Many people in Brazil cannot bring themselves to utter the name of the rightwing extremist expected to win the first round of voting in the country’s presidential election on Sunday. On social networks, the former army officer Jair Bolsonaro is often referred to simply as “the thing”.
To understand why Bolsonaro evokes such dread, consider some of the things he has said in the last few years:
• “I had four sons, but then I had a moment of weakness, and the fifth was a girl.”
• “I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly” – to a female representative in Congress.
• “I’d rather have my son die in a car accident than have him show up dating some guy.”
• “I’m pro-torture, and the people are too.”
• “They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more” – referring to quilombolas, the black descendants of rebel African slaves.
• “You can be sure that if I get there [the presidency], there’ll be no money for NGOs. If it’s up to me, every citizen will have a gun at home. Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas.”
• “You won’t change anything in this country through voting – nothing, absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, you’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000, starting with FHC [former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso]. Killing. If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.”
Bolsonaro has also said he will not accept the election result unless he is the winner – only to backtrack after a negative reaction.
When president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ party (PT) was forced from office in 2016 through an impeachment process of dubious legal merit, Bolsonaro viciously dedicated his vote “to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra”. Ustra was one of the most sadistic torturers and murderers in the military dictatorship that choked Brazil between 1964 and 1985. He died without answering for his crimes.
For this election, Bolsonaro’s children and supporters have printed the torturer’s face on their T-shirts, with the phrase “Ustra lives!”.
By celebrating Ustra, Bolsonaro has rekindled the horror of that period. And he can do it only because Brazil has never punished those who tortured, kidnapped and killed in the name of the state. Bolsonaro is the monstrous product of Brazilian democracy’s silence about the crimes committed by its former dictatorship.
In August, Ludimilla Teixeira, a black anarchist born in one of the poorest communities of Salvador, Bahia, created a Facebook page: Women United Against Bolsonaro. The page, which accepts only female followers, now has almost 4 million of them. A movement grew out of this group, last week spurring hundreds of thousands of women – and men – on to the streets of Brazil and around the world. Many carried banners with the slogan and hashtag: #EleNão – #NotHim. It was the biggest demonstration organised by women in Brazil’s history.
Famous Brazilian women recorded videos explaining why #NotHim. Considering everything the far-right candidate has said in public, such explaining might seem unnecessary, but this is a feature of today’s Brazil – and today’s world.
Explaining hasn’t had any effect. Bolsonaro is less a post-truth phenomenon than a phenomenon of what I call self-truth. The content of what he says doesn’t matter: what matters is the act of saying it. Aesthetics have replaced ethics. By saying everything and anything, no matter how violent, he is labelled truthful or sincere by his voters at a time when politicians are being shunned as frauds and liars. At the same time, “truth” has become an absolute and a personal choice. The individual has been taken to a radical extreme.
Bolsonaro, “the thing”, is a retired army captain. He’s being sold as new to voters, but he’s anything but. In his 26 years as a federal lawmaker, he managed to pass only two of his proposed laws.
Meanwhile, his running mate, retired general Hamilton Mourão, has said publicly that, if elected, the president could launch a self-coup backed by the military.
Bolsonaro embodies the grimmest forces of old and new Brazil. Most grileiros (public land grabbers) and big farmers support him in the Amazon – one of the regions that will be hit hardest if he is elected. Brazil ranks as the deadliest country for environmental activists, and there is the grave potential for violence to explode, along with greater deforestation, if Bolsonaro wins.
In the cities, he has the support of the leaders of evangelical religious empires, who defend the concept that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman. The far-right candidate also leads among wealthier, more educated men, reflecting the calibre of the Brazilian elites.
In addition to his staunch supporters, he attracts a slice of the population that is simply anti-PT. These people hate the PT for many reasons. Some because under former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff, the party reduced poverty, widened university access to black students, and strengthened rights for housemaids – for a long time, a form of modern slavery in Brazil. Others because they cannot forgive a party that rose to power promising change, only to become corrupted and aloof. Poor, mostly black, women are most vociferously against Bolsonaro.
During the first decade of this century, Brazil appeared to be a country that was finally reaching for the future. Now it seems mired in the past. The violence of this election has plunged Brazilians into a kind of collective convulsion. There is no other subject; people are starting to feel sick with fear. On the left, the reality of a dictator’s defender being the choice of 39% of voters, according to recent polls, is more frightening than any dystopian fiction.
A second round vote is due on 28 October – and most expect it to be a runoff between Bolsonaro and the Lula-backed PT candidate, Fernando Haddad. This election is promising to be more about an anti-vote – anti-PT or anti-Bolsonaro – than a vote for a project or ideas for the country, something Brazil desperately needs.
With the far-right candidate’s performance improving, his supporters are beginning to expect victory in Sunday’s first-round vote. The markets seem ecstatic about the possibility of a racist, misogynist, homophobic president: Brazil’s currency and stock index rallied as Bolsonaro’s poll numbers rose.
Whatever the outcome, Bolsonaro has already won: Brazil, plunged into a complex crisis, with 13 million people without jobs and poverty and child mortality rising again, goes to the ballot box without a proper debate and divided by hate. A perfect environment for “the thing” to grow and multiply and seize control.
Eliane Brum is a Brazilian journalist, writer and documentary maker. This article was translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty