Update, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at 3 p.m.: On Sunday, a crowd of Jair Bolsonaro supporters estimated to be in the thousands invaded government buildings in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia to protest what they say was a rigged presidential election. The buildings have since been cleared and more than 1,200 people arrested. On Monday, Bolsonaro’s wife said he has been admitted to a hospital near Orlando, Florida, because of abdominal pain.
Original story, Jan. 6, 2023: On Dec. 31, 2022, a Brazilian expat account posted a photo on Twitter of outgoing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, a tall man with a gone-to-seed look and a beaky nose, wearing a blue polo shirt and eating what appears to be a chicken thigh at a KFC outside Orlando, Florida. On Jan. 2, progressive activist David Adler reposted the picture with the caption “I will pay a large commission for a painting of this photograph of Brazil’s disgraced ex-president Jair Bolsonaro eating KFC in Orlando, Florida on the day of Lula’s inauguration.” According to Twitter’s metrics, Adler’s post has been viewed 4.3 million times.
For the record, Bolsonaro’s rival Lula—Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—was inaugurated on Jan. 1, and Bolsonaro, whatever one might think of his right-wing politics, is not “disgraced” in the conventional sense of having resigned amid scandal or criminal prosecution. It is, nonetheless, intrinsically funny to see a world leader—someone associated with awesome power, tailored suits, and diplomatic summits in the Alps—seated at a Formica tabletop, head hunched over his body, lips barely maintaining their purchase on a moist, dangling string of chicken and loose breading that was purchased for something like six dollars in central Florida. It is what Alexander Pope would call bathos.
But this is not the first photograph of now-former president Bolsonaro to “go viral.” Far from it. Indeed, for a certain left-leaning segment of the American news audience, he is less relevant for his place in world affairs than because so many images of him are, for some reason, very funny.
To wit, another viral tweet posted six days later, to which is attached a video of Bolsonaro walking in a circle, by himself, at a Publix supermarket—presumably also in Florida, where there’s a significant Brazilian population—without having possessed himself of a cart or basket:
(Krohn wrote later that he would like to credit the individual who shot the video, but isn’t sure where it initially came from.)
Going back further, to the time when Bolsonaro actually held power and was considered, by some, a threat to the very future of the planet, there is this tweet, which assembles a series of images of him in hospitals, a setting he finds himself in frequently:
What’s going on here? To understand, we can begin by rewinding to the launch of Bolsonaro’s career:
[Bolsonaro] became known to the public in 1986, when he wrote an article for Veja magazine criticizing low wages for military officers, after which he was arrested and detained for 15 days.
Being jailed by the repressive state isn’t a classic comedy situation … but it’s kind of funny when it happens to an aspiring nationalist strongman attempting to make his first move into the public eye, and is described in text that is adjacent to the following profile picture:
So, Bolsonaro is a onetime military man who served more than 20-plus years as a hardline conservative in Brazil’s congress. In 2018, he ran for president as a Trump-like figure who “tells it like it is.” He endorses torture, has a long history of expressing extravagantly homophobic opinions, and made news internationally even before his run for the presidency for making an extremely crude comment to a female legislator.
While running for office, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen during a rally by a man who was later determined to be mentally ill. Again, that’s not funny funny, but it’s at least a quaint way to attempt an assassination, and he survived.
Complications from the stabbing are one of the reasons Bolsonaro is in the hospital so much, but not the only one. He has also been hospitalized (or isolated) after falling in the bathroom, getting COVID in 2020 (he has downplayed the threat of the virus and says he’s not vaccinated), developing a bladder stone, being part of a Brazilian U.N. delegation that was overwhelmed by COVID in 2021, and developing a skin infection called erysipelas on his leg that made it painful for him to wear pants. During his first COVID quarantine, Bolsonaro went outside to get some air and was videotaped getting bitten by an emu-like bird.
Comedy professionals told me that the contrast between Bolsonaro’s menacing personal goals and their history of being undercut by Mr. Bean-like misfortune may explain why an image of his face can trigger positive feelings. “He’s basically Squidward or Wile E. Coyote,” former 30 Rock and Modern Family writer Vali Chandrasekaran said. Daily Show writer Jason O. Gilbert had a similar take: “It’s the same reason that photos of Trump standing are funny. [Bolsonaro] presents himself as an infallible alpha male but every photo of him in the hospital looks like a Looney Tunes cartoon.” Added Gilbert, “Also, he is constantly giving a stupid thumbs up when he looks like the sickest man on the planet.”
Chandrasekaran put me in touch with the Chilean comic Fabrizio Copano, who also compared Bolsonaro to the U.S.’ most nominally macho ex-president, and added some political context. “He’s a Trump with no ‘winning,’ ” Copano said. “Even the economy was a mess during his term. He was trying to copy-paste every Trump behavior, but without the effectiveness or the luck.” (Bolsonaro’s approval rating was underwater, sometimes by more than 30 points, during almost all of his time as president.) These particular events, inflicted on this particular man, feel just. Picture Hitler getting hit square in the crotch by a soccer ball going 50 miles per hour. Ha ha!
What does the future hold for the world’s silliest-looking supporter of letting police officers execute suspects on the street? Probably going to the hospital, perhaps in Florida, where Bolsonaro reportedly plans to stay for one to three months to make extra sure he is not going to get arrested in Brazil. He’s staying there with a featherweight MMA fighter who, for some reason, has a Minions-themed bedroom. There’s a photo of them together in which Bolsonaro, who once had to be hospitalized because he’d been hiccuping for 10 days, is wearing padded UFC-brand fighting gloves and trying to look tough but failing to suppress a goofy half-smirk. Don’t laugh at that, though, please. There will be no more laughing at the former president of Brazil today in this forum, even if something ends up happening to that tiny string holding the giant anvil over his head.