Understanding The Bolsonaro Presidency and Brazil’s Transition From Times of Hope to Hate

Recently-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is often referred to as the “Trump of the tropics”. The ideals which he ran on, known as Bolsonarismo, include furthering the military, and generalizing marginalized groups including indigenous peoples, feminists, activists and the queer community as vagabundos, or cheaters; criminals. Bolsonaro won 55% of the vote and his message resonated especially with young voters.  Bolsonarismo is a stark change from Lulismo, the ideals of president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or “Lula”. Lula’s presidency was characterized by times of reform and hope, especially for the younger generation and the middle class. The question that much of the world is trying to answer is how did Brazil go from progressive leadership under Lula with a rhetoric of hope, to the right-wing, othering leadership of Bolsonaro with a rhetoric of hate. In her extensive research, conducted by analyzing the behavior of Brazilians in the largest favela of Porto Alegre, Rosana Pinheiro Machado attempts to answer that question.

Pinheiro separated her research into two distinct parts. The first, is the “Hope” era, spanning from 2002 to 2014, the height of Lulismo. Pinheiro explains that one large aspect of the success of Lula’s presidency is the conditional cash transfer program, which, partnered with visibility, representation and affirmative action measured helped to lift 40 million people out of poverty. Once these people were lifted out of poverty, they were able to start contributing to the economy by purchasing manufactured goods in a sector that their financial status had previously excluded them from. In interviews that Pinheiro conducted, previously lower-class individuals reported feeling like “they existed” for the first time. However, these consumptions were considered to by a fundamentally political act, as people were buying things and going to places (such as shopping malls) that were previously just reserved for the upper-class. Through their consumption, interlocutors challenged the traditional dynamic of racism and sexism in the country.

Once lower-class citizens realized the power of consumption, they began to demonstrate in larger capacities. Rolezinhos are another type of political act that challenges the neo-liberal policies of the country and cause spectators to question who belongs in which spaces. These “flash mob” type of demonstration arose in 2014 and are typically put on by lower-class young boys in upscale shopping malls and public parks. More than a way to have fun, rolezinhos represent a kind of symbolic political act because these people are engaging in spaces that weren’t designed for them. However, they were met with enormous backlash by the elite class and the state. Malls closed their doors and instituted additional security measures, yet, the boys continued to demonstrate. Investigating this type of left-leaning political demonstration, Pinheiro came up with the following hypothesis in 2015: the younger generation of boys in Brazil are turning to the left.

However, the election results of 2016, this hypothesis was clearly proven false. So, what happened? In the second part of her research, Pinheiro analyzes the “Hate” period in Brazilian history. First off, the economy collapsed. Many of the social initiatives put forward by Lula proved to be unsustainable, leading to a 10 point decrease in GDP in 5 years. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, offered a solution to these problems. The political environment in Brazil continued to worsen when, after mass demonstrations prompted by corruption scandals. president Dilma Rousseff was impeached. In 2016, there was a massive corruption scandal involving a political bribe which caused more demonstrations across the nation. As the socio-political system worsened, Bolsonaro and his promises to improve the crumbling economy grew in popularity. Furthermore, the lower-class people in Porto Alegre who had previously seen their way of life and status in society improve under President Lula, were now faced with the poverty that they had experienced before Lula was elected. Even though the lower-class fit under Bolsonaro’s broad definition of a vagabundo, he still offered improvement. Therefore, even though that early on in the rise of Bolsonarismo, the politician was little-known by the mainstream media, among the now-struggling lower-class, he was a common household name. Young men were especially interested in his campaign promises of the traditional gender roles that kept men holding power and his rhetoric of machismo. Additionally, Bolsonaro outwardly argued that citizens should be able to carry firearms for their own protection; a position that resonated strongly young men living in poverty who had not only seen the effects of gun violence first-hand, but who saw owning a gun as a symbol of power. Young women on the other hand, reacted to Bolsonaro’s gender discrimination with staunch pro-feminist positions. As Bolsonaro rose in popularity, more and more young women in Porto Alegre became willing to share their opinions with Pinheiro in fact, in roundtable discussions, they oftentimes overpowered the men.

Another possible reason for Bolsonaro’s rise in popularity, according to Pinheiro, was his appeal to the working class. In past administrations, primarily men, who had resisted the pull of drug violence and joined the workforce, were often worse off financially then they would be had they joined gangs. They’ve developed a strong identity related to being hard-working and honest, even in a society where there are very few jobs available and even fewer well-paying ones. This group of people hear stories of drug lords playing soccer and watching Netflix in jail and reflect on their own financial situation; thinking that they are being punished for living honest lives. Bolsonaro, who vehemently denounced drug traffickers as criminals and as “vagabundos”, is especially appealing. Furthermore, Bolsonaro made an effort to visit and make a connection with voters, making people think that they had a personal relationship with him. For many of these working-class citizens, voting for Bolsonaro felt personal; a vote for him was a vote for the law and a vote for a sense of belonging.

To an outsider who hears Bolsonaro’s violent, racist, homophobic and discriminatory rhetoric, it can be difficult to understand how Brazil elected him in the first place. Pinheiro’s research, spanning from the prosperity under the early days of Lula’s presidency, to the “dark days” of Bolsonaro, helps to explain the average citizen’s reasoning. By “othering” much of society and using words of hate to turn citizens against each other, Bolsonaro offers improvement from a dire economic situation. Yet even in these times of hate Pinheiro offers words of optimism. Since Bolsonaro’s election, many have taken to advocating for change. Female activism alone has gone up by 50 percent and a new wave of young women are organizing collective action on social media. Perhaps it is this new wave of activists who will bring real change, not the kind that comes from words of hate.