The “Brazilian Trump” and what it feels like to relive the 2016 election

October 7 marked the first round of voting in Brazil’s presidential election, with a race that many commentators have compared to the US’s in 2016. It’s, uh, a frustrating time to be here. I don’t claim to know a whole lot about Brazilian history, culture, or politics—but I still have certain experiences and perspectives, and those make it difficult for me to navigate conversations about what’s going on.

(A disclaimer to any Brazilians reading: I know it can be frustrating to read about a foreigner spouting off some half-informed opinions about your country. I know I’m no expert; I’m just trying to synthesize what I’ve heard and learned and read.)

I’ve observed three major trends with this election: no one is happy with the candidates, fears are swirling with varying degrees of founded-ness, and the international comparisons I’ve heard are as a rule pretty terrible.

So first, some background

This is not Brazil’s finest hour. The country is still emerging from its worst-ever recession, its murder rate has hit an all-time high, and its current president, Michele Temer, regularly garners single-digit approval rates. Meanwhile, the country is still reeling from 2014’s Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), an investigation into a sprawling corruption scandal that has implicated over 500 politicians and cost more than US$2 billion 

It’s not an exaggeration to say everyone’s upset. And when politicians are so baldly corrupt, when crime and the economy are getting worse, and everything tends to just end in pizza—I can understand why I haven’t heard a single person express pride or hope in the immediate future of the country. Instead, I’ve found that if a conversation veers anywhere near politics, people are quick to share their frustration and disgust with the corruption they see as endemic to nearly every level of politics.

The national mood in Brazil hasn’t always been so dire. The first time I can really remember learning about Brazil (in a high-school presentation) was in the context of the BRICs, a group of economically ascendant countries. And indeed, in the early twenty-first century, Brazil was experiencing a lot of growth:

During the two‐term, 2003–10 presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as “Lula”), Brazil’s GNP saw steady growth as millions of poor Brazilians experienced unprecedented upward economic mobility (Loureiro 2012; Pochmann 2012; Souza 2012). Neri (2014) estimated that poverty fell by more than 55% during the Lula years, with nearly nine million households (more than thirty million people) rising out of poverty…

Economists have explained these poverty reductions as the combined result of commodity and consumer debt–driven economic growth, labor market expansion, new social welfare and education programs, and increased minimum wages. During the first twelve years of PT [the Worker’s Party] governance, the overall unemployment rate decreased from 13.0% to 5.0%, informal employment decreased from 22.5% to 13.0%, and unemployment insurance coverage increased by 99.0% (Weisbrot, Johnston, and Lefebvre 2014). Growth in formal‐sector employment allowed millions of Brazilian workers to receive mandated labor‐law protections and benefits for the first time (e.g., pensions, paid sick leave, disability benefits, and regulated work hours and conditions). Additionally, through various educational reforms, average school years completed rose from 4.98 in 1992 to 7.46 in 2011, and the number of enrolled university students increased from 3.04 million to 7.04 million (Weisbrot, Johnston, and Lefebvre 2014).

(Klein, C. H., Mitchell, S. T., & Junge, B. (2018). Naming Brazil’s previously poor:“New middle class” as an economic, political, and experiential categoryEconomic Anthropology5(1), 83-95.)

In 2011, Lula left office with an approval rate of nearly 90%. In the years since—which have seen the recession, the Lava Jato scandal, the impeachment of Lula’s successor, and the jailing of Lula himself—that number has tanked.

Here’s where things get hazy, depending on your political views. Either PT’s corruption caught up with them, or their leaders were the target of a political coup.

To hear supporters of this theory tell it, the coup kicked off with Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, getting impeached in 2016. The official charge was some budgetary subterfuge, technically illegal but also widespread among Brazil’s politicians. As I understand it, Dilma was really the only one to face any consequences. Meanwhile, her vice president  (Michele Temer, whose party was in coalition with Dilma’s) declared his intention to run against PT in 2016. When the senate voted to impeach Dilma, Temer’s party controlled the most seats.

The second part of this coup hit the following year. In July 2017, as part of the Lava Jato probe, Lula was sentenced to ten years in prison for accepting bribes from an engineering firm (in the form of a US$750,000 beachfront apartment). Lula’s lawyers argued he never actually owned the apartment. In January of this year, the conviction was unanimously upheld by a court of appeals; in April, the supreme court ordered (in a narrow 6-5 decision) that Lula be imprisoned, sparking protests around Brazil.

Up to this point, Lula had been considering running for a third term in October. And like, being in jail didn’t stop him. PT went so far as to nominate him in early August, and he wasn’t officially barred from running, despite the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Committee,  until 37 days before the election. Polls at the time suggested he was easily the most popular candidate. When he dropped out of the election, he endorsed ex-mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, as PT’s candidate.

What happened during the first round of the election

Unlike in the US, where the electoral college means that you can theoretically be elected president with just 22% of the popular vote, Brazil has a two-round direct election. About a dozen candidates run in the first round, and if no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two candidates have a run-off election a couple weeks later. Also, voting is permitted after turning 16 and mandatory for everyone between 18 and 70. (The fee for not doing so, however, is laughably small—less than a dollar.)

On October 7, during the first round of the election, PT’s Haddad garnered only 29.3% of the vote. The majority of votes (46%) went to the candidate of the right-wing Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro: the so-called “Brazilian Trump.”

A former army captain and current congressman for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro is a—to put it lightly—divisive figure. Like… just look:

And like, these aren’t isolated incidents. As far as I can tell, Bolsonaro returns to these themes over and over, doubling down on his violent, dehumanizing rhetoric. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that his campaign has ties to Steve Bannon.) He has degraded basically every minority group in Brazil and openly flirts with what I would call fascism. And yet, he nearly won the first election round outright. So the question then becomes “…why?”

The lesser of two evils

Really quickly, I’m going to sketch out the most benign case for Bolsonaro. First and foremost, he’s not corrupt—or at least, he hasn’t been involved in a corruption scandal yet. He’s also the law-and-order candidate, which understandably resonates with people who are sick of living in a constant state of fear. And finally, he’s something different—a a fiery new variable in a political equation that hasn’t managed to yield the answers it should.

For many people, it seems that a vote for Bolsonaro is really more a vote against PT. Brazil’s growth during the Lula administration coincided with a commodities boom that financed many of their social programs, but its recession during Dilma’s term led many to believe that PT was mismanaging the economy. Meanwhile, PT has racked up its own history of corruption, including the Lava Jato investigation and a 2005 vote-buying scandal called Mensalão. Critics also decried the Brazilian National Development Bank’s generous loans to Venezuela and Cuba (among other countries), which don’t really look like they’re about to be paid back.

I’ve talked to a number of people who voted for Bolsonaro, some of whom admit they don’t know a lot about politics. But for them, PT (and in many cases, Lula) is synonymous with corruption—and they can’t bring themselves to vote for more of it.

However, Bolsonaro also channels some pretty ugly political currents—the sort of naked racism, homophobia, and misogyny that I’m frankly shocked to hear spoken aloud. Bolsonaro hasn’t created these prejudices, but I think he has emboldened the people who hold them. Just as hate crimes in the US increased alongside Trump’s rise to power, there’s already been a spate of politically motivated violence by Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil. And I think there’s a lot of racism bubbling underneath the surface of Brazilian culture—like when my host mom’s brother-in-law told me that the problem with Brazil was that it didn’t have the “higher roots” the US had: you know, being settled by northern European colonists instead of African slaves and indigenous people.

I don’t know the extent to which Bolsonaro voters are grappling with this. I feel like the ones who are most willing to recognize his shortcomings rationalize that his power will be limited by congress, and they join Bolsonaro critics in pointing to his rather empty record of political achievements as congressman. Others suspect that his words are just hollow bluster or have been taken out of context—which I’ve found to be true only on the most technical level. I’m also hard-pressed to imagine a context in which any of those quotes would be okay.

On the other hand, the alternative to voting for Bolsonaro is voting for Haddad. Trying to capitalize on what remains of Lula’s popularity, he has portrayed himself as closely aligned with the jailed politician—and indeed, many of his critics fear he would be just a puppet Lula could control from prison. Plus, PT has the baggage of corruption and a recent history of failed economic policies, which in some ways feel like just more of what has brought Brazil to this mess to begin with.

Between the US and Venezuela

In my experience, the two countries most often invoked as comparisons in this election are the US and Venezuela. For what it’s worth, I think both comparisons are pretty bad.

To start with: it’s not hard to draw the parallels between Bolsonaro and Trump. But in comparing the two, I think you lose a lot of the insight that’s necessary for understanding what these two wildly divisive figures mean. Clearly, they have their similarities. But as a senator, Bolsonaro’s not a political outsider in the same way Trump was; similarly, Trump lacks the everyman background that Bolsonaro (who joined the army after being born into a working-class family) can boast.

These distinctions between Trump and Bolsonaro are important. Given Brazil’s history with dictatorships—which some people still defend!—and the current military occupation in Rio de Janeiro (which doesn’t really seem to have worked), I think Bolsonaro’s pro-violence and pro-dictatorship remarks are incredibly troubling. Calling Bolsonaro “the Brazilian Trump,” completely overlooks this historical context and (in my opinion) portrays Bolsonaro as more benign than he is. To be sure, I also find Trump to be an odious president—but the US government has a longevity and stability to deal with him that Brazil’s 33-year-old democracy simply does not.

Alongside these comparisons is the general sense I get that many Brazilians want Brazil to be more like the United States. A common response I get while chatting with Uber drivers is “Everyone wants to go to America; why did you come here?!” If the US has an outrageous strongman president, maybe Brazil should get one, too. Trump is by no means idolized in Brazil—in my experience, he’s treated as sort of a laughingstock, especially following the well-respected Obama—but people seem to recognize that the US economy is doing well under his administration. (I agree with them, but I also point out the economy has been improving fairly steadily since before Trump took office and that I understand it’s too early to really see the effects of some of Trump’s policies, like tax cuts and tariffs.)

If the US is the ideal, though, Venezuela is the bugbear. A common refrain among Bolsonaro-supporters in Brazil is that PT wants to turn Brazil into Venezuela—a claim that I personally find bizarre, given that I can’t imagine anyone eulogizing Venezuela’s current situation. And moreover, PT was in power for like 14 years and (as I understand it) had a track record of fairly moderate economic policy. To be sure, PT was maybe friendlier to Venezuela than hindsight suggests would’ve been prudent. But claims that they’re explicitly trying to bring Venezuela’s crisis to Brazil seems to reflect more fear than sense.

2016 all over again

With such a heated election between two terrible candidates, it feels like I’m back in the US circa. 2016. And honestly, it sort of sucks.

In Caxias, nearly 62% of voters chose Bolsonaro in the first round, compared to just 13.6% for Haddad. Over the past month and a half, I’ve repeatedly had the experience of listening to people I respect and trust—including some professors and students at UCS—say some really stupid things. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t bring up politics with some of my friends, just because I’d rather operate under the assumption that they’re decent, informed people.

By “stupid,” I don’t just mean “disagreeable.” Whatsapp is a huge vehicle for fake news in Brazil, and I can recount about a half-dozen instances of people insisting on something that I later discovered to be factually incorrect. In the moment, hearing those things puts me in an awkward situation—I suspect that something’s not right, but because there is still so much I don’t know about Brazil, I don’t feel like I have the authority to issue a judgement on it. My usual course of action is to ask follow-up questions to gauge the information’s reliability and nudge my conversation partner to think a bit more critically about it, but so far that’s just gotten me more misrepresented/decontextualized/incorrect information. It’s tiring, and honestly frustrating, especially when these incorrect statements spread misinformation about already-vulnerable groups of people.

What’s even more frustrating for me is that Brazil’s election this year is not just an analogue of 2016; it’s an echo. I deeply suspect that Bolsonaro would not be as popular now had Trump not been elected president two years ago. What I’m increasingly realizing is the degree to which the actions of the US affect the rest of the world, even just in terms of setting norms for what is appropriate or desirable. And so I don’t just get to relive the ugliness of the 2016 election here; I also get to be reminded of its ongoing global effects.

Where this all leaves me

Let me reiterate: I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on this. I feel like I’m just beginning to assemble all the pieces, but I have no idea how to weigh their relative importance, much less evaluate the truthfulness of the various narratives they make up. I also approach this election more idealistically, having never been personally impacted by events in Brazil’s recent history. (And if anything, I’ve benefitted from the real’s weakness against the dollar.) So I want to repeat that my observations and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said: if I had to vote, I would vote for Haddad. I agree that Brazilian politics are heavily corrupt, but I don’t think voting for Bolsonaro is enough to change an entire political system, much less the culture within it. And for me, the potential costs of a Bolsonaro victory—considering his hate speech, glorification of violence, and open disregard for democracy—are entirely too dangerous to outweigh the benefits that one non-corrupt candidate would bring.

If recent polls are to be believed, the majority of Brazilians don’t agree with me: Bolsonaro boasts leads of 16-32 percentage points, depending on who you listen to. By all accounts, he’s likely to win when Brazilians head to the polls this next Sunday.

Where that leaves Brazil… I don’t know. But I guess we’ll see.

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