How Does “Brazil's Trump” Hold On?

A Covid nightmare consumes his country yet the far-right Bolsonaro has found a formula for success

“Everyone is going to die. There is no point in escaping from that, in escaping from reality. We have to stop being a country of sissies.” When Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said this at a November press conference, more than 160,000 Brazilians had died from Covid-19. And it was not the first time Bolsonaro had seemed to ridicule pandemic victims. Surely, his popularity would plummet.

In fact, the pandemic seems to have strengthened his hand, giving him an opportunity to provide cash transfers to the poor—a tried-and-true way to Brazilian voters’ hearts. The international media may treat the far-right Bolsonaro like a pariah. But at home, he is achieving what his ally to the north, Donald Trump, could not: a marriage of culture-war provocations with the left’s flagship economic policies. Somehow, it’s working. And the approach could inspire populists elsewhere.

Bolsonaro, a military officer-turned-politician, was elected as a dark horse in Brazil’s 2018 presidential elections, having risen to prominence on a law-and-order message, vowing to fight corruption and fix a moribund economy. At a time when Brazilian voters wanted a clean break from the corrupt political class, he presented himself as a brash outsider, willing to make derogatory comments about women, Afro-Brazilians, the LGBTQ community, indigenous peoples and immigrants.

Once in power, Bolsonaro seemed to fulfill some of his policy promises. Homicides in Brazil fell 22.1% in the first half of 2019, and the country’s ruinous pension system received its first major overhaul in decades. In response to the pandemic, the government relaxed labor laws to avoid mass layoffs, and offered financial assistance to those in need.

Yet Brazil remains stuck in a nightmarish public-health crisis, with more than 200,000 dead from Covid-19, and a frightening new variant now spreading. Mass graves have become a common sight throughout Amazonas, Brazil’s largest state. Meantime, the country’s unemployment rate has hit a record high of 14.6%. Race relations are tense, deforestation levels are at their highest since 2008, and corruption scandals surround the Bolsonaro family.

Still, the result has not been a cratering of the president’s support, just further polarization. One recent poll has 35% of respondents saying they approve of the president’s performance. That may seem low, but it’s a remarkable number given how unpopular modern Brazilian politicians tend to be: Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, saw approval levels as low as 7%.

The Charms of Emergency Aid

In the United States, the debate about Covid relief centered on “recovery checks.” In Brazil, we had Auxílio Emergencial (“Emergency Aid”) cash infusions to lower-income citizens in desperate straits.

Until the pandemic, Bolsonaro had been trying to balance the budget by cutting pensions. But with an economic crisis looming from coronavirus lockdowns, Bolsonaro knew Brazilians needed help. He initially proposed payments worth roughly $39 a month. When he learned that the National Congress was planning to one-up him with payments worth almost $100 a month, he raised his offer to nearly $116—balanced budget be damned. His decision to leap to the left of the left scrambled Brazilian politics.

Of those who received, or are set to receive Emergency Aid, 46% now approve of Bolsonaro. But the power of direct cash transfers to the poor is hardly a secret in Brazil. Starting in 2003, then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pioneered direct cash transfers, and became a beloved leader in the process. The conventional wisdom was that this would lock in a generation of working-class Brazilians to Lula’s left-wing Workers Party. Bolsonaro has overturned that conventional wisdom.

The Political Vacuum

The president’s pivot on Emergency Aid has left the opposition floundering. Previously, his opponents said Bolsonaro was out of touch with the worries of poor Brazilians. That charge has now been neutralized. And the opposition has a further problem: its own fragmentation.

Brazil has 33 political parties, each with different platforms, each with different strategies for opposing Bolsonaro. On the left and center-left, parties tend to coalesce around established parties such as the Worker’s Party (PT) and the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB). But recently, these parties’ inability to agree on a message strategy has sapped their effectiveness. 

Earlier this year, PT and PSB wanted to pursue impeachment but couldn’t agree on a strategy, so ended up pursuing separate moves in Congress that went nowhere. Then the two parties tried to coordinate anti-government street protests in November. But, worried about the potential for violence, some leaders asked people not to join—only to be contradicted by others. Again, the result was a lackluster protest that did nothing to slow Bolsonaro.

The PT’s outsized role in the opposition is a particular problem. The party is still reeling from the “Operation Car Wash” scandal that uncovered a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme that implicated many in Brazil’s political elite and sent hundreds of PT officials to jail, including, for a time, Lula himself.

The irony is that Bolsonaro has his own issues with corruption, in particular through his son Carlos. This should make the president an easy target. But coming from the PT, corruption allegations sound hypocritical, and invite counteraccusations that the PT has no way of parrying. Meanwhile, Lula’s stranglehold on the party has closed down avenues for new leaders to emerge on the left.

Can Bolsonaro Hold On?

Many candidates whose campaigns had “anti-Bolsonaro” platforms earned nationwide prominence in local elections this past November. They included figures like Guilherme Boulos, a 38-year-old philosophy professor from the outskirts of São Paulo, who has crafted an anti-Bolsonaro message centered on health, education and infrastructure.

Though he lost his bid for mayor of São Paulo to a centrist candidate, Boulos gained attention for experimenting with the kind of inclusive message the mainstream opposition has seemed unable to craft. It was a start, but not enough to dent Bolsonaro’s support in the near term.

Some of the president’s firmest opposition may come from within. In 2018, he campaigned on a platform of free-market economics. Now, his relationship with Paulo Guedes, the free-marketeer who leads his economics team, looks increasingly strained. Bolsonaro has been sluggish to implement his minister’s push to privatize state-owned companies. While Guedes keeps preaching fiscal discipline, the president keeps unveiling expensive infrastructure plans.

Brazil’s presidential elections are still two years away. For now, Bolsonaro seems to have a grasp on what many Brazilians want and need from their leaders in the wake of Covid-19. The deaths keep mounting, yet a third of Brazilians still believe the next two years of his mandate will be good. If he can maintain this political calculus, he could be looking at a second term.

It's hard to say what an additional four years under Bolsonaro would mean for Brazilian democracy. But based on what we've seen in countries where populist leaders have won a second term and become more illiberal and more extreme, Bolsonaro's political success is something to watch. Thanks to his disorganized opposition and his newfound love of big spending, he could become one of the most successful current populist leaders.

Chayenne Polimédio writes about Brazilian politics, civil society and rule of law. She lives in Washington, D.C.