mito, Mito, Mito” (Legend, Legend, Legend) and “Um, dois, três, quatro, cinco mil, queremos Bolsonaro presidente do Brasil!” (One, two, three, four, five, thousand, We want Bolsonaro to be president of Brazil!”). To the caravans of people wearing t-shirts with the words: “The Right of Paraiba” and “The Order of the Conservatives”, Bolsonaro responded: “Brazil above all. God above everyone.”

Brazilians are thirsty for change and looking for someone who’s different—an outsider. It’s time we start taking Bolsonaro seriously.