Like Trump, Bolsonaro feeds off of confrontations with the press and attacks on political correctness. But he actually benefits from politically correct coverage in the mainstream media, which calls him “controversial” and “conservative.” A more accurate description would be “poorly-informed demagogue.” FOTO: JOSÉ ALDENIR_AGORA IMAGENS
It’s not your fault
An interpretation of the fantasies and strategies of Bolsonarism (and Trumpism)
Tradução de Flora Thomson–DeVeaux
In 1998, the Chilean general Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London. He was accused of, among other crimes, the torture and murder of political opponents. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a second-term congressman at the time, did not seem to believe in the innocence of the former dictator. In fact he stated that “Pinochet should have killed more people.” Since then, evidence of the atrocities committed under Pinochet’s rule has only mounted. Even so, as of 2015 Bolsonaro still maintained that “Pinochet did what had to be done.” These assertions fit neatly with others made by Bolsonaro: “During the [Brazilian military] dictatorship they should’ve killed about thirty thousand corrupt people, starting with President Fernando Henrique [Cardoso]”(on corruption under Pinochet’s regime, no comment). “The dictatorship’s mistake was to torture without killing” (the dictatorship both tortured and killed). As for himself: “I’m an army captain, my mission is to kill” (that’s not what the Constitution says).
In a healthy society, an open proponent of mass murder would not be a part of any serious discussion about the direction of the country. And yet Bolsonaro is leading in polls that do not include former president Lula, currently in jail. Besides Lula, he seems to be the only candidate able to galvanize a considerable portion of the electorate. Brazilian society has authoritarian leanings and is undergoing a moment of intense political polarization, but I doubt that there are that many people who want to see their political opponents exterminated. I am inclined to believe that few would tolerate the torture of pregnant women, which happened under Latin American dictatorships like Pinochet’s. So how do we make sense of the massive support for Bolsonaro among people who see themselves as civilized, Christian, bearers of moral values?
There are a number of plausible interpretations. There is certainly no lack of precedent. The protagonists or passive witnesses of the greatest horrors of humanity usually believed themselves to be decent, honorable people. Here, I would like to develop a less obvious hypothesis. In an essay published in this magazine, João Moreira Salles analyzes the phrase “Não fui eu” (it wasn’t me), which has been enigmatically spray-painted across Rio de Janeiro (piauí_139, April 2018). At one point he quotes anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, who observes how in Brazilian political culture people often place the blame on the third person plural: they don’t even care, they are ruining the country, etc. I believe that some of the power and draw of Bolsonarism lies in this.
Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan could well be “It’s not your fault.” As if to say, “If they weren’t ruining everything, this country would be great.” This line of thinking allows voters to feel brave and worthy, even as they skirt responsibility. In a complicated, confusing world, Bolsonaro and other emerging far-right figures beckon towards a fantasy of justice and heroism. Rejecting institutional politics becomes a sign of purity. Like Trumpism, Bolsonarism offers the expiation of guilt and the transfer of responsibility, feats worthy of a mito (myth, or legend), as his supporters call him. We cannot underestimate the appeal and the destructive potential of this phenomenon. And, despite the many differences, we can learn from Donald Trump’s election, since there are comparable dynamics behind their candidacies.
In March of this year I arrived in Rio, my hometown, a day after the assassination of city councilor Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes. I met with some of her friends and colleagues. The prevailing feeling was that whoever stood up to police corruption and Rio’s militias (paramilitary groups), like Marielle did, might be next. Later that week, at a lunch with a different group, someone casually asked: “Did you know that Marielle was married to Marcinho VP?” (Marielle, an openly gay woman, was never married to convicted drug trafficker Marcinho VP.) When I tried to understand where this bit of fake news had originated, I found out that in the social circles of the person who had passed it on, the political discussion was completely monopolized by Bolsonaro supporters. People who could not have cared less about politics fifteen years ago were now passionately defending his candidacy on Facebook and in WhatsApp groups. Like many others, I had been watching this phenomenon from a distance. I decided to systematically read his supporters’ posts, to engage them, and to listen to what they had to say.
In conversations on the left, the so-called Bolsominions, Bolsodummies, Bolsonazis (and so on) are overwhelmingly associated with the candidate’s misogyny, racism, and homophobia. But it quickly became clear that for many of his followers, these issues seem virtually irrelevant. For them, what Bolsonaro’s black-and-white views offer is clarity. If the problem with Brazil is criminals and corruption, then all we have to do is elect someone honest like him and wipe out the bad guys. If you disagree, then you’re siding with the criminals. But as his supporters see it, you can be attracted to what Bolsonaro has to offer without buying the whole package. His campaign has taken advantage of distortions created by the spotlight recently turned on corruption in Brazil. According to one Instituto Ipsos poll, for example, 75% of Brazilians think that deficits in the social security budget are due to corruption and embezzlement, ignoring structural issues. Bolsonarism, averse to complexity and reflection, offers voters the comfort of unshakable certainties and the conviction that responsibility always lies elsewhere. The country’s in crisis? “It’s not your fault.” A steady diet of fake news, anti-leftist memes (spread by groups like the Movimento Brasil Livre), and pro-Bolsonaro clichés gets in the way of a realistic, balanced view of Brazil’s problems, but it can be great for your self-esteem.
We must try to understand why people who do not wish for mass murder might support someone who thinks Pinochet should have killed more. Let us be generous, insofar as possible: when Bolsonaro hails Pinochet, in many of his supporters’ eyes, he is not advocating for his crimes. We can assume that many Brazilians are unaware of the extent of the atrocities committed by the Chilean dictator, or even by Brazil’s own military dictatorship (1964-1985). My impression, however, is that most of Bolsonaro’s followers seek to relativize and downplay his most extremist positions.
If you can’t make out the “real meaning” behind what the “legend” says, you are accused of being a whiner, sensitive, humorless – a snowflake. The downplaying, however, is nearly always selective, disproportionate, and self-congratulatory. So Bolsonaro praises criminal dictatorships. For the casual Bolsonarist, his statements should not be taken literally. For those who are more dedicated to the “cause,” the guilt lies with those who do not understand that threats from the left justify any and all measures.
This mechanism repeats ad nauseam. A comment in poor taste offends and dehumanizes minorities? The problem lies with those who did not get the joke, or cannot take it. Those who belong to marginalized groups or defend human rights (a common target) have to be able to take Bolsonaro’s jabs on the chin. By this logic, criticism of Bolsonaro becomes an assault on the right to crack a joke. And who doesn’t like a joke? When the target is Bolsonaro, though, suddenly it’s not so funny. In a radio interview, centrist candidate Marina Silva is asked to compare politicians to animals, and says that Bolsonaro would be a hyena. In a video response, he cries out: “If I’d called Marina Silva a hyena… the whole world would come crashing down on me.” Playing the victim is a frequent move in Bolsonaro’s playbook. “As far as I can see, no legislator takes as much of a beating as me,” he says. “They show me elbowing someone, but when I get tackled from behind nobody shows that.” They just play the victim card, we are true victims.
In the United States, this tactic has been used to great effect by the right wing. Historically, to a great extent the state has privileged white groups over minorities. With the advances of the civil rights movement, as government increasingly contemplated African Americans as full citizens, it also became the villain. (The parallels with an emergent libertarianism or “classical liberalism” of convenience in Brazil are obvious). Savvy segregationists saw that an open campaign against civil rights was no longer the best strategy, as shown by historians like Kevin Kruse, the author of White Flight. Instead of saying that black people shouldn’t be allowed to buy the house next door or enter universities, segregationists found a positive framing, supposedly focused on individual freedom: what right does the government have to force me to live with people I don’t want to be around? The oppressor converts himself into the victim.
Since the Nixon administration, the war on drugs and mass incarceration have targeted African Americans in practice, but not necessarily in their rhetoric. The Republican Party gradually perfected dog-whistle politics: by insisting on punitive measures and hardline approaches to law and order, candidates signaled to segregationists whose side they were on. Statements, however, had to be veiled enough to make them acceptable for those uncomfortable with open racism.
Trump smashed through that “discretion.” He saw that dog-whistling would no longer do it for certain dissatisfied groups, especially white men who feel that they are losing certain privileges and status. During the campaign, Trump’s bigoted comments received broad coverage in the press and sparked indignation in the liberal establishment and leftist circles. At the rallies, however, flattering and self-aggrandizing laudatory comments about his base were more frequent than prejudiced remarks. Some Trump followers heard the praise louder than the hate. Do you feel like you’re falling behind? It’s the Mexicans’ fault. Your son didn’t get into their dream school? It’s affirmative action’s fault. In Trump’s speeches, critics heard racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. But his voters heard: “Not your fault.” For these voters, the media’s constant coverage of Trump’s “controversial” statements was a form of persecution that they took personally. For the many who think that accusations of racism are worse than actual racism, the media’s coverage seemed unfair, and defending Trump became a way of preserving self-regard.
Bolsonarism sets up a similar trap. Like Trumpism, it feeds off of confrontations with the press and attacks on political correctness. “Controversial” comments generate widespread coverage, leading to accusations of media bias, which in turn reinforce the impression that Bolsonaro is persecuted. “They play the victim and we get persecuted.” And if he bothers people so much, it must be because he’s not like other politicians. The thinking goes: “All politicians talk the same way, except mine. He’s authentic, he doesn’t beat around the bush, he calls it like it is.” The strategy helps to make up for the fact that the Bolsonaro family makes its living off of politics. Unlike Trump, after all, Bolsonaro is a career politician. He should, at least in theory, have a much harder time selling himself as an outsider.
Ironically, political correctness is an integral element in building his image. On the one hand, Bolsonaro relies on the backlash against the PC patrol. On the other, his campaign benefits from politically correct coverage. The mainstream media’s need to appear neutral, leading it to prefer euphemistic and restrained language, helps to mask the candidate’s extremism. Frequently used adjectives such as “controversial” and even “conservative” give the impression that Bolsonaro’s positions are serious, bold, even courageous.
Of course, actual controversies should be marked by disputes, a grasp of baseline facts, and recognition of the opposing stance. Defending heliocentrism in the 17th century, for example, was controversial. Unlike Galileo, Bolsonaro does not tend to regard empirical evidence. It might be more accurate to describe him as a poorly-informed demagogue. But then we would fall into the trap of confirming his narrative of persecution. Since journalists have to avoid the impression of bias, they opt for the politically correct “controversial,” which winds up benefiting the candidate.
In Brazil, many people are trying to understand political polarization and online radicalization (which much of the U.S. mainstream media underestimated). Democracy is made of conflicts, and has always been ripe for rumors and fake news, but social networks introduced unpredictable dynamics. The logic of these networks would lead us to suppose that some people that previously ignored politics feel pressured to pick a side. At the same time, we still do not know how much ground traditional media and party machines will lose to social media in Brazil’s presidential race. We cannot forget that the fact that Trump was so over-the-top and had high unfavorability made many downplay his chances. In a scenario like Brazil’s, where a significant portion of the electorate may avoid the ballots or refuse to pick a candidate, the ceiling on Bolsonaro’s support may not be as low as it seems. For that matter, Geraldo Alckmin, Ciro Gomes, and a few Workers’ Party figures have already said that they would prefer him as an opponent in a second round (which in Brazil takes place if no candidate gets 50% of the valid votes during a first round). We all know who Hillary Clinton preferred to run against.
Although Bolsonaro, unlike Trump, does not have a major party behind him, Bolsonarism seems tailor-made to triumph online. When facing candidates identified with partisan politics, the anti-establishment pitch may just work. In his 1928 autobiography, Mussolini wrote that fascism should always “assume the characteristics of being anti-party.” In a time of disillusionment with institutional politics, the ability to play politics while pretending to reject it is a considerable advantage.
Falling back on clichés and stock phrases is a tactic that precedes the world of memes. Hannah Arendt wrote that clichés served to “protect us from reality,” seeing them as a key part of the working of totalitarian regimes. The novelty here is that the digital realm may supplant more top-down, expensive forms of propaganda (pamphlets, TV ads, rallies, etc.). Even without much in the way of resources, a campaign with viral potential can pull off an upset.
A host of pundits and commentators from across the ideological spectrum have already sounded the alarm on the threat that Bolsonaro poses to democracy. There is less reflection about the nature and extent of his appeal. Many candidates this year, like João Doria and Paulo Skaf, both running for governor of São Paulo, seem afraid to criticize him. Those complicit with the demonization of the left, or who tolerate Bolsonaro because they see his candidacy as the lesser evil, are helping to hatch the serpent’s egg.
False equivalences, whether on the right or the left, may help to erode democracy. Polarization, however, is not necessarily symmetrical. Soccer has become a well-worn source of metaphors for political polarization in Brazil. But in sports – unlike what happens in Congress or on the Supreme Court – the rules are clear and generally accepted, there are common denominators, and some consensus can be found around concrete facts. Sports coverage relies less on newscasts’ “he said, she said” mode. And even the most die-hard fan cannot deny a stellar performance by the opposing team’s player. The combination of political illiteracy and an unflinching conviction in the moral superiority of one side over the other has no parallel in sports. For all the bad blood in Brazilian soccer, we accept that our adversary is legitimate and has the right to exist. In politics, where the stakes are higher, the consequences always overspill the bounds of the game. And there are never just two sides.
In battles waged with memes, those with no commitment to dialogue or facts come out on top. So Bolsonaro suggested that he would only rape those who deserved it (note to readers unfamiliar with Brazilian politics: this actually happened, in a confrontation with Maria do Rosário, a congresswoman and former minister of Human Rights). But it’s Maria do Rosário’s fault, since she pushed his buttons. Hang on, does anyone deserve to be raped? But he just made a joke, look at the left, they love pedophiles and incest.
In order to justify defending the unjustifiable, the representation of the other side has to become increasingly grotesque and unreal, until it is expendable, disqualified, unworthy. The right does not have a monopoly on this, of course. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has the most active fanbase in the virtual bleachers. Unlike in sports, here winning seems to be a matter of perspective. But in reality we all wind up losing – except for those who had been winning to begin with.
It is impossible to imagine that the spread of online trolls could be enough to buoy a Bolsonaro into office, but Trump’s election and Brexit should serve as warnings. In the United States, there is widespread ignorance about the government’s role in the formation of a postwar white middle class, favored by investments that largely excluded minorities. At the same time, the country publicly celebrates the advances of civil rights. This combination creates the impression, among groups of whites who feel stuck, that the government and the media are more interested in helping minorities and immigrants.
Aided by trolls and bots, Trump masterfully tapped into resentment of diversity and globalization, transforming it into a positive identity: I’m white and I’m proud.
In Brazil, unlike the United States and Europe, racial and xenophobic cleavages have not been exploited to the same extent in electoral politics, and for obvious reasons: Brazil has a comparatively smaller immigrant population, and more people identify as black or brown (mixed) than white. Even so, the spaces where the rich live in Brazil remain almost exclusively white. In the United States, the sites (and sights) of economic prosperity have gained in demographic diversity, but neighborhoods remain ultra-segregated.
Revanchism or backlash politics constitute the key element in right-wing populist movements across the world. In Brazil, there are some on the left who argue that the hatred for Lula’s and his Workers’ Party does not stem from their missteps while in government (2002-2016), but rather from the threat that certain social conquests during that time represented to the upper classes, such as increased socioeconomic mobility and expanded access to higher education. There has been plenty of talk about the “new middle class,” but how to take the measure of the middle and upper-middle classes that remained stagnant, declined, or simply believe they deserve better? Bolsonarism is, in part, the reaction of those who feel they have lost guarantees and status in recent years; and, like Trumpism, it promises to convert rancor and resentment into pride and affirmation. Too many poor people flying by plane these days (a refrain of the boom years)? Too expensive to have a maid anymore (a refrain nowadays)? Life getting harder? Your personal situation is worsening? It’s not your fault.
Lula-supporting, Workers’ Party (PT) leftists often caricature those to be found in this group. Unlike the communist straw men conjured up by right-wing trolls, this is indeed a relevant contingent, and helps feed what Celso Rocha de Barros has called “indignation politics.” But it is a relatively small portion of the Brazilian electorate. If we attach too much importance to it, we run the risk of overlooking how Bolsonaro appeals to a variety of voting groups, including the working-class “new middle class.” The sense of insecurity produced by rising crime rates, shared by almost everyone, is affecting Brazilians and driving Bolsonarism. There is no cognitive dissonance or right-wing fantasy in the general diagnostic: the increase in violence is real. More are killed in Temer’s Brazil than in Pinochet’s Chile. The fantasies, in this case, lie in the solutions peddled by Bolsonaro. But what alternatives are being offered by the left, the center, or the non-fascistic right? In this context, Bolsonaro is the only candidate who gives the impression of truly caring about impunity, widespread corruption, and violence.
In an interview with Rio newspaper O Globo, he said: “We’ve got to let everyone have guns, just like in the United States. I’d let truck drivers and vigilantes have guns, for example. It’s like the Wild West out here, but only one side is allowed to shoot.” This isn’t controversy, it’s bluster. Of course he distorts facts when he says that everyone in the United States can have guns, and that “only one side is allowed to shoot” in Brazil. The less detail, the better. We know that the Brazilian police shoot often, and that they are one of the most lethal security forces in the world. Likewise, we know that drug traffickers’ weapons do not fall out of the sky, and that the drug trade, paramilitary groups and corruption (including inside the police and the military) are interconnected problems. We know that the experiences of other countries suggest that the decriminalization of drugs produces better results than arms build-up and violent conflict. These are complex, challenging discussions. To some, Bolsonaro’s simplistic, steadfast approach is comforting. They have ideology; we have common sense.
In practice, Bolsonaro’s vision for public safety doubles down on failed approaches and ultimately offers more of the same: endless war (the arms and prison industries rejoice). To suggest that more gun ownership will solve the problems of public security is little more than exploiting others’ despair. For Bolsonaro’s supporters, he is a messiah (his middle name is Messias, after all) who promises salvation without sacrifice. Doesn’t seem like a bad deal, but to buy it you have to find it normal for the police and the military to enter favela neighborhoods and kill with impunity, leaving mostly black and poor victims. These deaths, which include police officers, many of them also black and poor, are collateral damage in a supposedly just and necessary war. For them, military intervention and sacrifice; for us, law and order.
Brazil’s version of the dog whistle is less about affirming white pride. But Bolsonarism also rests on a hierarchy where the lives of the black, the poor, and favela residents matter less, when they are not seen as expendable. In a recent event hosted by financial firm BTG Pactual (sometimes regarded as the “Goldman of the Tropics”), Bolsonaro reportedly received applause for the following proposal: helicopters would shower Rocinha (a densely-populated favela) with pamphlets warning that criminals would have six hours to turn themselves in. Once time was up, the police would open fire on the favela.
Many of those who applaud such a proposal would say that they are not racist, and might be offended if someone accused them of it. So our country has not overcome the legacies of slavery. So our society is wildly unequal, inequality has a racial dimension, and the police arrests and kills the black and the poor at a disproportionate rate. Bolsonarism consoles you: “It’s not your fault.”
(Parenthetically: as the campaign evolves, it may get harder for Bolsonaro to reconcile its troglodyte wing with the neoliberals and conservatives who have accepted him as a candidate on the condition of having Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes as his policy guru. But it is a terrible sign that people who identify as liberal and democratic are supporting someone who has flirted with the idea of forced sterilization. It is common for financial elites to think that they can control extremist candidates or right-wing demagogues. They are usually wrong. The road to barbarity is often paved with figures like Paulo Guedes.)
The analytical category of “redundant racism” might be useful here. The idea is basically this: in a society where racial inequality is structural, racism is redundant. In other words, if we woke up tomorrow in a country with no racists, we would still be living in a racist country. A regressive tax system, for example, helps perpetuate racial inequalities by taking more from wage earners and less from the intergenerational wealth of the ultra-rich. To paraphrase Angela Davis: in contexts where racism is institutional, there is no such thing as not being racist. Either you are anti-racist and fighting actively to reduce racial inequalities within institutions, or you are racist. This demands that we take collective responsibility for realities that stem from contexts that precede us, and of which we are not necessarily guilty. It is not an easy task.
Like Trumpism, Bolsonarism adopts a series of procedures that the right usually attributes to the left, not always wrongly: acritical relativization, self-victimization, the PC ploy, and over-estimating subjective perspectives. The inviolable right to one’s own opinion is a way out for those who either want to deny facts or don’t know what they are talking about. So your argument collapses when confronted with evidence? Blame people for not respecting different opinions. At the same time, some Bolsonarists see identity-related agendas as assaults on individual achievement. So you are a minority and you worked hard and overcame challenges? In that case, they say it was all you. Bolsonaro is less vulnerable when we take on his opinions or generic stances than when we question his policy proposals and specific solutions.
When he defends the idea of gun-wielding vigilantes, some hapless supporters might imagine Chuck Norris types saving the day. That must be an insult to upstanding police officers and members of the military who believe that Brazil must remain a democratic, law-abiding society. To think that there are not enough shots fired in Brazil is to show great contempt for those whose lives are most affected by armed conflict, including the police and military members on the front lines of public safety.
In the same interview with O Globo, Bolsonaro says that Marielle Franco’s murder “doesn’t mean anything for democracy,” and that “it’s just another death in Rio de Janeiro.” “We have to wait for the results of the investigation,” he concludes. When Santiago Andrade, a videographer, was struck by a flare and killed during protests in Rio in February of 2014, Bolsonaro had not shown the same restraint, accusing the leftist Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) of being behind his death. This goes way beyond having a double standard; it is a form of absolutist relativism used to justify violence from the “good” side and any conclusion that damns the “other” side. Someone fired shots at the pro-Lula protesters camped outside the prison where he is held? They were asking for it.
The comment about Marielle may seem inconsequential for those who have seen homicides become a routine in Rio de Janeiro. In some sense it is just another death. But for democracy, it means a lot: the assassination of an elected city councilor. A young, courageous, black woman. Who killed Marielle? Who wanted her dead? We can suspect and speculate, but it might be prudent to let the investigation take its course. In Bolsonaro’s comment, however, the dog whistle is in action. The message makes itself heard to those on the side of the murderers, but not to those who would be turned off by it. The cynical or the naive may deny it, but no corrupt police officer, paramilitary group member, aspiring vigilante or hitman would doubt for a moment what side Bolsonaro is on. He whistles, the hyenas laugh.
Marielle was a member of a socialist party, but she also represented qualities that many on the right claim to prize. She fought against adversity and seized the opportunities she got. She helped to renew politics in a society prone to electing members of political dynasties. Marielle represents a threat to the same old Brazilian politics, and was the opposite of the career politicians of the Bolsonaro clan. In her master’s thesis, she shows the importance of recognizing differences, but does not reduce life to a clash between two sides. “The drug trade is cruel, violent, and ravages communities, but the State can’t compete with it by fighting to see who can exert the most violence,” she wrote. “There can be no hierarchy for pain, no room to believe that it is only felt by the mothers of young victims from the favelas. This militarized, warlike State is also responsible for the pain haunting the families of the sixteen police officers who have been killed since the start of the UPP [Pacifying Police Unit] program.” She defended her thesis in 2014.
Marielle names the police officers who died in the line of duty, something that memes criticizing her for “defending criminals” rarely do. She does not call for more government, but for a better government. Marielle had much of the courage that Bolsonarism projects onto idols with feet of clay. She met challenges head on. Her campaign slogan, “I am because we are,” is the antithesis of “it wasn’t me” or “not your fault.” Instead of advancing a withdrawn individualism, Marielle inserts herself in the collective. She recognizes the limits of any single person, and the potentials for drawing strength from being within a community.
Bolsonaro represents a serious threat to democracy; but like Trump, he is more of a symptom than a cause. His candidacy may flounder; he may be too crass and erratic to win a presidential election. But Bolsonarism has already had an important impact, distorting the political spectrum by legitimating extremist positions and pushing the center to the right. In an article in the Folha de S. Paulo, Antonia Pellegrino and Manoela Miklos, based on a new study from social scientist Esther Solano, conclude that Bolsonarism is not a passing phenomenon. It would be all too easy to delegitimize the opinions of his followers and claim the higher ground; but, Miklos and Pellegrino insist, it would not do us much good. Despite increasing aggressiveness against feminism, they argue that feminists should seek dialogue.
It is always easier to organize the world into two sides: good (us) vs. bad (them). Facing the full complexity of our problems and recognizing that there are no magical solutions is much more difficult. Obviously, this also applies to the tempting comfort of anti-Bolsonarism (or anti-Trumpism). We all have our share of responsibility. After all, the incapacity of the left and of institutional politics as a whole to present viable visions for the future is part of what fuels Bolsonarism.
Bolsonarism and Trumpism are not isolated phenomena. Since 2009, Slovakian artist Tomáš Rafa has been documenting street protests, mostly in central Europe. Using direct cinema methods, he records the activities of neo-fascist, homophobic, and xenophobic groups, as well as those supporting refugees and minorities like the Roma, who are often targets of far-right organizations. The project is called New Nationalisms, and some of Rafa’s work is available on his site.
These “new nationalists” often resort to the age-old tack of evoking an illusory past. Slovakian nationalists seek legitimation in fascist collaborator Jozef Tiso, celebrating him as a benign founding father who fought against globalizing forces in the name of his people. This nostalgia is not so distant from that of conservatives in the United States who protest the removal of monuments to defenders of slavery on the grounds that they are part of a cultural heritage. In Brazil, this illusory past surfaces when some claim that there was no corruption under the military dictatorship.
Struggles over historical memory are nothing new, but regressive imaginaries that idealize the past seem to be expanding in the public sphere. The internet provides fodder for any cockeyed opinion about Nazism, slavery, or Pinochet, undermining responsible debate and pulverizing historical knowledge. At the same time, our contemporary impasses pose obstacles to progressive visions and reflections about the future, and about what can be done to overcome the past. The ecological crisis and increasing labor precariousness are upon us. One of the most beautiful slogans of the protests of June 2013 in Brazil, tomorrow will be greater, seems to have fizzled. From a catastrophist point of view, it is as if the dire future, not the past, is already a given – seemingly inalterable, fixed, irrevocable.
The absence of political platforms, projects, or alternative visions sweeping and seductive enough to broaden the horizons of possibility only strengthens the appeal exerted by Bolsonarism and the “new nationalisms” of the far right. All seems lost, but it may be encouraging to recall our terrible track record when it comes to predictions. Who foresaw the conquests of the LGBT movements over the past few decades, for example? On the other hand, the campaign slogan of Brazil’s clown-turned-politician Tiririca – “It can’t get any worse than this” – is never true. Things can always get worse, and Bolsonaro represents an incalculable risk.
Trotsky wrote in 1930: “ If the Communist Party is the party of revolutionary hope, then fascism, as a mass movement, is the party of counter-revolutionary despair.” Bolsonarism may be the movement of counter-revolutionary hope, or revolutionary despair. Bolsonaro represents those who yearn for the return of the dictatorship’s “law and order,” or just want to watch everything go up in flames.
Fears of policies of extermination may seem far-fetched, but isn’t that what we are already doing in name of a war on drugs that is doomed to failure? In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes: “What runs counter to common sense is not the nihilistic principle that ‘everything is permitted’ […] What common sense and ‘normal people’ refuse to believe is that everything is possible.”
Bolsonarism, like Trumpism, is for those who cannot face the music and prefer to offload their responsibility. We must have the courage to face it patiently, compassionately, and firmly. Those who now acquiesce or allow themselves to be seduced may be tomorrow’s perpetrators, or tomorrow’s victims.
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