You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Jair Bolsonaro Is Not the New Trump. He’s Worse.

Brazil's history of military rule makes Bolsonaro more dangerous than the average strongman.

Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Scarcely a week into Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure as president of Brazil, protections for the environment and indigenous and LGBTQ populations have been removed, and both the neoliberal economic policies closely associated in Latin America with the thirteen-year Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and the language of Brazil’s military junta, which ruled from 1964 to 1985, have resurfaced. “I come before the nation today, a day in which the people have rid themselves of socialism, the inversion of values, statism, and political correctness,” Bolsonaro told his inaugural crowd, pleasing Brazil’s elites and the stock market. His call for surgical violence—Brazil’s “whole body needs amputating” was the memorable phrase—left others fearful of a return to “disappeared” bodies and torture cells.

Threat is a fundamental tool of the 21st-century authoritarians on the rise: Dominating is much easier if you’ve prepared people to be afraid of you when you take office. Bolsonaro used it to sell himself as the only candidate capable of tackling Brazil’s soaring violence problem, which included a record murder rate in 2017. “A good criminal is a dead criminal,” he said last fall, earning comparisons to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made good on his own campaign promises to carry out extrajudicial killings of those involved in his country’s drug trade. 

Yet Bolsonaro has also preventively criminalized all leftists and other political opponents, promising to send such “red outlaws” to prison or into exile. “It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history,” he said in October, raising the possibility that he might aspire to be even harsher than the former junta, which he believes didn’t kill enough people. Years of documented Bolsonaro hate speech against gays and blacks suggest other potential targets, although even if he gets a ruling majority in parliament, “cleansing” an enormous country with a multiracial and ethnically complex population would be a Herculean task.

The slew of executive order legislation following Bolsonaro’s inauguration has hewed closely to the authoritarian playbook, designed to further intimidate the population, cement Bolsonaro’s profile as a “get things done” disrupter from outside the political establishment, and, most importantly, reassure the conservative elites who have always backed such leaders that they will profit handsomely with him in office. The summary removal of indigenous peoples from protection by the Human Rights Ministry (which may go the way of the newly suppressed Labor Ministry) supplements the planned merger of the Environmental and Agricultural Ministries, which will put indigenous lands up for grabs by logging and other agribusiness interests, helped by the highway Bolsonaro envisions building through the Amazon rainforest.

During the Pinochet regime, University of Chicago and Harvard-educated neoliberal economists propping up the dictatorship through spending cuts and  privatization were known as “Chicago Boys.” The day following the inauguration, Bolsonaro had his very own Chicago Boy sworn in as Economy Minister: Paulo Guedes, a Milton Friedman-influenced neoliberal who taught economics in Chile during the Pinochet era. Joaquim Levy, the new head of the Brazilian Development Bank, and Roberto Castello Branco, the new chief executive of the oil and natural gas company Petrobras, are also Chicago economics alumni. The Brazilian economy, long stagnant, definitely needs reforms. But, as of yet, Bolsonarans seem untroubled by the fact that neoliberal successes in Chile capitalized on the “advantages” of authoritarian oppression—bans on unions and strikes and the absence of a political opposition.

Bolsonaro’s savvy appointment of popular corruption fighter Sergio Moro to lead an expanded Ministry of Justice continues an election persona that for many voters seemed to promise “a deep change in the political establishment,” as Rodrigo Craveiro, a journalist with Brazilian daily Correio Braziliense, wrote to me by email. Yet Bolsonaro would be the unusual authoritarian if he eradicated corruption; he’ll more likely use the moral high ground of anti-corruption to neutralize his political enemies and purge the bureaucracy, the better to populate it with loyalists. Certainly, Bolsonaro has benefited from the corruption scandals that have rocked the traditional political class—widely popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who might have defeated Bolsonaro had he not been barred from seeking election in 2018, is now serving a twelve-year jail sentence, while his successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016. Moro, the ex-judge who jailed da Silva, and who is crucial for this first phase, may find himself cast aside later. 

Bolsonaro, a career politician, used his military background as a paratrooper to separate himself from the corrupt reputations of other career politicians, playing on the idea that the military is nonpartisan, since serving officers are forbidden from making political statements. One-third of his cabinet positions have gone to military officers; a retired general, Hamilton Mourão, is his vice president. It seems the post-dictatorship wariness of having the military play an active role in politics has waned—an increasing number of Brazilians want “law and order” government regardless of the consequences.

“Bolsonaro is as much an apparition from Brazil’s past as a harbinger of its future,” historian Kenneth Serbin wrote at Foreign Affairs the day of the inauguration: Only a “politics of forgetting” about the violence of the military dictatorship has made his ascent possible. I’d go further: Bolsonaro advances a new phase of remembrance that rehabilitates the people and causes of that terrible time. During the 2016 congressional proceedings leading to Rousseff’s impeachment, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote against her to her torturer—Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, de facto chief of army intelligence services, which ordered Rousseff, then a leftist guerrilla, tortured for three weeks in 1970 (she was then a political prisoner for two years). Sympathizers like Bolsonaro publicly honor those who subjected Brazilians to torture methods such as “the barbecue,” where victims were tied to a metal rack and given electric shocks on and inside their bodies.

Bolsonaro may be called the “Trump of the Tropics” for his impolitic and often incoherent remarks, his skill with social media, and hodge-podge coalition of Evangelical Christians, military toughs, and business elites. But the precedent of military rule in Brazil makes him more dangerous than his United States counterpart. In 1999, Bolsonaro declared that if he ever became president he’d immediately launch a coup and declare himself dictator. Twenty years later, he’s in power. Time will tell what kind of strongman he will be.