Brazil has been lobotomised twice in the last two months. In the first lobotomy on 2 September, the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was burnt down, in a catastrophe directly attributable to the austerity policies of current president Michel Temer. The loss of over twenty million objects, including a 12,000-year-old human skeleton and recordings of songs from extinct Indigenous languages, constitutes an irreplaceable loss to the country’s collective memory. I was there for the second lobotomy on 7 October, when the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro almost won an outright victory in the first round of the presidential elections.
International media have taken to calling Bolsonaro the ‘Tropical Trump’. Trump is a venal troll with a mobster mentality, but it would be a stretch to call him a fascist. With Bolsonaro there need be no such qualms. In addition to his misogyny, racism and homophobia, Bolsonaro has openly praised Brazil’s dictatorship, lavishing particular attention on its use of torture, and repeatedly promised to kill his opponents if given power. In the lead-up to the second-round vote that took place yesterday, I travelled across the country, conducting interviews with voters and political activists, while also collating maps of Brazil’s demographics and voting trends, in an attempt to chart Bolsonaro’s phenomenal ascent.
For statistical purposes Brazil is divided by its government into five regions, each comprising three or more states. The vast Northern region (shown here in green), which contains more than half the Amazon rainforest, the centre-west region (yellow) and the Southern region (blue) have relatively low populations. The South-Eastern region (pink), is the most populous, with over forty per cent of the country’s population and its two largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The North-Eastern region (in orange) is the second most populous. Of Brazil’s 210 million citizens, around 147 million are enrolled to vote.
I landed in Recife, in North-Eastern Brazil, a week before the first-round vote. The North-East has been a bastion of support for the centre-left Workers’ Party since Lula’s election in 2002. The day after my arrival, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets across the country for the #elenão (‘Not Him’) protests against Bolsonaro. Organised by women disgusted at Bolsonaro’s misogyny, the march in Recife drew a large, energetic and diverse crowd, including a group of evangelical Christians declaring their support for human rights. This was a heartening sight, as Bolsonaro had been polling strongly with evangelicals. As the march approached Recife’s old town, an ageing, beefed up Bolsominion (the term his opponents used to describe his more fanatical supporters) flapped a poster of his candidate from the roof of his opponent, striking a series of frenetic, pantomime Mussolini poses, much to the ire of the crowd below. An organiser told the marchers to move on, but a few moments later a loud explosion a block ahead plunged the street into darkness. It turned out to be an electrical fault rather than a Bolsominion bomb, and the march continued under the light of thousands of smartphones.
The next day at Boa Viagem beach in Southern Recife, I watched the Pro-Bolsonaro counter rally trundle by. In contrast to #elenão, most participants were in cars or on motorbikes, giving the appearance of an exuberant traffic jam. Brazilian flags waved overhead while an old white man in budgie smugglers danced on the curb to a Forro song with the following impishly vindictive lyrics:
Supporting Bolsonaro will leave the communists crazy
The wailing left call him homophobic but there are worst things than that
When the Leftists get worked up just throw them all in prison.
The whole event seemed underwhelming, but then the trickle of cars kept on coming. And coming. If there were this many Bolsonaro supporters in the staunchly leftist North-East, how many would there be in the country as a whole?
In the previous election in 2014, the Workers’ Party candidate, Dilma Rousseff, was re-elected in a tight race against Aecio Neves of the right wing Social-Democratic Party (the names of Brazil’s thirty-five registered parties rarely correspond to their ideologies). The cartogram above shows each municipality adjusted for population, and shows how elections are won and lost in the big coastal cities. In contrast to the US, the winning candidate must take fifty per cent plus one of the popular vote, rather than winning the highest number of states. Under the Brazilian system, Hillary Clinton would have won. In 2014, the Amazonian North (Dilma) and the Centre-West (Neves) cancelled each other out, while the North-East (Dilma) balanced out the strong Neves vote in the South and São Paulo. This left Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais as the crucial swing states. The Northern suburbs of Rio continued to back Dilma, reflecting continued support for the Workers’ Party’s mild redistributive policies such as the Bolsa Familia, a welfare program.
In this sense 2014 was a relatively straightforward election where most voters supported their class interests. Voting choice closely matched income level, as seen in the map above. The wealthier south and centre-west backed Neves, the low tax, deregulation candidate, while the poorer North and North-East backed Dilma. Interestingly, this striking geographical division has only emerged since 2006, when class loyalties and oppositions to the Workers’ Party began to crystallise after Lula’s first term in power.
The Workers’ Party was already drifting to the right, dealing with the post GFC recession by carrying out austerity measures that sparked massive protests in 2013. After Dilma’s re-election renewed protests themselves took on a right-wing, middle-class flavour, as the Lava Jato investigation revealed endemic corruption throughout the political class. Dilma received the blame and was impeached in 2016, at which point her Vice President Michel Temer, from the ideologically amorphous PMDB, took power and implemented far more wide-ranging austerity measures. Ongoing scandals incriminated all major parties, with Bolsonaro managing to position himself as an outsider and change agent, despite facing corruption charges of his own during the campaign, including an illegally funded misinformation onslaught on Whatsapp. Lula returned to rescue the Workers’ party, and was leading in the polls until his arrest and imprisonment on the basis that he may have been gifted a holiday house, and Bolsonaro now shot into the lead, ahead of the new Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad.
On the day of the first-round vote, I visited a polling booth in Recife. Countless Bolsonaro supporters in Brazilian flag t-shirts were among the queues (‘My country is my party’ was one of Bolsonaro’s more resonant campaign slogans). A comparatively small number of Haddad supporters with red ‘Free Lula’ t-shirts could also be seen. They looked a little nervous.
In the south of the country, the wave of populist anger against the Workers’ Party during the previous year had resulted in people with red clothing, and even bicycles, being beaten up in the street. A psychologist I spoke to in São Paulo at the time said she had never seen right-wing mob violence on this scale in Brazil before, during the dictatorship or since. After the polling station visit in Recife, I talked to three young, left-wing voters, one of whom was with her Bolsonaro supporting mother. The mother was in a jovial mood, constantly checking messages from whatsapp groups.
‘This article says Bolsonaro has already won with eighty per cent of the vote!’
‘Mum, it’s 11AM, they’ve only just started counting. Who sent you that message anyway?’
‘My friend, she’s very reliable.’
The other two voters were a gay couple, family friends of the mother and daughter. The mother was affectionate towards them, and at no stage did she express support for Bolsonaro’s homophobia. She was more concerned about the crime rate.
‘We can’t let human rights get in the way of stopping bandits! Human rights is just a cover!’
She’d voted for the right-wing candidate Neves in 2014, and had now switched to Bolsonaro and the far right. It was disturbing to hear a friendly, middle-aged woman repeating Bolsonaro’s anti-human rights talking points – Brazil’s fragile democratic consensus, only established in the 1980s, was clearly under threat.
When the results came in that night, the scale of the phenomenon became clear. The left of centre vote was split between Haddad and Ciro Gomes, another long-term operator running as a cleanskin candidate. In some ways the electoral map echoed 2014, but with massive gains for Bolsonaro across all regions outside the North-East.
The extent of the swing becomes even more striking if compared to previous elections since 1994. The last six presidential elections have been a two-horse race between the Workers’ Party and the Social Democratic Party. The big shift of 2018 has been the collapse of the ‘centre-right’ vote and the lurch to the far right. Voter after voter told me that they wanted to see all the major party politicians replaced or jailed, including Neves, who has a reputation as a cocaine snorting sleazeball. But the Workers’ Party, after 14 years in power, was receiving a large share of the opprobrium. The biggest direct swing from the Workers’ Party to Bolsonaro was in Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. In the latter, Bolsonaro received a shocking sixty per cent of the first-round vote. It was only his weak vote in the north-east that stopped Bolsonaro winning in the first round.
Numerous violent political attacks occurred in the immediate aftermath of the first-round vote. A 19-year-old woman wearing an #elenao sticker with a rainbow sign was attacked by a group of men, one of whom carved a swastika into her stomach. A police chief commenting on the case declared the symbol was not in fact a Nazi swastika, but a Buddhist symbol of peace. Why someone would want to carve a Buddhist symbol of ‘love and harmony’ into a teenager’s midriff was left unclear. The rural bloc in congress, meanwhile, took the rightward shift as a chance to table draconian new rural labour laws that would effectively ‘repeal the abolition of slavery’.
Alarmingly, Bolsonaro even won the Northern region. The map above shows that his support closely matched the arc of deforestation in the Amazon. Haddad received support in the more intact areas of the rainforest where Indigenous groups and other traditional communities have not yet been outnumbered by invading colonists.
Deforestation is working in favour of the far right. In areas where agribusiness dominates, Bolsonaro dominated the vote, as seen in this map showing the relationship of soy plantations locations to the 2018 results. However, Brazilian elections are won and lost on the coast, where other factors come into play.
Given his regular racist outbursts, it could be assumed that Bolsonaro would receive greater support from white voters. The history of colonisation in Brazil led to a greater concentration of European migrants in the south of the country, contributing to the division in self-identified ethnicity seen in the map above. Bolsonaro’s support among ‘white’ voters was indeed strikingly high – he received 65 per cent of the first-round vote in the southern state of Santa Catarina. But he also broke even with Haddad amongst Pardo (‘mixed’) and Preto (‘Black’) voters as a combined category. In other words, whiteness correlated with strong support for Bolsonaro, but many non-white voters also backed him.
This is particularly notable in the Northern periphery of Rio de Janeiro, where ethnic self-identification resembles North-east Brazil, with a high Afro-descendant population, but where the vote for Bolsonaro was even higher than in the whiter, wealthier southern zone of the city. Following truces during the World Cup and the Olympics, Rio has been in an escalating state of open warfare between various drug trafficking cartels, the military and the police (with overlap between all three groups). Various voters in Recife and Salvador that I spoke to cited Brazil’s extraordinarily high crime rate as a reason for supporting Bolsonaro. At a bus stop in Recife, two elderly black women told me that they’d voted for Bolsonaro because he would stop the ‘bandits’.
‘I hate the bandits, I want to be safe on the street – just kill them all!’
But if his proposed crackdown on violent crime is part of Bolsonaro’s appeal amongst non-white voters, why was the swing to the far right so much stronger in Rio than in North-East Brazil? The map on the left shows that homicide rates are highest in the North-East and in Para, on the edge of the Amazon. The map on the right is even more noteworthy, showing that homicide rates since 2006 have increased most in the North-East, where Workers’ Party support remains strongest. Bolsonaro’s calls to give free rein to the police and arm ‘good citizens’ against criminals appeal to some Black voters in the North-East, but they remain a minority.
Indeed, the only metric of violence that is higher in Rio de Janeiro than in the North-East is the rate of murders by police, predominantly targeting young Black men. In 2016 the official number was 645, and rose to 1127 in 2017. By way of comparison, in the same year in the US, around 1200 people were killed across the entire country. In 2014 the most heavily targeted zones in Rio voted for the Workers’ Party, but it is precisely here where the swing to Bolsonaro was strongest. While unfortunate, it makes a certain degree of sense that white, wealthy men in Southern Brazil would vote for Bolsonaro. But why would the young Black victims of police violence in Rio’s favelas support him? As Rosana Pinheiro-Machado argues in her convincing analysis of this phenomenon, many of these young men previously supported Lula, but also identify with the police, the military and with Bolsonaro as a strongman who can end violence in their suburbs … with more violence. Toxic masculinity – among other factors – built around a cult of violence, is leading young men to vote for the very figure who poses the most risk to their future survival. Recent polls identify a striking gender disparity in support for Bolsonaro, with many young disadvantaged men backing him, while many women, even when opposed to the Workers’ Party, are choosing to vote informally rather than support him. The future of the Amazon will be decided in the favelas of Rio, and at this stage, it’s not looking hopeful.
Another factor in Rio’s northern suburbs, and in marginalised areas across Brazil’s major cities, has been the rapid expansion of Evangelical Christianity at the expense of Catholicism since the end of the dictatorship. Pentecostal drug lords, often converted in jail, wage ‘Holy War’ against Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. The TV channel Record, owned by evangelical billionaire pastor Edir Macedo, and broadcasting Biblical soap operas interspersed with Bolsonaro propaganda, is emblematic of this transformation. The debate has shifted so far to the right that Globo, the conservative media giant that previously dominated the market, and supported the coup/impeachment against Dilma, has been accused by Bolsonaro supporters of being a communist front. In recent polls, Catholics are split 50-50 between Haddad and Bolsonaro, while Evangelicals are voting in Bolsonaro’s favour, 74 per cent to 26 per cent. Bolsonaro himself is a Catholic, but has received support from Pentecostal churches backing his ‘family values’ based attacks (most of them entirely fictional) on the Workers’ Party for promoting ‘Gay Kits’ and ‘Gender Ideology’ in schools.
In rural areas, Catholicism has retained its dominance in the North-East, while Evangelical congregations have grown fastest in the Amazon and the South-East. The Protestant churches are anything but a monolithic block, and a key division lies between the Pentecostal and Non-Pentecostal variants. Of the latter, some more moderate congregations preach a comparatively tolerant line on sexual and cultural issues. Marina Silva, a Black evangelical environmentalist born in the Amazon, gained the support of many evangelical churches in her failed bid for the presidency in 2014. However, in 2018 many of these same churches have been frontline advocates for the reactionary swing to Bolsonaro.
These are some of the broad trends that partly explain Bolsonaro’s rise, but at the individual level, the life experiences and attitudes behind each person’s voting decisions reveal an extra layer of psychological complexity that these maps can’t capture. Last week I carried out interviews in Salvador, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, where the Capoeira master Moa Katende had just been stabbed to death in a bar for declaring his support for the Workers’ Party. Here I talked to a self-taught artist who wanted Bolsonaro to cut the Ministry of Culture to take down the ‘artistic elites’; and a Catholic black single mother who was voting for Bolsonaro because ‘he’ll keep the gays in their place’.
I have a friend in the Amazon, a gay environmentalist who practices Spiritism, one of Brazil’s many syncretic religious traditions under threat by Evangelical attacks. He is the most ideologically confusing person I have ever met. He believes that Cuban-backed communists in the Workers’ Party are destroying the Amazon, that abortion was invented by the Ku Klux Klan to kill black people, and that Bolsonaro will stop women protesting naked on the street. Bolsonaro has made it clear that he plans to strip away Indigenous land rights, withdraw Brazil from the Paris agreement and sell the Amazon to American agribusiness interests. If I brought this up, or anything else that Bolsonaro has said on the public record, with any of these voters, they would say that it was taken out of context, that he doesn’t mean it, that it’s fake news.
Fascism in any era is amorphous, but in the age of fake news, the denial of evidence – of rational debate – is easier than ever. Bolsonaro has managed to turn himself into a Rorschach ink test: each voter can pick out the element of his bigotry and violence that appeal to them, and ignore the parts where he attacks their own group. It’s a kind of intersectionality in reverse, where the oppressed turn on the oppressed, then team up together to elect a reactionary defender of the country’s business and military elites. Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be. So said the writer Stefan Zweig, in a backhanded compliment to the nation that gave him asylum during the Second World War, shortly before killing himself. In this election, Brazil offers another portent of the future elsewhere: Multicultural fascism. The antisemitism of Nazism isn’t there, at least not explicitly. Instead the enemy is a (racialised) criminal underclass, merged with a criminalised leftist opposition, with criminalised sexual deviants thrown into the mix.
On a personal level, I found each of the Bolsonaro voters that I spoke to kind, generous and often charming. Many of them don’t particularly like Bolsonaro, and just want to punish the Workers’ Party. ‘We need a change, we’ll just get rid of him in four years if he’s no good’, was a common refrain, ignoring Bolsonaro’s own repeated insistence that if he were to lose an election, he would regard the result as fraud and reject it. Many of them have legitimate complaints about crime, corruption and the past impunity of the country’s political elite. But in voting for Bolsonaro, they have embraced a fantasy of violent purification that will be a tragedy for both Brazil and the planet. In a video call to his supporters this week, Bolsonaro said that ‘the red fringe dwellers would be banished’ from Brazil, that they could go to prison or exile. Of the activists that I spoke to, many were indeed searching for ways to escape the country while they still had the chance. An environmental group in Pernambuco that was campaigning to protect one of the last local fragments of the Atlantic rainforest was going to disband, its participants fleeing to Portugal to avoid reprisals from local sugar plantation owners. In Salvador, a black gay hotel worker with two silver crucifixes hanging from his ears told me that the elections meant the end of the world for him and his community, and that he now doubted the existence of God, while his white manager ranted at the reception desk about URSAL, an invented communist conspiracy to unite Latin America.
Many will be staying on in Brazil to resist Bolsonaro, including the new wave of Black, Trans and Indigenous women elected to state and federal parliaments. In my last interviews before the elections, I talked to two Indigenous Guaraní friends living in the forested littoral of São Paulo state. The younger of the two was alarmed by the sudden explosion in support for Bolsonaro, and the threat this posed to Indigenous communities. His elder kinsman was more sanguine:
It’ll be a bad government, but we’ve had bad governments here for five hundred years. We’re in this for the long haul.