Is He a Fascist? The Election of Jair Bolsonaro

14/10/2014 Grande Expediente – Dep. Jair Bolsonaro (PP-RJ)

Newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s narrative is one that lends itself to creating what historians of dictatorship have called a ‘cult of personality’. One of his supporters recently told The Nation, reiterating claims now surrounding Bolsonaro: ‘He is the messiah! He was knifed, but rather than stay at home or lie on the beach, he is staying on to fight for his country’. Such support imposes a god-like status onto Bolsonaro, while simultaneously casting him as a national hero fighting for Brazil. Called “Bolsomito” by his supporters (a diminutive that combines of ‘Bolsonaro’ and ‘mito’—myth), Bolsonaro is a man unabashedly arguing that he was pro-torture, spoken disparagingly of women, against queer people, argued for militarizing civilian life, supported mass killings of members of the working party, and threatened to purge leftist ‘outlaws’—to say nothing of his comments against indigenous and black people. On the left, comparisons have readily been made to Hitler. This raises a critical question: is Bolsonaro a fascist?

Simply being a racist or nationalist does not make a person a fascist. Although racism alone might not make someone fascist, it certainly is a part of the formula. Historically, fascism arose after severe social or economic crisis; some ten years after our own global recession, we must ask, did that economic downturn create a situation particularly ripe for a return to illiberal and antidemocratic ideologies? In fact, Brazil in particular has suffered economically in recent years. Moreover, because of the failure of the Worker’s Party in Brazil and contemporary fears of the encroachment of Venezuela’s pseudo-socialism – which in reality has become a dictatorship where democratic socialism held promise but never was fully implemented – ‘leftism’ has become a dirty word in Brazil, despite examples of functioning democratic socialism in both Bolivia and Uruguay.

Recently, Carlos Pereira of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a Brazilian think tank and degree-granting academic institution, claimed Bolsonaro ‘is not a fascist, but rather a pre-modern, conservative candidate from the nineteenth century’. Pereira forgets that the late nineteenth century provided us with a crucial ingredient of fascism—ethnic nationalism. Bolsonaro is not a refugee from another century but rather is a man who idealizes an imagined past and wishes to model the future upon cherry-picked ideological elements of that past. Similar to how Benito Mussolini wanted to model Italy after the Roman Empire, Adolf Hitler the pre-Weimar years, and Britain’s Oswald Mosley the Elizabethan ear, Bolsonaro recalls Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) with nostalgia.

Pereira’s belief that Bolsonaro’s thinking is atemporal lends authority and legitimacy to racist, sexist, anti-leftist, nationalist and anti-LGBTQ ideology. Bolsonaro’s ideology certainly is influenced by the past, but it is, in fact, very much rooted in the present. He proposes an alternative future that excludes liberal democracy, appropriating this election as a referendum on democracy itself. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s election reflects the current trend to vote aspiring authoritarians into office, as seen in Russia, India, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and, arguably, even the United States. Already in preparation for the election of Bolsonaro, police have entered universities to interrogate professors about the content of their classes and to remove anti-fascist materials, including a ‘manifesto in defense of democracy and public university’.

In my most recent book, I describe twenty-two fascist tendencies, arguing there is not a sort of fascist checklist. Rather than strictly defining fascism, I argue we can identify tendencies present in what are typically considered fascist movements. By avoiding a laundry list, we can recognize beliefs and practices that overlap with, or draw from, fascism. This allows us to avoid waiting for some nebulous tipping point — and to avoid fascism becoming a fait accompli. We need to be able to recognize the grounds which allow for fascism to rise.

Scholars of fascism readily note that fascist tendencies are found amongst the radical right. However, we must also accept that many conservative ideologies which claim to conserve ‘traditional’ ways of organizing society can be breeding grounds for fascism. Conservativism claims tradition is good, because it is old. This is just as fallacious as arguing something is better because it is new. If democratic society values ideas of pluralism and equality, the ‘traditional’ forms of categorizing and ranking people on account of nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality race, social class, etc. simply cannot hold.

For my undergraduate classes I often write a simple formula that shows the necessary components for conditions allowing for fascism: Nationalism + Xenophobia + Patriarchy + anti-Leftism/Classism + anti-LGBTQ + Ableism. Often, fascistic movements center around a ‘great man or father figure’. They are anti-democratic; impose an idea of artificial purity; propose a utopian future; valorize youth as a way to make a country ‘great again’; use binary categories to divide social groups; are collaborationist and appropriative; and, moreover, demonstrate violence—to name just a few key fascist tendencies. Fascism, when given control of the levers of the state, becomes militarized, centralized, authoritarian, and expansionist.

In fact, this formula to some degree describes much of conservativism today not because conservativism inherently has to be fascist, but because of the values conservatives choose to hold onto because of the perceived threat they feel from the rise of groups which had been historically marginalized. While Bolsonaro might not be a fascist—as Mussolini’s movement was a historical movement of its era—he certainly demonstrates fascist tendencies. Upon taking power, what we will have to see is if he is willing to use his authority to impose fascistic practices. But by then, it might be too late for Brazil.

Dr Louie Dean Valencia-García is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Assistant Professor of Digital History at Texas State University. His profile can be found here.

© Louie Dean Valencia-García. 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).