Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president-elect, is sometimes referred to as the Brazilian Trump (Economist, 2017), but this is superficial. Bolsonaro’s use of social media in his campaign was modeled on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign (Saint Clair 2018a 2018b).
But his background and personality are quite different from Trump’s, and Brazil as a country has much in common with countries such as India, Turkey, and the Philippines (de Lemos 2018) which have also elected authoritarian populists. There is reason to hope that Bolsonaro, as president, may not follow in Trump’s model.
Brazil is actually suffering many of the socioeconomic problems that Trump falsely claims are happening in the United States: economic crisis, rising crime rates and outrageous corruption scandals.
But Brazil does not have one issue that has been central to Trump’s politics, illegal immigration (except for some isolated areas along the border with Venezuela). The most hopeful possibility is that Brazil’s acute problems will give his government impetus to enact realistic policies, something that does not concern Donald Trump.
So far, at least, Bolsonaro has not suggested building a wall on Brazil’s border with Venezuela. Trump has illusions of being a financial genius and has, in fact, accumulated a lot of money in sleazy business deals.
Bolsonaro has no business background and, apparently, no illusions about his economic gifts. This may be to Brazil’s advantage because he may turn the economy over to mainstream conservative economists who are actually qualified.
Bolsonaro and Trump have the same unrealistic answer to crime, encouraging citizens to use guns and the police to be uninhibited in using theirs. The difference, however, is that Brazil actually has a very serious crime problem, which may force Bolsonaro’s government to do something to modernize and reform the criminal justice system.
Bolsonaro’s plan to appoint judge Sérgio Moro, who led the highly effective “Car Wash” prosecutions, as Minister of Justice, is encouraging. By contrast, Trump is at war with his own justice department and shows no interest in criminal justice reform.
It is hard, on the other hand, to see anything positive in either leader’s environmental policies. Bolsonaro may be imitating Trump in promising to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, but he is also responding to strong Brazilian business interests.
Bolsonaro’s campaign most resembled Trump’s in its use of outrageous sound bites, often spread through Twitter and WhatsApp. Bolsonaro’s sound bites received an enormous amount of attention, such as telling a woman he wouldn’t rape her because she wasn’t attractive enough, saying that he prefer for a homosexual son to die, saying that the military regime in the 1960s should have killed 30,000 more people, saying that former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso should be executed, that his opponents will have to choose between exile and prison if he is elected, and so on.
But his supporters insist that these are not to be taken literally, they are meant to get attention. He told one journalist, “if I hadn’t said Fernando Henrique should be shot, you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now” (St.Clair 2018b). His technique is to “privilege polemic over argumentation” (St. Clair 2018b).
This technique was highly effective, in part because his Workers Party opponents took his statements at face value, warning that his election would usher in an unprecedented fascist dictatorship. Other analysts (Ab’Sáber 2018, de Lemos 2018) think this is exaggerated, that Brazil is more likely to return to the milder form of authoritarianism it has experienced many times in its past.
Bolsonaro is at war with the left, not with Brazil’s establishment. Fernando Henrique isn’t worried about facing a firing squad.
Bolsonaro’s personal history and psychological makeup are quite different from Donald Trump’s (Kehl 2018). He was born to a large family of modest means in the interior of the state of São Paulo. His father suffered the humiliation of being denounced for illegally practicing as a dentist.
When he was fourteen, the Brazilian army came into his neighborhood in pursuit of Carlos Lamarca, a captain who had defected to the Marxist guerillas. Bolsonaro had absorbed the anti-communist ideology taught in his school and claims to have given the military information about Lamarca’s whereabouts, but psychoanalyst Christian Dunker argues that he was admiring when Lamarca escaped the military siege.
Dunker (2018) thinks that these feelings may have been rooted in Bolsonaro’s sympathy for his father’s persecution for illegal dentistry. Dunker observes that “a father who was humiliated and persecuted generally leaves as a trait persistent desires for revenge.”
Trump’s father, by contrast, was a very successful real estate mogul. Trump’s psychological challenge may have been keeping up with his father.
One of the military officers enticed the young Jair so pursue a military career, and he graduated from a military academy. He rose to the rank of captain in field artillery and parachutist units, while Trump was a draft dodger.
But Bolsonaro was rebellious, protesting low pay for military officers, and denouncing one of the generals as a racist incompetent. At the end of his military career, he was being investigated as part of a plot to place bombs in the military academy to sow confusion and prove the commanders incompetent.
Dunker observes that this showed “traces of the communist captain Lamarca.” He left the military anticipating that he would be discharged and possibly prosecuted and won a position as Congressman which offered immunity from prosecution.
In Brazil’s proportional representation system, strong support from one group can win a seat in Congress. Bolsonaro’s core support came from soldiers who appreciated his advocacy of higher military pay.
Bolsonaro served for 27 years as a backbench congressman, what Brazilians call the “lower clergy.” The little national prominence he had came from being an ideological outlier and making extreme statements, and for advocating military pay raises.
He was not consistently right-wing, and expressed admiration for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, seeing him as an anti-establishment figure. Christian Dunker says that leaders are substitute fathers who are both feared and submitted to for protection.
Dunker argues that “love and hatred for his father coexist in Jair, just as small Captain Bolsonaro loved and hated the Army, just as he obeyed and betrayed his superiors.” These angry feelings motivated the angry public statements he made, attacking the left, making him seem more genuine than the typical politician.
Dunker says that Bolsonaro’s “hatred is genuine, but the externalization to the enemy is false. For this reason his speech is relatively empty, elusive, and repetitive and lends itself to being embodied by anyone who has similar indeterminate feelings of revolt.”
Social media provided an excellent medium for brief, angry statements that were often managed by his sons. His campaign got an unexpected boost when he was stabbed by a disturbed man at a campaign rally.
His injury gave him a reason to skip the scheduled television debates, which he continued to do even after he was sufficiently recovered. His advisors counseled him to avoid pinning himself down to concrete policy positions or answering technical questions where his ignorance would contrast with the sophistication of his Workers Party opponent, Fernando Haddad.
Bolsonaro’s appeal was emotional, not intellectual (Saint-Clair 2018b). The contrast between Bolsonaro and Haddad has similarities to that between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has been married three times, and is prone to making sexist remarks. His statement that a Congresswoman was “not worth raping, she is very ugly,” is exactly like one of Trump’s statements.
When Bolsonaro fathered a daughter, after four sons, he remarked that he had conceived her in “a moment of weakness.” (these and similar remarks about homosexuals and the poor are referenced in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jair_Bolsonaro). Trump, by contrast, seems happy about having fathered daughters and has not been homophobic.
Bolsonaro is not known for bragging about his sexual conquests or his looks or accomplishments (all of which seem modest). The characterization of “narcissistic personality” so often applied to Donald Trump does not fit Bolsonaro.
He can be more convincingly described as Bovarist, a term derived from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Bovarysme (Kehl 2018) denotes a tendency to identify with more powerful and accomplished individuals or groups.
Haitian leader Jean Price-Mars used the term “collective bovarysme” to refer to the Haitian elite’s tendency to identify with European whites. In Bolsonaro’s case it suggests an identification with the leaders of the wealthier countries and a disdain for his own country’s institutions.
Asked for a solution to Brazil’s economic woes, he advocates doing what the successful countries do. He may, indeed, see himself as Brazil’s Donald Trump, but this is mostly style, not substance.
Ab’Sáber, Tales. “Jair Bolsonaro, o passado do Brasil acima de tudo,” [Brazil’s Past Before Everything] Revista Época, October 24, 2018. https://epoca.globo.com/jair-bolsonaro-passado-do-brasil-acima-de-tudo-23179330.
De Lemos, Rodrigo. “Jair Bolsonaro na Internacional populista,” [Jair Bolsonaro in the populist international]. Amálgama, January 10, 2018. https://www.revistaamalgama.com.br/01/2018/jair-bolsonaro-na-internacional-populista/
Dunker, Christian. “A sombra de si mesmo,” [His own shadow] Revista Época, October 26, 2018. https://epoca.globo.com/a-sombra-de-si-mesmo-23184248 .
Economist, The. “Jair Bolsonaro hopes to be Brazil’s Donald Trump,” November 9, 2017. https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2017/11/09/jair-bolsonaro-hopes-to-be-brazils-donald-trump.
Kehl, Maria Rita. Bovarismo Brasileiro. [Brazilian Bovarysme]. Boitempo 2018. Amazon Kindle Edition.
Saint-Clair, Clóvis. Bolsonaro: o homem que peitou o exército e desafia a democracia. [Bolsonaro: the man who fought the army and defies democracy]. Editora Máquina de Livros 2018a. Amazon Kindle Edition.
Saint-Clair, Clóvis. “O discurso e a exacerbação: O biógrafo e a semiótica do Cavalão,” [Discourse and exacerbation: the biography and the semiotics of the Cavalryman]. Revista Época, October 25, 2018b. https://epoca.globo.com/o-discurso-a-exacerbacao-23182202 .
Ted Goertzel, Ph.D., is a retired professor at Rutgers University. He is the author of biographies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. http://crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel/