How Dangerous Is Jair Bolsonaro?

The far-right candidate will probably be Brazil’s next president. What sort of damage will he do?

Brazil's right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro next to his son and senate candidate Flavio Bolsonaro gives a thumb up upon arrival to vote in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on October 7, 2018.
Brazil’s right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro next to his son and senate candidate Flavio Bolsonaro gives a thumb up upon arrival to vote in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
Fernando Souza/Getty Images

On Sunday, an extreme far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, came close to winning an outright victory in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. Because his 46 percent fell short of a majority, he will face Fernando Haddad (who captured 29 percent of the vote) from the leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, in three weeks. Still, Bolsonaro’s rise is shocking: The former army captain has spoken warmly of Brazil’s two-decade-long dictatorship that only ended in the 1980s—and these remarks stand in contrast to his comments on women, and black and gay people. (He claimed he would rather his son die than be gay, said a woman was too ugly to rape, and told parts of Brazil’s black population that they should “go back to the zoo.”) But his get-tough approach to crime seems to have won over many voters. Meanwhile, a court declared former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is the most popular figure in the Workers’ Party—which governed the country for more than a dozen years until 2016—unable to run; he is currently in jail for corruption. His predecessor, the Workers’ Party’s Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office in 2016 in such a manner that left many Brazilians feeling they had witnessed a coup.

To talk about the results, I spoke by phone on Monday with Lilia M. Schwarcz, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo, and the co-author (with Heloisa M. Starling) of the new book Brazil: A Biography. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how dangerous Bolsonaro is likely to be if he wins, why Brazilians are so angry about their current situation, and the crucial role evangelicals played in Sunday’s vote.

Isaac Chotiner: Bolsonaro has been written about in the American press as another in the long line of strongmen around the globe, from Trump to Duterte in the Philippines. How helpful or not helpful do you think it is to look at him through that prism?

Lilia M. Schwarcz: Bolsonaro is, I think, a worse version of Trump, because Trump was not a [military guy] for example. Bolsonaro was in the military for a long time. He came from the army.

But you are right that he looks like politicians all over the world. He represents this very radical right wing. Yesterday, he started saying that the vote is fragile, which is not true. Like Trump, he uses the politics of fake news. But he is fake news. He does not like to talk about his projects. He does not like to talk about culture, about education—that kind of stuff. Bolsonaro is very much a phenomenon that we can see all over the world that represents the growing of this very radical right wing.

What explains his ability to get 46 percent of the vote?

I think what explains Bolsonaro is, first, the violence in Brazil. He promises that he’s going to put an end to violence. Bolsonaro has a way of speaking that he promises everything, but I don’t know if he is capable of delivering the things he is promising. But we are going through an economic crisis, cultural crisis, political crisis. If you look around, everybody is like, “OK, what happened?” People are very angry. People are very mad at politicians and Bolsonaro presented himself not as a politician, even if he is, [but as] a kind of Messiah. People like these kinds of promises.

Like Trump and some of these right-wing populists, he’s managed to win over religious voters, correct?

He’s very much connected with evangelical churches. It’s not true about Catholic churches. He’s very much evangelical. Evangelical churches are all over the country. It’s a very, very strong group and a very conservative group. He’s also very strong in the rural areas, the person that wants to have guns, that thinks that the problem in Brazil is violence. That’s true—the problem in Brazil is violence and a lack of safety. You cannot walk freely in the streets in a lot of different towns. This is a very deep problem, a very deep question in Brazil.

But even so, the answer Bolsonaro is giving is the more radical one. I don’t know if you saw his picture when he was in the hospital. The first time they were allowed to photograph him [after as assassination attempt], he wanted to appear to make with his fingers the image of a gun. It’s really terrible for Brazil.

What else did you make of the results?

The PT lost a lot, but the northeast of the country is still very strong for them. I think that now what Fernando Haddad has to do is show he is not a Lula puppet.

You know about Lava Jato, no?

The Car Wash corruption investigations, which ultimately put Lula behind bars?

That [investigation] was very important for Brazil because it tried to stop corruption that was inside the state. That was important, but at the same time Car Wash created this kind of anti-PT sentiment around the whole country. Now Haddad has some very urgent challenges. First of all, he has to show that he’s not a puppet. Second, he has to try to create a match with the other parties. Ciro Gomes, who was the third one in the election, already said that he’s not [for] Bolsonaro. He is wanting to be part of this new coalition. They all have to show that they really desire to create a democratic and open coalition. Let’s see what’s going to happen. It’s too soon.

How do you look back on the anti-corruption investigations that have roiled Brazil the past few years, the Car Wash investigations you mentioned? Do you think that they were a necessary thing for the country, or do you think that ultimately they were politically motivated and helped pave the way to where we are now?

What happened in Brazil, after Dilma’s impeachment, the executive power became very weak because Michel Temer, our president, is very weak. He’s very corrupt. He’s worse than Dilma. They never proved that Dilma had the kind of corruption that she was charged with.

The judiciary in Brazil is very, very, ideological. It’s very, very connected with politics. In my opinion, Car Wash was very important when they started, at the beginning of the process, and then when they tried to answer in other areas, I think it was not very good for our democratic system. It’s not good when you do not have equal powers.

If Bolsonaro is able to win, what specifically are you worried about him doing in Brazil? Where is Brazil’s democracy weakest?

First of all, he always talks very much against minorities, meaning women, black people, the LGBT population. He’s very, very much against this kind of thing. Second, his advisers already said that if Bolsonaro wins, they will start to make a new constitution. They are not going to call the people that were elected to write the constitution. They are going to create a special group. This special group is a terrible group. One of the people of this committee said that he was going to cut all the books that said Brazil had a coup d’etat. All the books are going to be cut. They are going to use censorship. For example, Bolsonaro picked one book about sexuality, a very well-known book written by a French author, published all over the world. He said it’s pornography. He’s using this idea of censorship. Also he’s using this idea about self coup d’etat. He says, “If I have any problem, I will ask the army to answer and to join me in my government.” That’s very much Bolsonaro. Democracy is very fragile.

Are there ways in which the democracy has gotten stronger since the dictatorship toppled in the ’80s that you think will make it harder for Bolsonaro to undermine?

I think it’s going to be a very important test. We finished our book in 2014. We wrote that at that moment, 2014, that our institutions were very strong. Then, when we were going to publish the book in English, we decided to write another conclusion saying that institutions are not strong in Brazil at all. As I explained to you, the judiciary is too strong and the other two powers of the state are too weak. I do not know what’s going to happen because of this.
Institutions are very fragile.

Is there any chance that the judiciary will stand up to Bolsonaro the way it did to the Workers’ Party?

I hope so. I hope the judiciary finally will show that it’s a neutral power, that it has to be. Yesterday, for example, it was the first time in Brazil that when they finished counting the votes, they showed on television all the judges together to say that democracy was very strong, that we had no problems in our elections. That was a very important answer, to reassure Brazilians that they are in power. But we are talking about a person that has straight connections with the military. His vice presidential running mate, Gen. Mourao, is from the military. Let’s see what’s going to happen.