Journalist Carol Pires talks about why ultra-conservative congressman Jair Bolsonaro has a growing following and what it means for Brazil.
He has called for a return to dictatorship. He has said he would rather his son die than be gay. He told a fellow congresswoman he wouldn’t rape her because she was “not worthy of it.” And he might be Brazil’s next president.
Brazilians will elect a new president in October, and Jair Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old far-right congressman and former army captain, is a leading contender in the polls. He trails only former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—who is in prison serving a 12-year sentence for a corruption conviction.
Bolsonaro “is the symptom of a country in crisis,” says Brazilian journalist Carol Pires. “He’s like a machine gun for hate—and he’s finally hit the target because people are concerned about the same things he is.” She spoke with Roads & Kingdoms about why he’s garnered a following and what it means for South America’s largest country.
Roads & Kingdoms: Bolsonaro is known for making incendiary, misogynist, and homophobic statements. Why do so many Brazilians support him?
Carol Pires: He’s been in Congress for 27 years and was always a sort of crass, angry politician—he’s not known for having passed any meaningful legislation. He once said that the problem with Brazil’s dictatorship (which lasted from 1964 to 1985 and which left hundreds dead) was that it hadn’t killed more people—that it should have killed 30,000 more Brazilians, including [former President] Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was exiled during the regime. He would often make homophobic and misogynistic comments and the like.
Then in 2016, during the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, when he voted in favor of impeachment, he used his time at the podium to praise the chief of a famous torture unit during the dictatorship (Rousseff had been tortured during the era). From that point on, he became a national figure, present on social media and travelling around Brazil.
In the beginning, I don’t think any journalists or political analysts thought he would go any further than Congress. But now here we are. He’s the symptom of a country in crisis.
R&K: Can you talk about that crisis?
CP: I think Brazilians are suffering from some post-traumatic stress. In 2013 we had unrest in the streets—people were protesting spending on the World Cup and Olympics. Then the 2014 elections were incredibly polarizing, and a leading candidate—Eduardo Campos—died in a plane crash during the race. Then we had the lava jato corruption investigation, which showed how widespread corruption on both sides is. And many of those implicated, including President Michel Temer, are still in positions of power.
People are disenchanted with the political system, but we don’t have any new leaders.
Economically, we are in the middle of a crisis. Storefronts are closed, unemployment is high, and extreme poverty is on the rise. Crime in many cities is on the rise, and when Bolsonaro says “let’s kill these people,” [referring to criminals] it’s a solution people can grasp. He presents simple solutions to complex issues, like arguing that more people should be armed so they can defend themselves against criminals.
So I think that’s how we got here. People are disenchanted with the political system, but we don’t have any new leaders.
R&K: I find it so striking that Brazilians are willing to vote for someone who praises the dictatorship. Are a lot of Brazilians nostalgic for that time?
CP: I don’t think they are nostalgic. Around 60 percent of Bolsonaro’s supporters are under 34, so they never lived under the dictatorship. They really don’t know what it was. There have been some attempts at forming truth commissions—like Argentina, which also had a dictatorship—but Brazilian politicians have chosen to compromise. The idea is let’s move on. Let’s not dig into this.
Now we’re seeing why that was a mistake. Our youth don’t know our past. So it’s not that they are nostalgic—they don’t know how it was. And when Bolsonaro says there was no crime and the education was better during the dictatorship, they just believe him.
R&K: What’s the profile of a Bolsonaro voter?
CP: They are young. They have been to college. They are mostly men. They are wealthier than the average Brazilian, and many live in the south of Brazil [a part of the country that is wealthier than the rest of the country but which has also seen a dramatic uptick in crime in recent years].
R&K: Last year, you accompanied him to a military cadet graduation. What was it like to be around him and his supporters?
CP: He’s usually portrayed as this angry guy, and at the event he was smiling and making jokes and taking selfies. It was still really different, and important to see what people see in him.
I look at him, and I don’t think he’s a charismatic figure, but I’ve covered politics for 12 years now, and I had never seen a politician other than Lula being received the way he is. One thing you have to understand is that these people grow up during the Workers’ Party government, which lasted 13 years, so for them, the left is the establishment.
R&K: You wrote that Bolsonaro’s supporters wanted selfies and that they weren’t reaching for hugs—as some of Lula’s supporters had. What did that tell you?
CP: Lula was this sort of paternalistic politician. When appointed Dilma Rousseff as his successor, he’s sold her to people as the “mother” of Brazil because he was the father. People wanted someone who would take care of them—that was the model of politics in the past.
Bolsonaro’s supporters are not looking for a father. They are looking for a someone to restore order. They are not looking for hugs—they are looking for tough love. What I saw in this scene, where Bolsonaro was pausing for selfies, was someone giving quick solutions. They want to post on their social media accounts—and he knew it. So he was not trying to hug them. I think he understands this new way of doing politics.
R&K: He’s often compared with Trump—how similar are they?
CP: One big difference between them is that Trump’s got the Republican party’s support. Bolsonaro’s running with a very small party. Brazil has something like 27 political parties, so if Bolsonaro is elected, he’ll have to make a lot of compromises to pass any legislation.
But like Trump, I would say he saw, before everyone else, that there was this mass of working-class people and people from the countryside who are not covered by the press, people who had [become disillusioned]. And he was able to capitalize on their frustrations.
R&K: So what happens if he wins?
CP: I really don’t know. In the past, Bolsonaro always supported big government. But his economic advisor is neoliberal and contradicts Bolsonaro’s policies. He will also have to make alliances with other parties, and that might temper his speech.
At one point he talked about doubling the number of seats on the Supreme Court, but then he walked back on that, so I think it’s unclear what he would do. But people may have more access to guns, you might see more police violence, and even more people imprisoned.
I think his election would be a step backwards for Brazil.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.