Observations of an ex pat: The road to power

There is a new, clearly defined road to political power—become an anti-politician.

Forget about compromise, consensus and appealing to the middle ground. Dismiss ideas of party loyalty. Discard thoughts of reasoned political debate.

No, today’s successful politician is a crude, crass, socially unacceptable bully pandering to the basest human instincts to gain power. Finally, today’s successful candidate must be outside the traditional political establishment.

You may think that the previous is the start of yet another diatribe against President Donald Trump. In a way you are right. Trump is the international benchmark. He has lit the torch down this dark and dangerous path. But others are following. The latest addition to this pantheon of horror is Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil is important. It is Latin America’s largest country, population of 207.7 million.It has the eighth largest economy in the world.And, it is resource rich with more potential than an infant Amadeus Mozart.

On October 5th Brazilians troop to the polls for first round presidential elections. The run-off between the top two from round one will be held on 25 October. At the moment there are nine candidates. 63-year-old Bolsonaro is 40 percent ahead of his nearest rival.

His commanding lead is partly due to the fact that Bolsonaro is laid up in a hospital bed recovering from a knife attack which provided him with the additional aura of political martyrdom. But even before he was stabbed on 6th September Jair Bolsonaro was streets ahead of his political opponents,
To secure pole position, Bolsonaro has out-trumped Trump. On the subject of misogyny, the Brazilian has said he would not rape a certain congresswoman because she was “too ugly.” His daughter, said Bolsonaro, was conceived in a “moment of weakness”; maternity pay should be scrapped and women should be paid less because of pregnancies.

Bolsonaro is strongly opposed to gay rights. He has said that he would rather his son dead than gay. He advocates widespread gun ownership, the re-introduction of capital punishment, opposes abortion, same sex marriage, land reform and drug liberalisation. He thinks torture is a great idea and plans to beef up the military and police.

An evangelical Christian, he has cornered the Christian right political market which is estimated to be 29 percent of Brazil’s voters. Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan neatly combines a populist nationalism with religious fervour. It is: “Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone.”

Perhaps most worrying is Bolsonaro’s views on the military. He was an officer for 17 years before entering the political arena in 1988. He has described the military dictatorship that ran the country from 1964 to 1988 as “a glorious period that led to 20 years of order and progress.” The same dictatorship—according to Human Rights Watch—locked up 50,000 political opponents, tortured 2,000 and forced 10,000 into exile.

Bolsonaro—not surprisingly– is loved by the military but reviled by the traditional Brazilian political establishment. In 25 years in the national congress he has been in four different political parties and proposed 173 bills. None of them have passed because, as Bolsonaro admits, you have to be liked and prepared to compromise to succeed parliament.

So why is the Brazilian public turning to Bolsonaro? Why are populists of the extreme left and right rapidly rising? Because traditional politics are perceived to have failed. The world has yet to recover from the crash of 2008-2009 which is seen as the fault of and unholy alliance of bankers and self-serving politcos. The economy has shrunk by ten percent and unemployment is at 12 percent.

Voters around the world want to drain the swamp of self-serving politicians. But in response they are turning to the animals of the dark and dangerous forest.

* ToTom Arms is the author of the Encyclopedia of the Cold War and is currently working on a major book on Anglo-American relations. He also broadcasts on foreign affairs for American radio and writes a regular column for US newspapers.

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  • William Fowler 28th Sep '18 - 9:39am

    “Voters around the world want to drain the swamp of self-serving politicians. But in response they are turning to the animals of the dark and dangerous forest.”

    The ever expanding political class (both local and national) needs to be curtailed by a combination of reduction of its intrusive powers (esp as individuals recourse to protective EU bodies is shortly to disappear) and the amount of dosh they can make out of such a career, capping incomes available at the national average. You want the cleverest minds running companies not finding ways to put the electorate down which is all politicians end up doing with endless, largely pointless, laws to justify their existence and multiplication.

  • I wonder how much attention has been given to the political views of those primarily responsible for the 2008-2009 crash. We know about their incompetence and greed but do they have any political views on the rise of populist politicians? Is this development a threat to the way they do their jobs or do they see it as beneficial? Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the contradictions within the trends. For example the right wing Christian evangelicals who helped to secure Trump’s election and are supporting Bolsonaro tend to be strong on conservative personal sexual ethics but amoral when it comes to political choices. It would be easy to assume that the the discredited Masters of the Universe are conservative politically but does recklessness go with being a UK Conservative supporter? That may well be the case in our troubled times. Behind the headbangers on the House of Commons benches there are local Conservative Party members who take Mr Farage as a source of wisdom and cannot see what compromise has got to do with politics. These people occupy the most treacherous parts of the swamp.

    I have long regarded Karl Marx as good on analysis but hopeless on prescriptions. However his “exploit the contradictions” recommendation could usefully inform our campaigning as we take on the populists.

  • John Marriott 28th Sep '18 - 4:38pm

    A truly frightening man. Assuming Bolsonaro tops the poll but fails to get over 50% it could be that, like the Le Pens in France, he could lose in a run off. If not, what’s to stop tensions rising between Brazil and Venezuela? What a crazy world we are living in.

  • Simon Banks 9th Dec '18 - 9:28pm

    It isn’t just the losers from economic change who vote for Trump and Farage. Many people who are comfortably off, especially older people, vote against the confusion, complexity and diversity of the world they perceive through the media. However, before we get too depressed, consider how much democracy has advanced in Latin America and the Far East since the 1980s and is advancing still in sub-Saharan Africa.

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