As Bolsonaro and Trump prove, the populists are worryingly productive
While it is tempting to dismiss the effectiveness of such leaders, they are forcing through damaging policies, from the rainforests to the judiciary
In 2018, the far-right firebrand politician Jair Bolsonaro secured the Brazilian presidency, leaving half of the country ecstatic, and the rest in tears. To neutral observers, it was clear that Brazil had fallen victim to the same forces that had upended political systems elsewhere.
There was an idea, as in Turkey and India, of a long-overlooked Brazilian greatness. This belief was exacerbated by a mistrust of liberals, foreign NGOs and charities. Many voters saw the left as corrupt and ineffectual. This made them willing to accept boisterousness and force over progress. And, just like the US, fake news had blurred the line between truth and lies, splitting the country along partisan lines.
Still, electing the “Trump of the Tropics” was a big statement. Having made a series of disgraceful comments about women, foreigners, political rivals and minorities of all types, Mr Bolsonaro sits alongside Donald Trump as one of the world’s most controversial leaders.
But the comparisons do not stop there. Like Mr Trump, Mr Bolsonaro has been pilloried and protested against. The traditional arms of the Brazilian state have done their utmost to nix his most extreme policies. Many foreign leaders have given him a wide birth.
And yet, beneath the bluster, Mr Bolsonaro – like his American counterpart – is doing lasting damage.
Last week, the Brazilian president accused Congress of trying to turn him into the “Queen of England” – a figurehead with little tangible power. It followed a frustrating six months, in which his landmark policies, from liberalising gun rights to relaxing road safety regulations, have lacked parliamentary support.
In Brazil’s towns and cities, support for Mr Bolsonaro has slumped. A June poll found that 51 per cent of Brazilians lack confidence in his leadership. Thousands have taken to the streets in major cities to protest his policies – the president’s supporters, however, have matched them in numbers.
Meanwhile, a string of scandals have sparked further rebuke. The powerful speaker of Brazil’s lower house, Rodrigo Maia, recently referred to the government as a “nuclear reactor of crises” and ensured the public that parliament “will be the fireman and not the arsonist”.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to write off Mr Bolsonaro. Just like Mr Trump – who has gutted Washington’s Environmental Protection Agency, slashed regulations and appointed hundreds of conservative judges, two of them on the Supreme Court – Mr Bolsonaro has, in many ways, been alarmingly productive.
This month, he declared his intention to appoint his son as the US ambassador, on the grounds that he is close to the Trump family. Eduardo Bolsonaro, who currently serves as a congressman, is the Latin American leader of The Movement, the rabid populist group led by Steve Bannon. Not only has this move raised fears about nepotism in Brazil’s government, but the appointment would do lasting damage to Brazil’s reputation overseas.
This month, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research published damning satellite data, showing the rampant destruction of the Amazon rainforest. It revealed that 1,000 square kilometres of rainforest had been cleared in the first half of July, a 68 per cent rise on July 2018 as a whole. It amounts to a football pitch of Amazon rainforest being razed every day, to make way for commercial farming. The environmental impact of that – given the carbon dioxide imbibed by its trees and the unparalleled biodiversity it contains – will be heavy.
Just as Mr Trump disputed photographic evidence of his inauguration crowd, insisting that it was larger than his predecessor Barack Obama’s, Mr Bolsonaro insisted the institute was lying, because of its “environmental psychosis”. The satellite imagery did not appear to matter to his supporters.
In a dispiriting step for those who hope investment can heal Brazil’s economic wounds after years of sluggish growth, Mr Bolsonaro precipitated the departure of Joaquim Levy, the head of Brazil’s powerful development bank, BNDES. The president repeatedly threatened Mr Levy with dismissal after the bank chief hired a former employee of one of Mr Bolsonaro’s predecessors – his arch nemesis, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Elsewhere, Mr Bolsonaro has waged war on Brazil’s independent judiciary, and promised to appoint an evangelical conservative justice to the court when a space opens up, likely next year. In an attempt to circumvent parliament and the courts, Mr Bolsonaro has ruled by executive decree, issuing 202 directives in his first six months in office. His predecessor, Michel Temer, used 94 in the same period.
And last week, indigenous leaders representing Brazil’s nearly one million tribal people were horrified when Mr Bolsonaro’s appointed a federal police officer with strong ties to agribusiness as head of Funai, the country’s indigenous agency. The president has previously called the agency a “nest of rats”. The outgoing Funai president has said that his successor, Marcelo Xavier da Silva, “froths hate” for indigenous people and sees the agency as “an obstacle to national development”.
These are just a few ways in which Mr Bolsonaro is transforming Brazil for the worse. Such populist leaders obliterate reasoned debate, because it is an effective strategy to do so. Scandal and bluster distract from their agenda of chipping away at democratic norms and institutions.
When the time comes for Mr Bolsonaro to walk away – whether it is on his terms or not – he will look back at a radically altered Brazil. And his successor might find his legacy much harder to overturn than they at first expect.
Updated: July 27, 2019 01:00 PM