The rise of a culture warrior: Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right revolution

Xinhua/Ernesto Rodrigues/AGENCIA ESTADO

When the world’s attention turned towards the burning Amazon rain forest, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, did everything to turn himself into an environmental villain – of sorts. Why – in the face of an environmental crisis – did he lose control of his country’s image abroad and, above all, image as a ‘strong man’ leader? Was this not an opportunity to rally international support and place Brazil as a leading contender for the protection of the environment? If that had happened, Brazil would have built a positive image for itself. If there had been a statesman/woman with a canny and strategic vision, Brazil would have emerged stronger than ever from the fires. As we all know, none of the above has happened. Instead, President Bolsonaro lost it all by resorting to petty personal squabbling on an international stage. Why did he behave the way he did? I believe this is down to his character. Bolsonaro cannot appeal to the world based on common values. He personally holds the worst combination of chauvinistic, misogynistic, sexist, racist, homophobic, and divisive values – making him (like other similar illiberal authoritarian leaders) a bull in a china shop when it comes to diplomacy. He is also an arch-rival of any sort of common global interests, and tends to brand such efforts as part of a ‘globalist agenda’.

The Politics of the Amazonian fires Episode

Bolsonaro used two approaches to fight off international attention on the August fires. First, he decried that there was an international conspiracy against Brazil’s sovereignty. ‘Long live Brazil, long live our independence,’ he tweeted. He rushed to deliver a video message: ‘A message to Brazil and the world about our Amazon and the disinformation campaign fabricated against our national sovereignty’. Secondly, he tried to get an endorsement from the US President Donald Trump. At the height of the diplomatic fallout of the Amazon Rainforest fires between 22–27 August 2019, for example, Bolsonaro’s twitter feed was full of conspiracy theories about the threats to Brazil’s sovereignty, and praise for the support he received from President Trump.

Bolsonaro addressed the Amazon fires in a propaganda-style tweet: ‘Brazil is and will always be an international reference in sustainable development. The fake news campaign built against our sovereignty will not work. The US can always count on Brazil.’ This tweet came from the man who made an election promise to open the Amazon rainforest up for development, the same man whose administration is plagued by reports of land-grabbing and environmental abuse that his policies inflicted upon Amazonian indigenous tribes, and the same man who fired the officials of the environmental protection agency to downplay the rapid deforestation occurring in the Amazon. When he came under international pressure, how easy was it for Bolsonaro to brand the outcry over his damaging policies as ‘fake news’ in one tweet?

Bolsonaro is openly hostile towards indigenous people, environmental campaigners, and international efforts for climate action. To put this in context, in a recent study, Schaller and Carius found that European right-wing populist parties are incessantly hostile to the idea of international cooperation for climate action. Seemingly, Bolsonaro had the rare opportunity to become the voice of this far-right hostility towards climate action due to the Amazonian fires.

However, like many illiberal authoritarians, Bolsonaro is not without hope. His secret is niobium; a few niobium deposits are located in the Amazonian region. The president’s son, Eduardo, made his hopes for niobium known, retweeting a tweet (on 22 August 2019) about the blessings that await Brazil: ‘The world wants niobium and 98.2% of the world reserve is in Brazil. The equivalent of 842 million tons of niobium, estimated at $22 trillion: double China’s GDP’. Meanwhile, threats against environmental activists, and forest and indigenous officials are at an all-time high. When the forest fires were easing down, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, an official working to protect indigenous tribes, was shot dead in the Amazonian town of Tabatinga.

Bolsonaro’s far-right worldview

In many senses, then, Jair Bolsonaro is a Latin American version of a culture warrior, a neo-fascist ideological variant that appeals to those looking to safeguard race, tradition, culture and identity. The roots of this worldview can be found among the early twentieth-century thinkers of the traditionalist movement founded by René Guénon, which included Julius Evola, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Frithjof Schuon among others. These thinkers considered Western modernity to be an assault on traditional civilisations. René Guénon was concerned about the loss of the metaphysical and transcendent truth preserved by tradition, branding modern philosophy and science as ‘profane’; this is due to his belief that modern philosophy and science are devoid of ‘intellectual intuition’ or ‘metaphysical principles’ (Guénon: 16, 42, 51). How does President Bolsonaro come to appreciate this worldview? It’s through the influence of Olavo de Carvalho, a former Brazilian astrologer, who became the voice of the Brazilian new right. Olavo introduced René Guénon to Brazilians in 1981 (see: René Guénon: The master of tradition against the kingdom of misrepresentation). He has written numerous books on metaphysics, symbols, and tradition. As Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, reportedly stated, ‘without Olavo, there would be no President Bolsonaro’. Bolsonaro has warmed to Olavo’s ideas – becoming a believer of his conspiracy theories about Rockefellers and Bilderbergers masterminding a climate conspiracy to spearhead a globalist agenda. To make things worse, Olavo was joined by Russian esoteric philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, in  spreading conspiracy theories about ‘the USA and the New World Order’.

The term ‘conspiracy theories’, especially in the Western world, has a social meaning that gives a sense of something trivial. Average conspiracy theorists are therefore usually harmless. Olavo and Dugin must not be confused with your everyday conspiracy theorist, however, these two are ideologues who weave a carefully crafted doctrine against the core values of liberal democracy. According to Olavo, the aim of the liberal globalist project is to destroy the sovereignties of nations, including metaphysical, spiritual, and moral principles that cannot be understood by human rationality alone. Olavo’s and Dugin’s views are united in the hope of defeating what they see as their common enemy, the Western-centric liberal world order, by setting the world against its founding values. Their ideologies may very well use conspiracy theories to confuse the public, but their intentions are hardly innocent. The facts speak for themselves: Olavo’s misinformation helped him in selling an illiberal worldview that acted as a weapon to sway one of the world’s largest democracies (Brazil) into electing a far-right populist as their president. ‘Olavo was right’ was a main political slogan that turned the tide in Brazil, swaying top elected officials in Brazil to believe in his worldview – a chilling reminder of where we are at with the globalisation of radical right extremism.

Dr Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research. See her profile here.

© Chamila Liyanage. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).