How Bolsonaro takes Trump’s extremes to the extreme
On the rise of a certain president, Brian Winter, editor in Chief of Americas Quarterly, remarks that, in a politically divisive election year, “… a lot of voters heard those comments and thought, aha, this is a guy who is going to do things differently…” Your mind may go to Trump, but these remarks are in reference to Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil. Bolsonaro has been called the Trump of the Tropics, and Winter claims that “no other leader anywhere in the world has so openly tried to copy the Donald Trump model, in terms of both substance and style.” The commonalities between these two leaders are noteworthy, because both Trump and Bolsonaro demonstrate eroding democratic norms, specifically mutual toleration, of those in high office.
Before Bolsonaro came to power, his name was virtually unknown to most Brazilian households. A former military captain, Bolsonaro had served as a representative in Brazil’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, for 27 years prior to being elected president.
Bolsonaro’s rise to power came at a time where the accumulation of crises in Brazil came to a head: Brazil is in the worst recession in 100 years, there’s an average of 175 murders a day, and there’s a 12% unemployment rate. On top of that, public distrust in politics is stronger than ever following the Car Wash Scandal, the biggest corruption scandal in the history of Brazil, in which the former Brazilian president and dozens of politicians were indicted and jailed. Crimes include embezzlement, money laundering, and bribery of political officeholders for corporate gains.
The sentiment for “a guy who [does] things differently” for Brazil made Bolsonaro especially attractive to voters. Following this scandal, a large part of Bolsonaro’s appeal to the Brazilian public involves his anti-establishment personality and ideas. Running on anti-corruption ideas, he won the election with 55.1% of the vote. And while some hail Bolsonaro as the messiah that will make Brazil great again, others are fearful of his governance.
For one thing, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric is especially impolite, to put it nicely. He claimed, in 2011, that he would “ rather his son die in a car accident than be gay.” In 2014, he shoved a fellow congresswoman and declared that “I wouldn’t rape you because you are not worthy of it.” His example tolerates and promotes violence, and according to How Democracies Die, this is an indicator of authoritarian behavior.
Furthermore, shortly before his election, he promised “the rule of law would become the rule by law unleashed on his political opponents.” This chilling statement demonstrates Levitsky and Ziblatt’s fourth indicator of authoritarian behavior: readiness to curtail civil liberties of one’s political opponents.
In striking parallels, Donald Trump is also known for his vulgar rhetoric regarding women, demonstrating his toleration of sexual assault. He, too, came to power at a time where politicians were considered less than trustworthy, and seized on his role as a political outsider to lead the public to believe that he was a “guy who [does] things differently.” His campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, implies the former governments had been less than great. Trump’s assertions that “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now,” among others, in his inauguration speech, demonstrate his populist appeal.
In regard to the comparisons drawn between himself and America’s most infamous president, Bolsonaro claims that “It’s about wanting a big Brazil just as he wants a big America.” But Bolsonaro’s interpretation and emulation of Trump’s behavior is extreme and troubling. The rhetoric and behavior of both world leaders, however, is emblematic of populism rising throughout the western hemisphere. The two “who do things differently” are doing things very differently indeed, without regard for political correctness or inclusiveness; their rhetoric is both divisive and not representative of their countries as a whole.
With little regard for whom they may offend, these two presidents demonstrate the erosion of mutual toleration, or the idea that your opponent has a right to exist, compete for power, and govern. The rhetoric employed by both Bolsonaro and Trump has been coarse and divisive, demonstrating a lack of respect for those who disagree with their beliefs and ideas.
Both right-wing politicians with foul mouths, Bolsonaro and Trump demonstrate the elections of populist leaders with questionable morals into the highest office in a democracy. Whether this trend will continue is hard to say. But as they both attempt to “make their countries great again,” it is important to remember that populists divide their citizens and potentially disenfranchises those who don’t agree with them and are therefore a danger to society.
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