Brazilians have just elected a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, that many commentators have compared to Donald Trump. Bolsonaro is gladly embracing that comparison, all while his supporters chant, “Make Brazil Great Again.”
Most of the foreign commentators making the comparison to Trump have not meant it as a compliment, a fact which The American Conservative summarizes nicely:
“The winner, right-wing congressman and former Army officer Jair Messias Bolsonaro, has made rude comments about women, blacks, and homosexuals that many news outlets equate with incipient fascism. The New York Times wonders if Brazil’s democracy can be saved. The Atlantic claims Brazilians, in their frustration, have turned their back on democracy. The man whom The Guardian has called “dangerous” and the Washington Post believes imperils the planet has declared support for the former military dictatorship, which reigned from 1964 to 1985.”
The Brazilian electorate don’t seem to mind these critiques, for 55 percent of them voted for him anyway. Here are three reasons why I believe they did.
First, crime is out of control. Brazil had 63,000 homicides in 2017. That is 30 – 35 homicides per 100,000 residents, placing Brazil in the top twenty countries in the world. By comparison, the United States, with 100 million more residents than Brazil, counted 17,000 homicides, about 4.9 per 100,000 residents. Interviews with Brazilian voters reveal that crime was the issue at the top of their concerns.
The second reason is corruption. Even though Leftist governments have ruled Brazil for the past twenty years, large scale political corruption got out of control. The very popular former socialist president, Luiz da Silva (2003-2011), is in jail for corruption. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for failure to act on the corruption scandal surrounding Brazil’s largest oil company, Petrobas. Transparency International ranks Brazil 96th out of 150 countries. The phrase, “can we make an arrangement,” used to handle bureaucratic issues like getting a driver’s license is only one indicator of this problem. Brazilians expect a bit of corruption in the small things, but things got too far out of hand in the recent socialist administration.
Finally, Brazilians believe in Brazilian exceptionalism – and they have solid reasons to believe. On a superficial level, Brazil has world class soccer teams. But at a deeper level, Brazil has a first-class economy, a super-power agricultural industry, and a high-ranking passenger jet exporting company (Embraer). In essence, Brazilians believe that their country is just a couple steps away from being a world power, so why shouldn’t they elect a leader to “Make Brazil Great Again”?
Unfortunately, Brazil has been slipping away from that capability in recent years and Brazilians were not happy. Bolsonaro understood this frustration and spoke to it.
This understanding also helps explain Bolsonaro’s positive assessment of the military junta which ruled from 1964 through 1985. The junta oversaw strong economic growth and kept down crime. It also used torture and murder to deal with its Communist and Leftist opponents. When the military handed back power to a democratically elected government in 1985, most Brazilians expected this to be a big step towards Brazil’s return to respectability. They also expected the economic growth, social peace and crime control to continue.
But it did not. Over the past decade, the socialist governments failed to deliver on these basic issues. Thus, it’s not difficult to see how Brazilians could overwhelmingly elect a man who spoke to their dreams.