Hall of infamy: Jair Bolsonaro
JOB: President of Brazil
REPUTATION: Trump of the Tropics, also known as Captain Chainsaw
As the world faces crisis upon crisis, you can always count on Jair Bolsonaro to do whatever he can to make matters worse. Whether it is the climate or the Covid-19 pandemic, the former military officer turned politician relies on conspiracy-based notions underpinned by macho toxic masculinity. He is a cultural warrior in the Trumpian mould: loud in his opposition to same-sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion, drug liberalization, secularism and any kind of affirmative action. He is a law-and-order guy obsessed with the rights of gun owners. In the three years since he became president, he has been a tremendously polarizing figure both at home and abroad.
His 2018 electoral campaign against the leftist Workers’ Party (WP) used WhatsApp to great effect, and mostly succeeded because the conservative Brazilian judiciary engineered the imprisonment of legendary WP leader Lula Di Silva taking him out of the electoral game. Bolsonaro had served for 22 years as a federal deputy representing Rio di Janiero State and was known for his ideology of ‘national conservatism’ which privileged liberal ‘free market’ solutions and a foreign policy tilt towards the US and Israel. During the presidential campaign he was the victim of a lone wolf knife attack of debatable seriousness. Or perhaps the beneficiary: the incident amplified his reputation as an outsider fighting against entrenched elites who would use any means to defeat him.
As President his list of failures and missteps beggars belief, with Covid-denial and encouraging the destruction of the Amazonian rainforests top of the pile. It’s as if Bolsonaro is deeply committed to the destruction of his own species. The Brazilian senate certainly thought so. It launched an investigation into Bolsonaro for downplaying ‘the little flu’ (Covid-19) and resisting vaccinations, resulting in a crippled healthcare system and 600,000 dead Brazilians. Throughout the pandemic he pranced around maskless (he caught a mild case) and promoted so many anti-science myths that YouTube found it necessary to yank 15 of his Covid-related videos from the web. By the spring of 2020 Brazil had lost two health ministers, the last quitting in frustration after only a month.
But it is climate degradation and particularly the ravaging of the rainforests that may be his most lasting ‘legacy’. He has managed to remove all the restrictions on illegal logging that the former Workers’ Party administration of Dilma Rousseff was pressured to implement. He also worked to undermine the rights of the Amazonian indigenous peoples who serve as protectors of the region. His nickname of Captain Chainsaw is well-earned. The stakes are high here. The US-based Natural Resources Defense Council believes ‘the 1.5°C target is probably out of reach’ if deforestation in Brazil is not tackled. Bolsonaro realizes the importance of the Amazon as an essential carbon sink and uses it as leverage for big payouts to Brazil (read himself and his cronies): he is only frustrated the money will come with so many climate-related restrictions.
But it looks like everyone is tiring of his antics. Even if he escapes all his various legal troubles his popularity has plummeted to 22 per cent from an already low 33 per cent in the spring of 2020. If he is allowed to run again for president later this year, Lula looks likely to win. All the Tropical Trump can do (much like his Yanqui namesake) is double down to appeal to his shrinking and increasingly rabid base. He simply lacks the strategic flexibility to pivot away from his brand of crude rightwing nationalism. The world is holding its breath.
LOW CUNNING: Bolsonaro has become the champion of the double down. Accuse him of human rights violations and he claims that torturers during Brazil’s military dictatorship should have killed their opponents rather than simply torturing them. Accused by NGOs of despoiling the Amazon, he proclaims that ‘Brazil is the virgin that every foreign pervert wants to get their hands on’.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: Two examples of his ‘jokes’. ‘Indians are undoubtedly changing … They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.’ Or in discussion with WP member of congress, Maria do Rosário: ‘I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it.’ Pretty funny, heh?
Sources: Huffington Post; NACLA Reports; Rolling Stone; The Washington Post; The New York Times; The Guardian.