Right flank, march
With an eye on the presidency, Jair Bolsonaro is bringing ultraconservatism to the electoral playing fieldConsuelo Dieguez
Tradução de Flora Thomson-DeVeaux
Jair Bolsonaro was sitting behind a dark wooden desk piled high with papers when I went to meet him in his office in the Chamber of Deputies late one July afternoon. He had a cold and looked tired. Before I could sit down, he asked me if I liked the pictures on the wall. They were framed photos of the generals who occupied the presidency during the military dictatorship: Humberto Castello Branco, Arthur da Costa e Silva, Emílio Garrastazu Médici, Ernesto Geisel, and João Baptista Figueiredo. “What, who am I supposed to put up there? Dilma?” he said, and guffawed. Then he furrowed his brow and, looking more serious, ordered: “Go on, ask. Ask whatever you want and I’ll answer.”
It doesn’t take much to get answers out of Congressman Bolsonaro. They tend to be cutting, and, in many cases, can easily be mistaken for an attack on the interlocutor. His stances – and the way he expresses them – have garnered accusations of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and fascism on his part. “I bet I’m fatphobic, too,” he said, and laughed again. Bolsonaro rejects the labels. He accuses the “moronic press” – moron is a term he uses often – of misinterpreting his words, when they’re not deliberately dishonest.
Retired army captain Jair Messias Bolsonaro, age 61, is in his seventh term. He was the most popular congressman in the state of Rio in the 2016 elections, with 464,000 votes. Between his 26 straight years in the Chamber of Deputies and the two he spent as a Rio city councilor, he’s been in politics for longer than he was ever in the army. Still, his behavior is far less parliamentary than it is bellicose.
Bolsonaro hates. He despises Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, Lula, Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), the Landless Movement (Movimento Sem-Terra, or MST), Cuba, communists, and any thought or act that might be identified with the left, however distantly. He never beats around the bush: he’s against gun control (“It left landowners open to MST attacks”) and racial university quotas (“Good public schools would let everyone compete on level ground”); he criticizes cash-transfer programs like Bolsa Família (“They should only give it out in extreme cases, so they don’t encourage laziness”) and vehemently resistant to any sexual education in schools that covers gender roles or homosexuality (“They want to warp our kids’ minds”).
Bolsonaro is hated. By the left, by part of the LGBT community, by the MST, and by several other social movements. During the vote to open impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro was spat on by fellow congressman Jean Wyllys of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), just after he had dedicated his vote to the memory of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, notorious for torturing political prisoners during the dictatorship. Jandira Feghali, of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), won’t acknowledge his presence when they cross paths. Maria do Rosário, of the Workers’ Party, wants to see him in jail. In the Chamber of Deputies, he’s exchanged colorfully disrespectful words with more than a handful of his peers, especially those affiliated to the three parties mentioned above. For his efforts, he’s been brought before the Ethics Commission in the Chamber and even Brazil’s Supreme Court.
Bolsonaro is loved. A portion of the electorate is captivated by his wrath. His abrasive style and praise for the military dictatorship – which he casts as a symbol of order and authority, in contrast with the mayhem he sees everywhere – ultimately channeled the frustrations of a part of the electorate at a time of disillusionment with the political class and fervent anti-Workers’ Party sentiment. It is in this environment, and using this base, that the congressman from Rio hopes to see his presidential campaign take off.
In March of this year, Bolsonaro became a member of the Social Christian Party (PSC). Since his debut in politics, as a Rio city councilman in 1988, he’s been through many affiliations: PDC (Democratic Christian Party), PPR (Reform Progressive Party), PRB (Brazilian Republican Party), PTB (Brazilian Labor Party), PFL (Liberal Front Party), and, finally, PP (Progressive Party), which he claims to have left after many of its members were implicated in the sweeping corruption investigation dubbed Operation Carwash. His path to the PSC was cleared by the evangelical pastor Everaldo Dias Pereira, the president of the party. “We got together and signed an agreement saying that if he’s polling at 10% by 2018, he’ll be our candidate.” What made the PSC eager to accept him, according to the party’s president, was the fact that Bolsonaro had never been implicated in accusations of corruption. “He’ll make life hard for his opponents,” he predicted. The PSC was one of the parties backing the former Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, even when grave corruption allegations were hanging over his head. The party president dodges: “As for Eduardo Cunha, I can’t speak to that. I have to wait for the courts to act.”
A leader within the Assembleia de Deus church, Everaldo was the creator of the “Man + Woman = Family” campaign, led by the PSC. As a presidential candidate in 2014, he spoke out against abortion, the legalization of drugs, and full civil rights for homosexual couples. Bolsonaro – who is Catholic, but was symbolically baptized as an evangelical by Pastor Everaldo in the River Jordan along with his sons at the start of this year – found fertile ground in his new home. He always gets applause when he wraps up his speeches with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above all.”
This ultraconservative platform garnered remarkable approval ratings, especially for a candidate who’d never run for the executive branch and was only covered sporadically by the press. For a neophyte, Bolsonaro had risen to around 7-8% in the polls conducted by Datafolha by mid-July of 2016. He’s fighting for third place with Geraldo Alckmin and José Serra, both of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) – in other words, in a dead heat with two veteran presidential candidates – and only falls short to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the Workers’ Party, who has 23%, and Marina Silva, of Rede, at 18%. In spontaneous polls, when interviewees aren’t prompted with a list of candidates’ names, his performance is even more startling: at 3%, he’s just behind Lula, with 6%, and Aécio Neves, with 4%.
At least for the time being, however, Bolsonaro has failed to attract the poorest, least educated sectors of the population. His popularity tracks along with education levels, and polls at 13% among college graduates (a group in which only Marina performs better). The phenomenon is similar when it comes to income: he’s unpopular among the poor, but leads among voters with a monthly household income of five to ten minimum wages, with 20%. His performance among those who earn more than ten minimum wages per month is also encouraging, around 16%, placing him among the leaders.
In the previous Datafolha poll, conducted in April – the month when the Chamber of Deputies voted to begin the process of impeaching Dilma Rousseff – Bolsonaro had led the pack among the nation’s wealthiest voters. In one scenario, he was supported by up to 23% of those earning more than ten minimum wages per month. The first to fish this peculiar result out of a sea of numbers was André Singer, a professor of political science at the University of São Paulo and the author of Os Sentidos do Lulismo, published in 2012.
Singer is keeping a cautious eye on the phenomenon. “What does the choice of Bolsonaro speak to? Radical anti-Workers’ Party sentiment? Support for the return to a military government? A conservative wave in connection with religious intolerance? Anti-Communist sentiment? I include the latter because, although there’s no Communism, we know that anti-Communism is a real phenomenon,” he says, tossing out hypotheses.
Singer has no doubt that this burgeoning far-right candidacy cannot be ignored, but he argues that further reflection is needed before deciding whether it represents something that might conceptually be defined as fascism.
He doesn’t think that Bolsonaro has any chance of winning in 2018, far from it. But he underscores the new element in this Datafolha poll: the income bracket in which he performs the best is not the country’s economic elite, nor the upper middle class. “We’re talking about families making R$4,500 to R$9,000,” he explains. “A four-person family living off R$5,000 a month is lower middle class. In other words, it seems that Bolsonaro is starting to win over an audience that isn’t exactly the type of person who protested on Avenida Paulista [in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment]. What we have to see now is how this is going to evolve, since most people are still unfamiliar with him.”
One thing, he says, is for sure: “A portion of the electorate has become radicalized. The far right has made it into the political arena. They’re in the game.”
The last (and perhaps only) election cycle after the end of the military dictatorship in which a far-right presidential candidate found a measure of traction came in 1994. That year, the cardiologist Enéas Carneiro, a colorful ultranationalist, was nominated by Prona, a tiny party, and came in third after Fernando Henrique Cardoso – who won the elections in the first round – and Lula. With over 4.6 million votes (7% in all), the doctor – who made a slogan out of the words “My name is Enéas” to get around his limited free airtime – came in ahead of veterans like Leonel Brizola and Orestes Quércia. Strikingly enough, the elections were held two years after the impeachment of Fernando Collor.
The retired army captain has more of a following among men: three out of four of his supporters are male. According to Datafolha, he also does well among young people – 65% of likely Bolsonaro voters are ages 16 to 34. He is well aware of this and uses social media with abandon, recording one or two videos on a daily basis and posting them on his networks. Although he has help with the technical side of things, he controls the entire process. “Like I’d let them do anything without my approval. One wrong step can blow me up,” he said, emphatic as usual. And to judge by his numbers, he is, in fact, blowing up. Some videos have been watched over a million times.
With over 3 million followers on Facebook, Bolsonaro is convinced that the platform was the key to the support he garnered in Rio this election. He also credits the internet with electing his son Eduardo, who ran for congress in São Paulo and will also be representing the PSC: “Eduardo’s campaign was all online,” he said, adding that he only went on a brief tour of a few cities in the state in support of his son, a onetime federal police clerk, who also ran on a conservative-friendly platform: security, property rights, and family values. “We spent R$52,000, and he got 82,000 votes,” his father says proudly.
The Datafolha poll confirms Bolsonaro’s impressions of the importance of social media, given his appeal to younger voters. “Young people tend to have less faith in traditional forms of political participation,” I heard from Alessandro Janoni, the director of the polling institute. At the same time, he says, they’re more susceptible to topics like easing restrictions on gun ownership and recklessly hardline approaches to crime, both common refrains for Bolsonaro. “They cluster around their affinities, and social media takes that to the next level.”
Despite his numbers, Janoni believes that Bolsonaro is still a niche candidate. “He’d really have to change his tone to reach lower-income voters, which are a much broader segment of the population.”
Bolsonaro is tall and pale, with bright blue eyes and a permanent scowl. His fingernails are polished and painted with a transparent base. He has the ramrod-straight posture and heavy stride of a man trained to march. We meet again on the morning after my first visit to his office. He’d gotten over his cold and seemed refreshed. This time he met me in his son Eduardo’s office, next door to his. A light-colored wood conference table takes up part of the room, which is airier than the paternal accommodations. Eduardo Bolsonaro spends most of his workday on his computer, sharing videos and writing posts with messages from himself and his father. I asked Bolsonaro about the status of the suit filed against him by his colleague Maria do Rosário, a Workers’ Party congresswoman representing Rio Grande do Sul, to be heard by the Supreme Court. The accusation has been backed by the Attorney General’s office, which is charging Bolsonaro on similar grounds. The complaint from Maria do Rosário (once Dilma Rousseff’s Minister of Human Rights) concerns an exchange between the two representatives in the Salão Verde of the Chamber of Deputies in 2003, which Bolsonaro brought up again in 2014.
The altercation began with Bolsonaro giving an interview to the network Rede TV!, in which he argued that the age of criminal responsibility should be lowered for cases in which teenagers committed heinous crimes. The controversy had to do with Champinha, a 16-year-old who had tortured, raped, and killed a young woman after having murdered her boyfriend. He served his time in a juvenile prison unit, is now 29 years old, and is still held in a psychiatric wing.
Rosário, who was waiting for her colleague to finish up before speaking to the same network, reacted on the spot, saying that when people like Bolsonaro resort to aggressive language, they wind up encouraging violent acts like rape. Looking at the camera, Bolsonaro took the bait: “Record her, record her. She’s saying I’m a rapist.” Then, turning to his colleague, he let out the following: “I’d never rape you, because you’re not worthy of it.” Rosário, infuriated, said that she’d punch him if he tried anything like it, to which he said that he’d punch her back, and then pushed her twice. Rosário called him a maniac; he called her a slut. “What on earth, what on earth?” she said, disbelieving, before going off in tears. In 2014, Bolsonaro referenced the incident on the floor of the Chamber. It was then that Maria do Rosário brought a case against him before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court accepted the cases brought by Rosário and the Attorney General’s office, and Bolsonaro is currently charged with slander and incitement of rape. If he is convicted, he will be expelled from office and lose the right to run for president. The case has yet to be put on the docket.
“Why would I regret what I said?” Bolsonaro, sitting at the head of the table, splayed his palms when I asked about the attack on his colleague. “How about you ask her if she regrets calling me a rapist.” He went on: “If I kick you and you elbow me, you won’t be punished for the elbow. It’s a reflex.” This, he makes a point of explaining, is called reciprocity. “When I say that we’ve got to lower the age of criminal responsibility for heinous crimes, and she’s against it, who’s encouraging teenagers to commit rape – me or her?” Then, in a plaintive tone: “Just imagine a rape victim. Have you ever seen a rape victim? They’re destroyed, physically and emotionally destroyed. And she called me a rapist. She compared me to Champinha.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro turned away from his screen to listen to the conversation. I asked him if he didn’t think his father had overreacted. “Of course not. What, Maria do Rosário calls him a rapist and jumps on him, and he just shuts up and goes home? If he did that, I’d call him a wuss.”
Eduardo, age 32, is the youngest of the three sons from Bolsonaro’s first marriage. (He has a daughter from his second marriage and another son from a relationship between marriages.) His father refers to him as Zero Three. Flávio, the oldest (Zero One) serves in the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro and is running for mayor; Carlos, a city councilman, is Zero Two. They share their father’s ideas: they despise Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, Lula, Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party, the Landless Workers’ Movement, Cuba, communists, and any thought or act that might be identified with the left, however distantly.
Zero Three accuses adversaries of using Nazi techniques to smear his family. “They keep on bombarding you with things until they stick and become true,” he said, referring to the allegation that his father had incited rape. “They wore down my dad’s image so much that they led the Supreme Court to make the insane decision to hear a case against him, which violates his constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary immunity.” As Zero Three sees it, it’s not the Court’s business to control what’s said in the legislature. “I have the right to say whatever crap I want,” he said. “The person who should decide whether it’s crap or not is the voter. And they can do that by not voting for me again.”
Although the Brazilian Constitution does guarantee civil and criminal immunity to politicians when it comes to their opinions, words, and votes, there are some limits on what may be said in Congress. Defending racism is a crime that can be punished with expulsion, for example. That’s why Bolsonaro was quick to explain himself to the Court when CQC, a comedy show on TV Bandeirantes, seemingly exposed him as a racist. In one segment, the singer Preta Gil, the daughter of Gilberto Gil, asked if he would mind if one of his sons married a black woman. He allegedly responded: “Preta, my sons were raised right, they’d never do that. They weren’t raised the way you grew up.” The case became a national scandal. Bolsonaro denies that he says it: “How can I be racist if my second wife is the daughter of Paulo Negão, who, like his name indicates” – negão is the augmentative of the Portuguese word for a black person – “is black?”
Bolsonaro claims that after Preta Gil asked the question, CQC edited in an answer that he had given to a different question – would he allow one of his sons to marry a man? In his defense before the Supreme Court, Bolsonaro requested the raw footage, which he said would prove that he was right; the network claimed that it had been destroyed. Since Bolsonaro argued that he hadn’t answered Preta Gil’s question that way, and since CQC was unable to prove that he’d really said what the recording suggested, he was absolved and the case was shelved. Still, he hasn’t been able to shake that racist image. “That was hugely damaging.”
The image is fueled by the congressman’s stance against affirmative action quotas for blacks. “Hang on,” he says, his voice changing again. “I want to know if you’d like to be operated on by a doctor who got into college through the quota system.” He thinks that quotas are the wrong way to go about things. “The path to work is a good education, one that’ll let blacks compete with whites.”
At the height of the controversy over racism, Bolsonaro asked one journalist if Laura, his five-year-old daughter (from his second marriage, to Michele Bolsonaro) would be included in the quotas. The journalist said no, since the girl was white. “Well, she would, you moron,” he said. “Because she’s the granddaughter of a black man. So do you think that’s fair?” And, circling back to the theory that the press mistreats him, he says that the “media came down like a ton of bricks” when he said that Michele was a light-skinned mulatta. “What’s wrong with that? You’ve got black, white, and mulatto,” he explains. “And, among the mulattoes, you’ve got dark ones and light ones.”
Because of incidents like these, Bolsonaro rarely talks to the press. When he does decide to do so, he records the conversations. On that morning in his son’s office, as I began my interview, an aide came into the room and adjusted a camera, placing it close to me. A short while later, Bolsonaro told me that the interview was being filmed. “That’s how I do it now. Everything I say is recorded, so there’s no risk of you all twisting my words.”
This paranoid-tinged discourse often turns against the Workers’ Party. “They tell lies and I come at them with the truth. And when I come at them with the truth, they attack me. They can’t call me corrupt because I’m not like them, so they make stuff up. They say I defend torture, for example.”
One of Bolsonaro’s biggest clashes with the Workers’ Party and other left-wing parties came during the period while the National Truth Commission was active. Created in 2011 under Dilma Rousseff’s first term, the commission was tasked with gathering information about the torture, death, and disappearance of leftist militants under the military dictatorship, and with naming those responsible. An agreement between the military, the Workers’ Party, and the members of Congress on the commission established that the responsible parties, if named, would not be punished.
To the frustration of many human rights groups, the understanding was that the 1979 Amnesty Law had pardoned all crimes, those committed by the regime as well as by its opponents. Bolsonaro told me that during the three years that the commission took to discuss its reports in Congress, he was the only representative to defend the military – which he did ferociously. “I showed what the left did. They killed our people. They were terrorists. They struck first, when they put a bomb in Guararapes Airport in Recife, back in 1966,” he argues, agitated. “The ultimate goal of the Truth Commission was to put it in the textbooks that those guerrilla groups – and José Dirceu, Dilma Rousseff, and Carlos Marighella – were national heroes. That they were right, and that we, the military, were wrong.”
Bolsonaro won’t use the word “coup” to refer to what happened on March 31st, 1964, when President João Goulart was deposed by the Armed Forces. “In a coup, there’s a hit and then you take over. But right here in Congress, on April 11th, 1964, there was an direct election and Castello won.” (Actually, it was an indirect election.) What happened in Brazil back then, according to Bolsonaro, “isn’t what the left preaches and the media echoes. We had democracy, we just didn’t have elections for president or for the state capitals.” He’s fond of bringing up the military regime in Cuba. “What’s democracy? Freedom, right? Ask your dad if you could leave the country back then. You could. And in Cuba, you can’t.” When I said that unions and opponents of the regime were persecuted, the press and cultural production were censored, and that there were arbitrary arrests and torture, he reacted badly. Few things infuriate him more than saying that the dictatorship tortured leftist militants.
Bolsonaro has defended Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra more than once. The colonel, who died last year, was the head of the Department of Information Operations at the Center for Internal Defense Operations (DOI-Codi, in Portuguese), in São Paulo, which became one of the nation’s leading torture chambers under his tenure. Political prisoners accused Doctor Tibiriçá – that was his code name – of leading sessions of electric shocks, the “parrot’s perch” (a stress position in which victims are hung from a bar by the backs of their knees, hands tied to their ankles), drowning, beatings, and psychological torture. For this, he was judged and recognized as a torturer by the Supreme Court of São Paulo.
As Bolsonaro sees it, if these practices were employed, it wasn’t government policy, just the discretion of a few individuals inside government agencies. He likes to quote the book A Verdade Sufocada: A História que a Esquerda Não Quer que o Brasil Conheça, by Brilhante Ustra, in which the author describes repression of the regime’s opponents as self-defense. Ustra doesn’t deny the torture, although he doesn’t make explicit reference to it. And he doesn’t agree that the Geneva Convention – which established the principle that enemies captured in battle can’t be tortured – would apply to Brazilian political prisoners. As he saw it, they were “terrorists,” and “there’s no place in the world where terrorism is fought with flowers.” Bolsonaro agrees: “Do you think that if you had Bin Laden in jail and thousands of people’s lives were in danger because of a potential terrorist attack, the Americans wouldn’t torture him to make him talk? You think they’d just wait for people to die?”
The candidate’s debut in politics came after he was banished to the reserves, as punishment for having led a movement calling for a pay hike. In 1987, an article in Veja Magazine revealed that then-Captain Bolsonaro had planned to plant low-impact bombs in the bathrooms of the Agulhas Negras Military Academy, in Resende, in the state of Rio, and in one of the water mains for the Guandu reservoir, in Rio de Janeiro. The idea was to call attention to the troops’ low wages. Bolsonaro was said to have told the magazine about the plan, then backed down when it came to light. The magazine turned all the material over to General Leônidas Pires Gonçalves, then the Army Minister, including a map drawn by the captain that indicated where the explosives would be placed. The general bought the magazine’s version, and Bolsonaro, at age 32, was sent to the reserves. He only escaped a discharge because the Military Supreme Court found the material “inconclusive.” “Veja pushed me into the eye of the hurricane,” he says, claiming that “90% of what was published in that magazine wasn’t true.”
He’d been drawn to the Army as a teenager in Eldorado Paulista, the town in the Ribeira Valley where his family had moved after leaving his hometown, Glicério. As a boy he’d helped his father, a dentist, make dentures and prosthetics – “I was really good at sculpting dentures.” By the age of 12 he was financially independent, earning money by fishing and harvesting hearts of palm.
In early 1970, Carlos Lamarca set up a training base from which to fight the military regime, precisely in the Ribeira Valley. That’s when Bolsonaro found out that the guerrilla fighter had been active in the region. “He came through, wounded six soldiers, took Lieutenant Alberto Mendes Júnior hostage, and then beat him to death like a monster.” From then on, Bolsonaro and other boys in the region would start helping the Army. “I knew the forest like the back of my hand, and I’d give the soldiers information about the area.” Lamarca would be killed in the state of Bahia in September of 1971. In 1972, Bolsonaro took a correspondence course to train as an electrician, and then applied to join a military prep school. He was accepted to the Agulhas Negras Military Academy, graduated with a degree in physical education in 1983, and was promoted to the rank of captain. He married Rogéria, a tall, blue-eyed blonde with whom he had his three oldest sons, served in the army in the state of Mato Grosso, came back to the Vila Militar in Rio, and was sent from there to the reserves.
Shortly thereafter, he started his campaign for city council, promising to fight for higher wages for soldiers. His campaign had extremely limited resources, but he was elected. His son Flávio, or Zero One, says that Bolsonaro bought plain T-shirts and painted his face and campaign number on them himself (in Brazil, citizens vote for candidates by punching in a number). Sometimes he’d paint Beetle Bailey – who goes by the name “Recruta Zero,” or “Recruit Zero,” in Portuguese. “He’d do it all himself,” says Zero One, brimming with pride. He remembers that his father would photocopy campaign flyers on a Xerox machine lent to him by an acquaintance.
Bolsonaro’s eldest has an office on the fifth floor of the Legislative Assembly in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Like his father and brothers, he has light brown hair and blue eyes. His approach, however, is more laid-back. As soon as I arrived, he gave me the card for a Kopenhagen chocolate shop in Barra da Tijuca that he owns. “You never know how long you’ll stay in politics, and it’s important to have a plan B,” he explained.
Zero One studied law (although he’s not a member of the Brazilian bar association), took graduate courses in public policy, and is running for mayor of Rio. The elections are in October; during the first debate, hosted by the Bandeirantes network, Zero One felt ill and almost passed out on air. The moderator quickly called a commercial break and fellow candidate Jandira Feghali, who has medical training, rushed to help him. Bolsonaro wouldn’t let her touch Zero One. “She’s going to give my son strychnine,” he bellowed. Feghali shot back, calling Bolsonaro a “fascist on trial for rape.” “You’re not going to get raped,” he answered. Zero One had to bow out of the debate. His father consoled him in military fashion: “That’s all right, Zero One. Just do a few push-ups,” he said to his son, who was sitting in the audience as he recovered. Flávio later thanked Jandira.
Given his legal knowledge, Zero One tends to help his father draw up bills. One such bill proposed chemical castration for rapists through the use of libido-reducing drugs. Flávio Bolsonaro avoids defining himself politically. He says he’s “on the side of what’s right.” He grasps for a definition. “I’m in favor of the market, and I think people should stop depending on the government. That doesn’t mean I’m insensitive to social problems.” And he complains that the left doesn’t even give the Bolsonaros a chance to be right-wing. “It’s a shallow, prejudiced debate. They cast us as the far right because we’re against the way things are. They call us intolerant, radicals, Nazis,” he said, with the air of someone repeating a mantra.
Flávio Bolsonaro describes his father as an easygoing, funny man who is caring with his family – unlike Geraldo, his grandfather, who he says was a harsh disciplinarian and struggled with alcoholism. “My dad always defended us whenever we got up to trouble. My mom was the tough one.”
Jair Bolsonaro talks incessantly, sliding from one topic to the next without stopping for so much as a drink of water. On the morning I met him at Zero One’s office in Brasília, he also tried to explain his stance on homosexuality, which has also given him a reputation as a homophobe. From his point of view, the left started attacking him after he opposed the material that became known as the “gay kit.” The fight began in 2011, when the Ministry of Education’s Department of Continuing Education, Literacy, Diversity, and Inclusion prepared an anti-homophobia packet to be distributed to 6,000 public high schools. The kit included three videos, an informational booklet, six activity sheets, and a letter introducing the material to educators. The videos, for which the Ministry of Education shelled out R$3 million, were created with the help of NGOs that support LGBT causes. One of them, “Text,” depicted a burgeoning romantic relationship between two teenage girls; another, “Meeting Bianca,” told the story of a trans girl; and a third, “Probability,” depicted a bisexual relationship.
Once alerted, Bolsonaro set up a hue and cry in Congress, winning the sympathies and support of the evangelical community in the process. As he saw it, this all amounted to the workings of a left-wing plot: the Workers’ Party administration wanted to set children against their parents to “denigrate families and indoctrinate young people to become government militants.” By the time the videos made it to the public, they had already been vetoed for use in schools by then-minister Fernando Haddad. The ministry’s Social Communications sector had judged them “inappropriate and in poor taste,” as I heard from Nunzio Briguglio, who was serving as the ministerial secretary of communications at the time. Thanks to that decision, Briguglio fell out with the NGOs involved in the project. “That was a massive headache,” he says. President Rousseff met with the evangelical caucus to announce that the material would be banned. Haddad was called into explain himself. Despite his explanations that the material wasn’t official, the damage had been done.
Bolsonaro became so agitated when talking about this topic that his son had to ask him to calm down. He paused for a beat and then went on. “I couldn’t give a crap if someone’s gay or not. I’m not leading a gay-hunting squad. What a father doesn’t want to see is his six-year-old son playing with a baby doll because his school influenced him.” The furious tone continued as he returned to the object of his greatest enmity: “The PT latched onto the cow’s teat like a botfly worm.”
The topic shifts to the Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST, another of Bolsonaro’s foes, who argue that they have the right to occupy unproductive land: “If it’s up to me, rural landowners will have rifles on hand to fight them.” On his trips through the Brazilian interior, especially to Goiás and Mato Grosso, where agribusiness – one of his strongholds – is strongest, audiences go wild when he shouts another one of his trademark phrases: “Our calling-card for the criminals in the MST is a 7.62 rifle cartridge.” He doesn’t worry about accusations that he incites violence. “So sue me for approval of a criminal act. Protecting private property isn’t a criminal act, invading it is.”
Bolsonaro believes that left-wing bills in Congress are an assault on private property. He quotes Constitutional Amendment 81, from 2014, which concerns slave labor: proprietors caught using it will lose their land. “I’m against slave labor, but I can’t allow the property to be confiscated. You wind up punishing the whole family because the owner made a mistake.” Proposals like these, he says, generate tremendous insecurity around private property, which is sacred in his book. That’s why he argues that “every decent citizen should have a weapon to defend himself.”
Political scientist and economist Eduardo Giannetti, the author of Trópicos Utópicos, calls attention to the discourse of fear. This sort of approach is typical of the right wing across the world, and Bolsonaro has wholeheartedly adopted it in Brazil. Giannetti lists the fears of citizens across the world, as he sees them. His list includes financial collapse, inflation, unemployment, terrorism, immigration, climate change, and the destruction of family values. These anxieties tend to be inflamed by right-wing candidates, who then present themselves as bulwarks of the comfort and security that people crave. The tactic speaks to human beings’ most visceral feelings. “The more threatening the candidate can make the future out to be,” says Giannetti, “the easier it is to sell the notion of order, inflexibility, security, and policing.” By feeding fears that family values are hanging by a thread, public safety is collapsing, and property is in danger, these politicians present themselves as saviors, leaders who will stave off the destruction of the world around them. A playbook used by Donald Trump in the United States.
Bolsonaro’s track record in terms of passing legislation is negligible. In 26 years in Congress, he’s proposed few bills and passed even fewer, most with little or no relevance. His most high-profile proposal, which garnered him a measure of notoriety, was an amendment to make the electronic voting machines print paper receipts. “It’s the only way for parties to control electoral fraud,” he claims.
And yet, as he walks down the halls of Congress, he seems less like a congressman and more like a pop star. No matter where he’s headed, he’s interrupted countless times with requests for photos or videos. Men and women, most of them young, hasten over to express their admiration. Bolsonaro smiles and gives them a thumbs-up – or points his fingers as if he were holding a submachine gun, in what has become his signature gesture. Young people love the miming and imitate it in their photos. On his walks through the Chamber, he’s almost always accompanied by Eduardo – or Bolsonarinho (Little Bolsonaro), as Zero Three’s peers call him.
On that July afternoon, after a visit to Pastor Everaldo, Bolsonaro was approached by a group of young people from the Nova Aliança Church in Santa Catarina. He repeated his spiel against sexual education he said was designed to “pervert children in schools,” and complained about Maria do Rosário’s case against him: “They want to take me out of combat.” One young woman suggested: “They’re afraid of 2018.” Elias Lisboa, the leader of the troop, proposed that they pray for both father and son. They formed a circle around the two of them and prayed for all evil to pass away from them. From there, Bolsonaro and Bolsonarinho went on to a seasonal party being put on in the offices of the president of the PTB, one of the parties Bolsonaro once belonged to.
One Saturday in late July, Bolsonaro went to Bangu, in Rio’s West Zone, to take part in the PSC convention formalizing Flávio Bolsonaro’s mayoral candidacy as well as the candidacies of a few dozen would-be city councilors. The city council candidates filed on and off the stage at the Bangu Atlético Clube. The social hall was decorated with green and white balloons, the color of the party, and packed with families with children. God was evoked constantly. Speakers also mentioned bringing back human values, respecting families, and talked about the lack of public security.
When Jair Bolsonaro’s entrance was announced, the audience went wild. As he tried to make his way to the stage, he was embraced, photographed, and hailed with cries of mito (legend), or “Bolsomito,” as his supporters refer to him. Anderson Bourner, a cheerful, chubby candidate for city council, had been keeping a close eye on Bolsonaro. He told me that he was right-wing, and complained about the authoritarian tendencies of the left. “The left wants to divide people into poor and rich, white and black, gay and straight. I have right-wing gay friends who support Bolsonaro. That whole homophobia thing is just made up to hurt his image.”
Charlo Ferreson, a young woman with curly blond hair, was electrified by the congressman’s presence. A hairdresser and one of the leaders of the Revoltados Online movement (one of many groups protesting against the Workers’ Party administrations), she identified herself “anti-PT” and said that she’d helped mobilize people in support of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. During the massive protests that swept Brazil in June 2013, Ferreson said that she took part in Ocupa Cabral, a movement in which young people camped outside the building of Rio governor Sérgio Cabral to protest his administration.
Now she and her group publicize the congressman’s agenda of trips across Brazil, helping make sure that there are crowds to greet him at the airports where he lands. I asked why she supported him. Because he was the voice of the right wing, she said, and defended work, family, entrepreneurism – all of which she believed the left sneered at. “The left looks down on us. They call us conservative and scorn our values, like they’re right about everything.” She, like Bolsonaro, is against casting the poor as victims. “They always think that poor folks are helpless.” And she accuses Bolsa Família of supporting people who simply don’t want to work.
Onstage, Bolsonaro took to the microphone. In a few words, he said that Brazil was a mineral powerhouse but didn’t take advantage of its resources, unlike Japan and Korea, who had almost nothing and were doing everything. He criticized corruption, said that his mission was to help lift up the country, and presented himself as a candidate. “Being president of the Republic isn’t an obsession, it’s a mission.” He ended the speech to applause, concluding by saying that “The left can call me whatever they want, except…” And the audience chorused: “Corrupt!”
The confidence with which Bolsonaro’s followers identify as right-wing is striking. In the 1960s, the writer Nelson Rodrigues, who called himself “the only reactionary in Brazil,” mocked his conservative compatriots who called themselves moderates. Historian Daniel Aarão Reis Filho agrees, albeit without Rodrigues’ sarcasm. As he sees it, Brazilian society was always quite conservative, although right-wing thought remained somewhat under wraps. That had to do in part with the fact that until fairly recently, being right-wing meant being associated with the dictatorship. Reis sees right-wingers coming out of the closet as a novelty. “Right-wing sectors here always denied the label. That negation wound up distorting reality and left lots of people with a feeling of complacency, the notion that democracy in Brazil was consolidated and that a right-leaning society was a thing of the past.”
Another reason why these groups may be manifesting themselves has to do with the failure of certain left-wing policies. “By abandoning a number of reforms, especially the notion of political reform, the Workers’ Party and the left never garnered the respect they desired from social and political elites over the course of fourteen years in power,” says Reis. At the same time, they failed to implement profound changes in key areas like healthcare and education. As Reis sees it, the Workers’ Party lost sight of its reformist aims and settled into the old pattern of corrupt dealmaking.
On his way out of the event in Bangu, Bolsonaro agreed to talk to me, stopping under the overhang of the supermarket across from the event space. He was impatient. A circle soon formed around us, and two young members of the Direita Já (“Right Wing Now”) movement, from the state of Minas Gerais, started filming the interview. I asked that they not publish anything on their blog, to which one replied: “We won’t publish it. You can trust the word of the right wing.” I asked Bolsonaro about his plans for the economy, if elected. Returning to his onstage posture, he ran down a few of his proposals, talking about the need to cut down on the tax burden so as to increase production, and once again defending private property. When I asked about the interest rate, he criticized the current president of the Bank of Brazil, Ilan Goldfajn, who had insisted on keeping it high, but stumbled over the name. “Goldchain, Gold, I don’t know how to say his name” – he admitted, and plowed on – “He came out of an institution where he was pulling in R$5 million per year after taxes and went off to earn R$33,000 a month. And he kept the rate at 14.25%.” The insinuation being that Goldfajn’s ties to private banks were among his reasons for not lowering interest rates.
So what did he plan to do about the matter? He’d have to dialogue with society and not impose certain reforms, “like Temer’s trying to do now.” When I asked if his moves to control the deficit wouldn’t be top-down, he bristled. “You’re trying to put me up against the wall, but I’m not going to follow you.” I said that I was trying to find out how he planned to manage the economy if elected president. Pastor Everaldo, who had been watching from a distance, came over, worried about his compatriot’s change in temper.
Bolsonaro, still speaking as if he were onstage, laid out a few of his solutions for the country. Following Israel’s example, Brazil would have to desalinize seawater to irrigate the backlands of the Northeast. “The transposition of the São Francisco River won’t meet the needs of the population.” And the government would have to be cut down through the privatization of state-run companies. Everaldo interrupted him just then, pointing out that during his 2014 candidacy, he had argued in favor of privatizing Petrobras. Bolsonaro disagreed; he didn’t plan to sell the state-run oil company.
As for the challenges he’d face in trying to pass reforms on the scale of a tax reform or a series of privatizations, coming from a small party with little representation in Congress, Bolsonaro was clear-cut: “Whoever votes for me will have to vote for senators and deputies who think like me so we can make these changes happen.”
He bristled again when I brought up the fact that he had praised Eduardo Cunha [jailed in October 2016 on corruption charges] during the vote on the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. “I said ‘for the way you’ve led the proceedings in this Chamber, congratulations, Eduardo Cunha,’” he corrected me, practically bellowing. “Did you hear my vote? Or do you think Arlindo Chinaglia would’ve sent the impeachment request on to the commission?” Chinaglia, who represents the Workers’ Party, had been one of Cunha’s rivals for the role of Speaker.
Slightly less agitated, he said that it was important to recognize Cunha’s work on the Constitutional amendment that raised the mandatory retirement age for the judges on the Supreme Court, thus denying Dilma Rousseff several nominations. “She was going to put three more on the Court. Can you imagine Cardozão, Wadih Damous, and another one – who knows, maybe Senator Gleisi Hoffmann?” he asked indignantly. “We’d have a Supreme Court worse than Venezuela’s. And you, Miss Journalist, you’d be the first to lose your job, because the first thing dictatorships do is gag the press.” Finally, he declared: “Most of you all in the media are brainless leftists, because you can’t see that you’ll be the first victims of these dictatorships.”
The PSC is headquartered on one floor of an old building in downtown Rio. In early August, I met Bolsonaro in a spartan conference room. Seeming excited, he was followed by his driver and bodyguard, a former paratrooper. He joked that he’d agreed to a new interview on Pastor Everaldo’s orders. “He’s worse than an army officer. He almost made me do fifteen squats.” He interrupted the conversation to take a phone call. Cabeça (“Brain”), one of his advisors (they all have nicknames), was sending over a video about Bolsonaro’s appearance at a ceremony in Brasília that morning, where new generals had been presented with swords. As he pulled up the recently edited video, he pointed to São Paulo Workers’ Party congressman Carlos Zarattini, who had been standing next to him and sending WhatsApp messages during the ceremony. “Look at this PT moron.” He called the advisor. “Not good, Cabeça. Put in more of me with [Defense Minister Raul] Jungmann and General Enzo [Peri], and take out part of the ceremony.”
The video wound up inspiring a new round of attacks on the left. This time the target was the “adorable Secretary of Human Rights, Flávia Piovesan,” he said sarcastically. “That one was picked by Temer’s daughter, who they say is a PT sympathizer.” According to Bolsonaro, Piovesan had spoken out in favor of revoking the Amnesty Law and punishing army officers who fought the guerrilla group organized by the Communist Party of Brazil in Araguaia, Pará, in the 1970s. “How dare she.” After that morning’s ceremony, Bolsonaro complained to Jungmann: Piovesan had spoken out against the measure that granted immunity to the soldiers taking part in the security forces for the Olympics, protecting them against prosecution for crimes during the event. She had proposed that they should be tried in criminal court, not through military tribunals, which Bolsonaro thought was madness. “Just imagine if there’s a free-for-all and a soldier accidentally shoots a civilian. They’ll want to try him in criminal court, he’ll be thrown to the media, and they’ll give him thirty years.”
As he got back to explaining his plans for the nation, Bolsonaro made it clear that he aligns quite closely with the projects of the military dictatorship. He supports the building of hydroelectric dams and the expansion of mineral extraction, warning that indigenous lands are a hindrance: “You can’t build a dam to benefit the state of Roraima because the river goes through a reserve. You can’t take advantage of its mineral wealth, either, for the same reason.” Then he turned to fearmongering. “You know what’ll happen? Since that’s the Indians’ territory, soon they’ll want to break away from Brazil. And there’s a ton of foreigners mapping out our natural resources, disguising themselves as NGOs.” He paused for a moment, seemingly reflective. “I bet they’re going to accuse me of wanting to kill Indians now.”
Without blushing, Bolsonaro announces that all of these regulations will be revised if he’s elected in 2018. “We had to swallow the PCdoB at the head of the Ministry of Defense,” he says, referring to the tenure of Aldo Rebelo, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of Brazil. “But if I’m elected president in 2018, I’ll put our folks there.” In the Ministry of Defense? “Not just in Defense, but across all the ministries. There’ll be no room for people with other ideologies. The PT didn’t put a single general in. Why would I have to put some leftist in one of my ministries?” He leaves no margin for doubt: “I’m not going to negotiate with the PT, the PCdoB, or PSOL. I hope they’re swept off the map.” Once in the presidency, wouldn’t he have to negotiate with all the parties? “The next Congress will be farther to the right. And we won’t have Daddy’s daughter asking for jobs for her little friends,” he said, pitching his voice higher.
Bolsonaro hasn’t cracked open a book in a long time. He says he only reads the newspapers. He also says he doesn’t have time to go to the movies or cultural events. In terms of music, he likes Agnaldo Timóteo.
In politics, until recently he had two idols. The German chancellor Angela Merkel had been one of them, until she opened up her country’s borders to Syrian refugees. “Let’s be clear,” he says, “I’m not against refugees. But you can’t just open up the borders indiscriminately, without any control. Because good people come in, but so do lots of bad people.”
He circles back to Brazil, referring to the 2013 “Mais Médicos” program that hired Cuban doctors to work in underserved areas. “Who can guarantee that those Cubans are all doctors? And what if there are terrorists among them? What control do we have? None, not even when it comes to professional competence, because they don’t even go through the ministerial certification process.” When I pushed back, suggesting that talk of terrorism was hyperbolic, Bolsonaro looked over at the driver in the corner of the conference room and, smiling and jutting his chin towards me, recited: “If you want peace, prepare for war,” from the Latin proverb Si vis pacem, para bellum (Georg Luger would take the last two words to baptize his trademark pistol, the Parabellum). “We’ve got to be prepared for the worst.” He continued listing his concerns about immigration, shifting to the Haitians who had entered Brazil en masse in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. “We have no way to deal with all of these people. We don’t have jobs, we don’t have the infrastructure. That’s going to be a problem.” He said that during one press conference a journalist had needled him by saying that if they were Swedish refugees, he wouldn’t be complaining. “Like any Swede wants to come to this backwater, you moron,” was his answer. “Now, if I criticize those policies, they call me a xenophobe. Listen up – I’m not against immigrants, I’m against them coming into this country without any control.”
As for his other idol, General Garrastazu Médici, who presided over the most repressive period of the military dictatorship in Brazil, Bolsonaro has no reservations. “He was an excellent president, he built fifteen hydroelectric dams, and he stamped out the Araguaia guerrillas, saving us from a FARC” – referring to the leftist Colombian guerrilla movement – “in the Brazilian jungle.”
On August 6th, around six-thirty in the afternoon, Bolsonaro was at the wheel of his armored Land Rover. That Saturday, he’d be taking part in the PMDB convention announcing the party’s candidate for mayor of Nova Iguaçu, a city of 800,000 in the Rio metropolitan area. Two days earlier, an alliance of seventeen parties, including the PSC and the PT, had agreed to support the incumbent, Nelson Bornier. Along with Bolsonaro rode Sargent Hélio Lopes, also known as “Hélio Negão” (Black Hélio), a candidate for city council, and Bolsonaro’s press officer, Waldir Ferraz, who’d made his career in the Merchant Marine. Friends from his barracks days.
As he drove, he warned the sergeant – a tall, muscular black man sitting beside him – “If we get there and it’s all crooks, we don’t have to stand behind them. That’s their problem. My goal is to talk to the 3,000 people who’ll probably show up. I’ll say, ‘There’s a fix for Brazil, it can be cured,’ and then I’ll leave.” Nelson Bornier is a close ally of Eduardo Cunha’s and is being investigated through Operation Carwash.
Bolsonaro doesn’t see any problem in both standing against corruption and showing up at the party for a candidate under investigation by the Federal Police. “If I can only work with the pure ones, I won’t get anywhere,” he says pragmatically. “It’s like looking for a virgin in the red-light zone. There are no saints in the Chamber of Deputies. If one shows up, they’ll give him a cross to carry. Hey, I’m being called before the Supreme Court.” He parked his car in front of the rec center in Nova Iguaçu and a small crowd soon gathered around him, asking for selfies. One young man explained why he supported the congressman. “He doesn’t treat criminals like victims,” he said. “I live in a favela, and I can’t stand all these criminals threatening us.” One young man with long hair and a pierced ear came over to the congressman, who seemed taken aback at his appearance. The supporter joked: “What, you think right-wingers can’t have long hair?”
In the middle of the crowd, even the granddaughter of famed leftist leader Leonel Brizola – Maria Inês, a candidate for city council – came over to Bolsonaro and asked to take a picture with him. When he saw the interaction, Rodrigo Brasil, a young entrepreneur also running for city council and a fan of Bolsonaro’s, couldn’t resist: “Brizola must be spinning in his grave.”
As Bolsonaro was swept along toward the stage, Ferraz, his press officer, joked: “Just think of how many lunch-meat sandwiches they must’ve handed out here today,” referring to the party’s efforts to bring in people for Bornier’s event. When the congressman finally made it up onstage, nearly three hours after he’d arrived, he was hailed once again: Mito! mito!
He was only able to disentangle himself from his fleet of fans and get back in the car at nine-thirty p.m. He turned on the radio, which was tuned to news about the security crisis in the Rio Grande do Norte following uprisings in the state penitentiary system. Minister Jungmann was heard saying that the Armed Forces had been sent to the state capital to guarantee order. Bolsonaro couldn’t help himself. “When things get rough, that’s when they remember the Army. Everything else is the dictatorship and Araguaia.” The reporter said that two men attempting to loot a cell phone store had been killed by the police. “That’s a start toward fixing the situation,” Bolsonaro said to himself.
Bolsonaro seemed pleased with the event that night. He spoke about his chances of being elected president. “Lula’s going to be in jail, and Aécio is taking fire. I’m not saying I’m out to get people. It’s bad enough that we have to vote to take Eduardo Cunha out. But with things heading that way, my chances look better.” He explained why he felt prepared to lead the country. “Put me, Lula, and Dilma in a room and give us the Enem [Brazil’s equivalent of the SAT]. If I don’t score better than both of them together, you can say I’m not prepared.” And he guffawed.
The car pulled onto Avenida Lúcio Costa in Barra da Tijuca, which was lined with barriers as part of the preparation for the Olympic Games. The scene reminded him of his days as an athlete in the Army. I asked him if he missed it. “It was nice, y’know, there was camaraderie. Friendship. In politics you’re surrounded by crocodiles.” Then he voiced a worry. “If they get Bornier in Operation Carwash, the media is going to come down on me like a ton of bricks.” Bolsonaro stopped the car outside the gate to the seaside condominium where he lives so that I could get out. He said goodbye, and then appealed to me: “Watch what you write about me. Please, don’t destroy a dream I’ve had for 25 years now.”
 José Eduardo Cardozo, Dilma Rousseff’s former Minister of Justice and her lawyer during the impeachment proceedings. Wadih Damous is the former president of the Rio de Janeiro bar association, a Rio congressman with the Workers’ Party.
Consuelo Dieguez, repórter da piauí desde 2007, é autora da coletânea de perfis Bilhões e Lágrimas, da Companhia das Letras