In Brazil and America, Mirror Images of Ideological Politics Gone Wrong

If the US wants a glimpse into its future, it need only look at the state of Brazil after over a decade of populist rule. The same is also true for Brazil – the ascendancy of a right-wing populist backlash there is increasingly making the country look like Trump’s America.

A charismatic outsider with no political experience rides a wave of anti-establishment sentiment to the presidency. He leads a tribalist political movement in which there is little room for nuance or dissent. His rhetoric is aggressive, divisive, and sometimes vulgar, and he has an affinity for strongmen and dictators in other countries. He claims to represent the common man despite ample evidence to the contrary. He fills his administration with lackeys and hacks, valuing loyalty over qualifications, and soon the government is populated by inexperienced, unqualified novices of questionable intelligence and ethics. Political chaos ensues, with the constant breaking of norms in a gradual escalation that creates a new baseline for normal. Mistakes and missteps are numerous, as are allegations of corruption or impropriety, but no one ever takes responsibility for anything. They either blame the previous president and/or his political party, or claim not to have known about the wrong things that were done by disgraced members of their administration, who are summarily thrown under the bus (although they may eventually be forgiven and rehired). Nothing ever seems to stick, especially not to the man in charge. Reporting on any misdeeds or corruption is said to be a result of a biased and dishonest media. The same goes for any attempts at prosecution, and alternative media outlets and internet agitators endorsed by the president and his party routinely paint judges, prosecutors and federal investigators as politicized peddlers of lies and witch hunts. Eventually, people get used to the way things are now, and learn to deal with a chronic feeling of unease and helplessness as they watch events of increasing absurdity unfold on the news. Despite all of this, the economy goes well, for a while, a consequence of the previous administration’s sound economic policies and a generally positive global economic landscape. The people in charge take advantage of the positive economic news to ramp up public spending, focusing on modest but symbolic assistance to the poor and working class while quietly providing the wealthiest in the country with massive, obscene tax breaks and subsidies. Eventually, of course, the house of cards, built on unfulfillable promises, on overly simplistic and poorly thought-out policy, and on reckless spending, comes falling down.

No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump’s America, although I may as well be. This will surely be the narrative that will eventually unfold there too. But, in this case, I am talking about Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president for two terms, leader of the Workers’ Party, and potential candidate for the 2018 presidential election despite multiple corruption convictions and several other charges pending.

Yes, there are many differences between Lula and Donald Trump. Their ideologies and backgrounds may be polar opposites, but their actions are remarkably consistent. So Americans can look to Brazil get an idea of what will happen to their country after a populist regime is in charge for a significant amount of time (well over a decade in Brazil, hopefully much less in the case of Trump). The results of such regimes are depressingly predictable: Public finances in disarray, the populace divided, the economy in shambles, and rampant corruption, worse even than what was in place before (and what was in place before was already a disgraceful amount of corruption). Eventually, there will be a backlash from an angry population who can’t take it anymore, and one set of populists will be replaced by another, of the opposite political persuasion. The seeds of this have already been planted in America. One need only look at the inefficacy of the establishment wing of the Democratic party, and the militancy of its more populist “Bernie bro” wing, to get an idea of what is coming next.

In Brazil, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. So, if America can look to Brazil to see its future, then Brazil can do the same thing. After over a decade of rule by left-wing populists, the backlash that has taken them down is decidedly right-wing. At first, it was a center-right movement, focused on battling corruption and fixing the country by removing the incompetent partisans that had filled government positions for years and replacing them with well-educated and experienced technocrats. It was a return to normalcy, and, frankly, of the elite establishment that had been in charge before. It is true that the elites that ruled Brazil often behaved terribly. But compared to the mess the populists had made of things, the establishment didn’t look so bad anymore. Eventually, such center-right figures ended up back in charge after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-chosen and much less successful successor, over a year ago. It has not gone well.

Since then, things have taken a reactionary turn. Dilma’s former vice president and replacement, Michel Temer, the very epitome of the old-school political elite, has maintained laughably low approval ratings since taking office. He is facing a number of corruption allegations himself, and seems to be more focused on saving his and his cronies’ hides than on governing. Some strategically placed technocrats have managed to stabilize the economy, but the situation remains dire, with anemic growth not enough to counteract the desperation caused by the worst recession in history. The anti-establishment sentiment is back with a vengeance, but now, after so much disenchantment with Brazil’s left, it has taken on a very strong right-wing fervor.

While Lula, Dilma, and the Workers’ Party were in power, members of the Brazilian right-wing fringe took notes on the growing power of America’s right-wing movements. Now, after years of toiling in relative obscurity, they have seized the moment of antipathy to both the establishment and the left and created a formidable and terrifying movement. Thanks to them, many Brazilians are now active proponents of many of the hallmarks of American-style “Tea-Party” politics: they embrace a radical ideology on free markets and small government, dismiss diversity initiatives as unfair and impractical, prefer unfettered industrialization and agribusiness expansion over protecting the environment, embrace hardline Evangelical Christianity, profess their love for the military, call for lax gun laws and widespread gun ownership, and generally deride recent progress on LGBT and women’s rights. It is the return of macho-man politics after a relatively progressive era, and its poster-child is Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-military congressman from the state of Rio who loves making incendiary comments, such as those praising the torturers of Brazil’s previous military dictatorship or saying that one of his female colleagues “didn’t deserve to be raped” by him. He is emblematic of a contingency in the Congress known as the “Bible, Bullets and Beef” caucus – those who advocate for hardline religiosity, guns, and agribusiness. Sympathetic right-wing activists on Brazilian social media routinely share clips from Fox news, criticize Hillary Clinton for being a radical socialist, advocate for the right of anyone to own a gun, criticize “the gay agenda” as a threat to traditional values, and ridicule feminism and “gender theory.”

Sadly, Brazil already deals with many of the same problems that the US has that can be said to result from right-wing policies: namely widespread police brutality, systemic racism, violence against women, hate crimes against gay and transgender people, environmental degradation, and economic inequality. Indeed, in all cases, Brazil’s problems are far worse than those of the US. And, if Brazil’s politicians continue on their reactionary path, Brazilians can look forward to things getting even worse on all of these fronts. If gun laws are relaxed, we can add the specter of US-style mass shootings to this list, and this in a country that hardly needs any more violence – it already has some of the highest homicide rates in the world, in many places comparable to war zones.

It is enough to make anyone despair. Brazil and the US can look to each other to see their futures, and, in both cases, the future looks bleak.