Populism and Bolsonarism: is Bolsonaro a populist?

original em português

“I am here because I believe in you. You are here because you believe in Brazil. (…) there will be no more goofing around. Now, people are in charge. (…) Every Brazilian has to understand they now must obey the will of the Brazilian people”. With these words President Jair Bolsonaro greeted his followers at a demonstration on April 19th 2020, in front of the Army Headquarters in Brasília — the so-called “Fort Apache”, as the president himself named it at the fateful Ministerial meeting of April 22nd, later made public by a decision from Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello. The “people” Bolsonaro was referring to corresponded, at the occasion, to a few hundred protesters who demanded, among other things, the dissolution of the National Congress and the Supreme Court; a “constitutional” military coup; and a re-enactment of the fifth Institutional Act (which deflagrated the most obscure phase of Brazilian military dictatorship, in 1968).

Less than a month later, on May 31st, Bolsonaro took part in another anti-democratic protest in Brasília. This time, instead of making a speech, the president merely greeted the protesters from his horse, Mussolini-style. A few hours later, he tweeted: “I will be wherever the people are”, leaving no doubts about who he considered to be the authentic “Brazilian people”. One could say that according to the Bolsonarist discourse, his followers — the “bolsominions”1 — are the personification of the Brazilian people; and Bolsonaro himself represents the Brazilian people in power. The neutralization of the National Congress and the Supreme Court — the republican checks on the Executive power — would therefore be a necessary development of Bolsonaro’s populist logic towards establishing his ideal of “democracy”— meaning complete submission to the ‘will’ of the Brazilian people.

The people must be sovereign, but, on the other hand, must also be one. The unity of the Brazilian people was affirmed by the greatest buffoon of Bolsonaro’s (also buffoonish) entourage, namely the former Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub, at the previously mentioned Ministerial Meeting of April 22nd: “I hate the expression ‘indigenous people’, I hate this expression. I hate it. The ‘gypsy people’… there is only one people in this country! If you can accept it, you accept it. If you don’t, you can back off. It is the Brazilian people, there is only one people. You can be black, you can be white, you can be Japanese, you can be a descendant from an indigenous person, but you must be Brazilian, dammit! This thing about peoples and privileges [has to end], there can only be one people”. So, the people is one and it is sovereign: against it, the privileges. The unity of the people institutes a single cleavage inside Brazilian society. On one side, the people; on the other side, its declared enemies: the opposition, the media, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Academy, the Brazilian doctor Drauzio Varella, and so on.

It is not difficult to find elements in contemporary literature about populism that evocate the above sketched image of Bolsonarism. As stated by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (in a famous definition resorted to by numerous empirical researches about populism throughout the world), populism is a “thin-centered ideology2 that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”3.

The Italian political scientist Nadia Urbinati, on the other hand, approaches populism through the idea of “direct representation”. According to her, the populist leader, unlike what is commonly said, does not stand against the very idea of political representation. Rather than that, such leaders merely desire to start a new form of representation inside contemporary democracies, one in which the relationship between the people being represented and the figure who represents them is direct, avoiding any “intermediary bodies”4, that being the congress, the judiciary, the press, and the political parties. In her most recent work, Urbinati even affirms that populism in power “is a new form of representative government”5, one that, of course, “disfigures” constitutional democracy, but also one that takes place within its framework.6

As we have emphasized, it is certainly possible to highlight the many aspects in which the contemporary theoretical reflection on populism and the Bolsonarism phenomenon meet. Nevertheless, we believe there are significant obstacles before we can truly classify Bolsonaro as a populist leader in the contemporary sense. The first one derives precisely from the lack of consensus regarding the conceptual definition of populism. Experience has taught us that any text about populism, academic or journalistic, must begin with this allegation. In the past there were even those who defended that due to the disconcerting and persistent polysemy of the term, the concept of populism should be abandoned as a rigorous concept in political science.7 Nowadays, however, in spite of the protests, the term ‘populist’ has become essential in any debate or reflection about politics all over the world.8 Since we can’t avoid it — and at risk of being redundant — we thought it would be instructive, nevertheless, to, once again, restate the question: what is populism after all?

What is populism?

Instead of directly answering the question “what is populism?”, we thought it would be more fruitful to address another slightly different question. This new question is still connected to the first one, as it intends to clarify its own research target. The question is: what has been called, throughout history and nowadays, populism? We are therefore less focused on the content of the statements and more focused on the conditions which allowed such statements to exist — considering Foucault, one could distinguish the “truth content” from the “truth-production mode”—, thus approaching what has been commonly called in human sciences “archeology”, or, according to other historiographic schools, “conceptual history” or “history of ideas”9.

While trying to avoid such general methodological questions, our purpose here is simply showing that among the many different contemporary definitions of populism there is one that stands out — and that it does not fit the usual framework, namely, the Latin-American framework responsible for the canonical sociological formulation of populism in the 1960s and the 1970s.10 Our next step11 would be an attempt to understand, through an analysis of the history of the concept and its theoretical assumptions, why this specific definition of populism has stood out among the others.

Populism as democratic illiberalism

One of the most efficient ways to measure the relevancy of a certain idea in political theory is, perhaps, to look at its occurrences among its detractors, instead of looking for its proponents. It seems to us that no other formulation of contemporary populism has made its critics spill so much ink to refute it as the idea of populism as “democratic illiberalism”. Moreover, in addition to this quantitative judgment we can also offer a qualitative one: those who have written against the idea of populism as an illiberal democracy are not only plenty, but also some of the leading brains of contemporary political philosophy and political science12.

However, before we focus on the possible theoretical reasons for its prevalence in the contemporary debate, and even before we examine in detail what this democratic illiberalism actually is, we thought it could be instructive to briefly consider the practical reasons that have turned this notion into the paradigm of populism of our times. It seems to us that the main reason is Viktor Órban’s identification with the term. Since at least 2014, the Hungarian prime minister has defended the idea that Hungary is a democracy, but, unlike the Western countries, it is an illiberal democracy13. The positive appropriation of the term, removing it from an accusatory key, has probably contributed for its settlement.

Still, the term “illiberal democracy” was not invented by Órban. The expression had already been popularized in specialized political commentary during the late 1990s, especially because of an influential article by the American journalist Fareed Zakaria14. Very roughly, the term originally referred to political regimes with regular elections and great popular support which, however, did not observe the rule of law, did not have the checks and balances system, and did not guarantee the individual rights enshrined by what has been commonly called “constitutional liberalism”. Behind this definition lies the basic idea that, theoretically and historically, liberalism and democracy constituted two different traditions and that only in the last few centuries (and only in a few countries) their successful union took place under the banner of the triumphant and celebrated “liberal democracy”.

The “illiberal democracy diagnosis” has prevailed, for example, in writings by the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev15, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and by the German American Yascha Mounk16, a young star from Harvard, currently teaching at Johns Hopkins University, in the United States. For Krastev, the “(…) growing interest in populism has captured the major trend of the modern political world — the rise of democratic illiberalism. (…) The new populism does not represent a challenge to democracy, understood as free elections or the rule of the majority. Unlike the extremist parties of the 1930s, the new populists do not plan to outlaw elections and introduce dictatorships. In fact, the new populists like the elections and, unfortunately, often win them. What they do oppose is the representative nature of modern democracies, the protection of the rights of minorities, and the constraints to the sovereignty of the people, a distinctive feature of globalization”17.

Mounk, that following Krastev’s footsteps, concedes that there is no “(…) doubt that we are going through a populist moment”18, states furthermore that “liberalism and democracy (…) have been glued together by a contingent set of technological, economic, and cultural preconditions. That glue is now rapidly thinning. As a result, liberal democracy — the unique mixture of individual rights and popular rule that has long characterized most governments in North America and Western Europe — is coming apart. In its stead, two new regime forms are rising: illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy. When the history of the twenty-first century is written, the decomposition of liberal democracy into these two components is likely to take center stage”19.

We agree with Jan-Werner Müller20 that the first objection against this definition of populism as democratic illiberalism should not be theoretical, but tactical: to define populism as an illiberal democracy allows the populists to identify themselves in the public sphere as democrats (as Viktor Órban has been doing). Hence, behind the discussion around the definition of populism there is the problem of defining democracy itself: contemporary political science will only be able to define populism in terms of a democratic illiberalism if it continues to define democracy “minimalistically”, disregarding its historically associated values (such as equality, for instance)21.

This last move is carried out, for instance, by the Greek political scientist Takis Pappas, in his most recent work22. There is no doubt that his book is the most sustained work carried out so far that attempts to define populism rigorously and systematically in terms of democratic illiberalism. It is important to highlight that Pappas does not merely intend to analytically distinguish populism from other forms of contemporary political expression; he also intends to provide us a complete theoretical framework, one that could ground the comparative study of populism throughout the world, especially through its typology of parties and political regimes23. We bring the example of Pappas not to criticize him from a methodological point of view, nor to analyze his “empirical operationalization”, but with the intention of using perhaps the most elaborate recent theoretical formulation of populism as democratic illiberalism to illustrate and make our discussion on the subject conceptually more precise.

For Pappas, populism should be defined, from a conceptual point of view, based on two core characteristics: democraticness and illiberalism. Each of these variables, on their turn, will be defined from a set of “indicators”. “Democraticness has two indicator variables — electoral contestation and constitutional legality; illiberalism involves three such variables — singular cleavage, adversarial politics, and majoritarianism (in contrast to liberalism’s acceptance of plural cleavages, the pursuit of political moderation, and the protection of minority rights)”24.

The parties and political regimes that fulfill both criteria for democraticness as well as the three criteria for liberalism should be classified, according to the author, as liberal. Those that fulfill all democratic indicators but fail the liberalism indicators are said to be populist. Those that satisfy, regarding democraticness, only the “electoral contestation”, but do not respect the “constitutional legality” (especially the checks and balances system) and that, furthermore, do not satisfy any of the liberal indicators are classified as anti-democratic. Finally, those that do not satisfy any of the indicators of either democraticness or liberalism are said to be non-democratic — the remaining logical combinations are simply ignored by the author due to their lack of empirical relevance25.

The first liberalism indicator, plural cleavages, refers to the conflicted nature of political pluralism and the social legitimacy of this conflict. Even while admitting conflicts, liberalism will also attempt to moderate those conflicts, shaping them into “fair competition” that “might serve socially useful ends”26. The very attempt of moderating the conflicts, on its turn, institutes the norm by which they will be declared legitimate or illegitimate. Banished from liberalism from the start are conflicts that compromise, even if only momentarily, the plural (or fragmented) arrangement of the social and political life of a nation, reorganizing the multiple interests of its agents around two single antagonistic poles.27

It is important to remark that singular cleavage conflicts are not the only ones banished from liberalism, those that exceed the moderation and political compromise criteria are also left out. In other words, liberalism also banishes conflicts that do not seek the creation of the so-called overlapping consensus28, namely, consensus grounded on the reasonableness29 of the (political, philosophical, religious) doctrines adopted by individuals and social groups, thus distinguished from the simple consensus as modus vivendi30. As Pappas states, the liberal consensus is necessarily allergic to the notions of adversarial politics and political polarization: those notions imply the refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of one’s rivals, often triggering the so-called “constitutional hardball”31, being, therefore, dangerous for democratic stability.

The last of the liberalism indicators — protection of minority rights — refers, in fact, to the emphasis on the rule of law as a constitutional defense device against the “tyranny of the majority”. This is understood as a strategy to preserve democracy from itself, against its eventual autophagy through the perversion of the “majority rule” — that should be limited to the role of a mere technique for political decision-making in a liberal state. According to Pappas, populists will counter the restriction of popular power with the will of the people. In a sense, it could be said that the two conceptions in dispute (the populist and the liberal one) disagree on the very nature of law: for one, the law is a manifestation of the will of the people, whereas, for the other, the law is the fundamental protection of the individual against the crowd’s whim32.

Finally, we are left to emphasize that the democracy indicators will only be satisfied when a party agrees to compete in non-violent elections, devoid of electoral coercion, and when at the same time it agrees to be loyal to the rules and procedures that sustain parliamentary democracy — it is not enough to democratically dispute elections, it is also necessary to abide by the rules and procedures which ensure that the game will continue to be played in the future. A shift of position, however, regarding a history of abiding by the alternation of power can occur without invalidating the established classification. In those cases, what happens is merely a party transformation: from populist to anti- or non-democratic (as it has happened, in fact, throughout history: for instance, in Peru, in 1992, with Fujimori’s autogolpe). Indeed, Pappas recognizes that populist parties have a greater tendency to authoritarianism than to democracy, especially when they reach power33 — however, this does not turn negligible the analytical categories proposed by his typology34.

Before we step into our task of analyzing Bolsonarism considering the previously mentioned theory of populism — populism as democratic illiberalism —, it is important to highlight that this particular definition should be understood as the liberal definition of populism, that is, the way the liberal field tends to define and exorcise it. For example, the way Pappas defines liberalism and democracy — and, as consequence, populism itself — is typically liberal. First, the concept of democracy is deflated, emptying it of any “normative”35 content and thus reducing it to a mere method of power replacement through electoral competition. This has been commonly called in political science the “minimalist” (or Schumpeterian) conception of democracy36. Next, one can conceive political liberalism (or liberalism tout court) as a sort of protection cast over minimalist democracy, a protection against both the external illiberal attacks and the possible internal threats that would make democracy destroy itself.

In the next sections, we will argue that, first of all, from a strictly liberal point of view, Bolsonaro cannot even be considered a populist, but rather he is simply anti-democratic — which, ironically, characterizes the whole effort of the Brazilian political and economic establishment on taming him as an attempt for making him just a populist. Finally, we will briefly comment on the apparent contradiction in which the alliance between Bolsonaro’s illiberalism and the market liberalism finds itself in, the latter being represented by Paulo Guedes, the current Economy Minister.

Is Bolsonaro illiberal?

Throughout more than twenty-seven years as a Representative, the reformed Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro made numerous shocking declarations that can only be classified as illiberal, under any analytical classification. For example, in a 1999 interview for the television show Câmera Aberta, he declared to be in favor of torture, among other infamous positions. “I defend torture, you know that. And the people are also in favor.”37. In a 2011 interview for the Playboy magazine, he declared himself “incapable of loving a homosexual son. (…) I’d rather have my son dying in an accident than him holding hands with a guy with a moustache”. In 2014, during an argument with his then colleague in the House, the federal representative from the Workers’ Party Maria do Rosário, he declared that he would never rape her, “because you don’t deserve it”, later proceeding to push her and offend her with the term “bitch”. In 2016, while voting for the impeachment of former President Dilma Roussef, he justified his vote declaring it to be “in memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra”, the first torturer of the military dictatorship recognized as such by the Brazilian State — to which he added, with a pinch of cruelty, “Dilma Roussef’s terror”. In a 2017 speech at the Hebraica Club, in São Paulo, already in a pre-campaign context, he declared: “I went to a quilombola (sic) in Eldorado Paulista once. (…) the smallest Afro-descendant there weighed seven arrobas. They do nothing all day! I think they are not even fit for breeding ox role anymore”, following with promises of not demarcating even “one centimeter [of land] (…) for native indigenous reserves or for quilombola”.

It is possible to argue — in fact, it has been argued (and it is still argued) — that such illiberal declarations from Bolsonaro are, first, a mere rhetorical exercise (comparable, to some, to the commonly employed practices of the remaining political class), and, second, “past excesses”, from a time when the former captain spoke only to his then small electoral base — composed mainly of retired military from the state of Rio de Janeiro — and was an inexpressive politician from the “lower clergy” of the National Congress. Still according to this fragile interpretation, surely Bolsonaro would be forced to revise his positions when confronted with the possibility of competitively disputing relevant Executive positions — such as the one he now occupies, namely the Presidency.

Not only has Bolsonaro never apologized for those outrageous declarations, but the more his candidacy to Presidency began to take off, the more he indulged in them — more carefully, it is true, but spreading the same content. Growing from absurdities pronounced by someone from the outskirts of the political system, someone who lived in its gloomy margins, Bolsonaro’s shameless declarations became the biding center of a mass movement, one that, to everyone’s surprise, was capable of embodying the dissatisfaction and the resentment scattered through the country’s streets since the protests of June 2013. The improbable result was that this bizarre character became the President of Brazil on January 1st 2019.

During his quick ascension to the Presidency, Bolsonaro again committed numerous infractions against the liberal program. In a February 2017 rally in Paraíba, for example, he declared: “We are a Christian country: God above all! (…) The idea of secular state is nonsense — it is a Christian State! And the minorities that are against it can leave. Let us make Brazil a country for the majority. The minorities must bow to the majority. The laws should exist to defend the majority. The minorities either submit or simply disappear.” In September 2018, in the city of Rio Branco, in Acre, he encouraged his supporters to “(…) shoot the petralhada38 from Acre. We will drive these rascals out of Acre. Since they like Venezuela so much, they can move there”. He said that while clumsily holding a camera tripod as if it were a riffle and pretending to shoot it.

On October 21st 2018, a couple of weeks after the presidential election’s first round results, in which Bolsonaro had won with 46% of the valid votes — in comparison, Fernando Haddad, from the Workers’ Party, and his opponent in the second round, had obtained only 29% —, the former captain made a speech broadcasted live on a big screen set up on Avenida Paulista, in São Paulo, in which he declared: “We are the majority. We are the real Brazil. (…) They lost yesterday, they lost in 2016 [referring to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff] and they will lose again next week. This time, however, the cleaning will be much more thorough. If these people want to remain here, they will have to submit to our law. They can either leave or go to jail. These red bandits will be banished from our land. (…) Petralhada: you will all go to the end of the beach39! You will no longer stand a chance as I will destroy your privileges. (…) It will be a cleaning as it has never been witnessed before in Brazilian history”.

We think that Bolsonaro’s “real Brazil”, which promises to “shoot” and then send to the “end of the beach” its opposition and that openly despises minorities in the name of the majority, undoubtedly fulfills all the illiberalism criteria discussed in the previous section. In other words, it promotes singular cleavage, adversarial politics, and majoritarianism. Thus, if, on the one hand, Bolsonarism is unquestionably illiberal, there remains, on the other hand, the question: is Bolsonaro a democrat? Is it possible to classify Bolsonarism as a democratic movement? We recall that we are not thinking of democracy in terms of its normative or “idealized” conceptions, but merely in terms of the minimalist conception of democracy as defended by liberals.

Is Bolsonaro a democrat?

In 1999, during the above-mentioned television show Câmera Aberta, the then Representative Jair Bolsonaro was asked: “if you were the president today, would you close the Congress?”. To which he replied: “Undoubtedly, I would unleash a coup on the same day. It doesn’t work! And I’m pretty sure that at least ninety percent of the population would celebrate and applaud. (…) The Congress nowadays is useless, buddy. It only votes when the president wants it to. If he is the one who decides, the boss, the one who tramples over the Congress, then unleash a coup, start a dictatorship”. Later he added: “Nothing will ever change in this country through voting, absolutely nothing! Unfortunately, things will only change when, one day, we start a civil war here. And finish the job the military dictatorship didn’t manage to do: killing some thirty thousand, beginning with FHC [the former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso]. He shouldn’t be left out, no. Killing! If some innocent people die, that’s okay, innocent people die in every war”.

These entirely anti-democratic declarations from Bolsonaro evoked some reaction at the time, but, unfortunately, those were limited to verbal warnings. The President of the Senate at the time, Antônio Carlos Magalhães, publicly defended his impeachment. The Speaker of the Chamber, Michel Temer, and the Internal Affairs Secretary, Severino Cavalcanti, asked for the tape of Bolsonaro’s interview to evaluate whether his declarations had exceeded the guarantees offered by his parliamentary immunity and whether he had really defended a coup, something prohibited under our Constitution. However, when the Representative Arthur Virgílio, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (FHC’s party) and leader of the government in the Chamber, requested Bolsonaro’s impeachment for breach of parliamentary decorum, he failed to obtain the necessary support and the request was filed — a similar fate befell more than thirty other impeachment solicitations against Bolsonaro during his career as Representative. In the following election, the former captain was re-elected for his fourth term with 88,945 votes.

If in that interview his opinion on the merits of our democracy was already evident, he was, nonetheless, given the chance to clarify such an opinion in a further interview conducted for the same television program a couple of months later, as a response to the first interview’s repercussions. “During the military dictatorship there were no bank robberies, (…) there were no drug dealers at our schools’ gates, there was much more overall respect. And that’s because too much democracy gets in the way. Today, people have no idea of what a democratic regime is. It seems like you can do anything you want in a democracy. And that’s not what people want, people want authority overall”. Beyond the attempts to erase authority figures in the democratic regime, Bolsonaro also highlighted how difficult it was to rule the country because of the obstacles created by, on one hand, the democratic procedures themselves, and, on the other hand, the deep-seated corruption of Brazilian political culture. “The problem (…) with Brazilian democracy is that in order to get there [in power, you] must make a series of deals, (…) and these deals are mostly with people who are dishonest. And once (…) you get there, you are stuck with those deals and (…) you have to work for those dishonest people. (…) So it is very complicated for a president, who owes much to many, to be able to do (…) politics as he would like to (…). He lacks freedom, authority, (…) to be able to say whatever he wants”. He concluded that “if democracy is what we have today in Brazil, then I am a proud anti-democrat”.

If something has changed from Federal Representative Bolsonaro to President Bolsonaro, it was certainly his discourse regarding democracy. Naturally, that does not mean his mental universe has changed, as if he suddenly became an authentic democrat. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that there were in the candidate, and that there are now in the President, superficial expressions of a commitment to the preservation of democracy. Be that as it may, it seems evident that such expressions are part of an attempt to make both his candidacy and his presidency feasible before the main political and economic forces of the country. “We love freedom. We want democracy and we want to live in peace. We love our families. We respect our children. We respect every religion. We do not want socialism. We want to keep our distance from dictatorships around the world”. By demagogically associating democracy with freedom, and dictatorship with socialism, Bolsonaro asserted his formal commitment to Brazilian democracy in the above-mentioned speech on October 21st 2018, on Avenida Paulista — minutes after shamelessly expressing his illiberal opinion to his electorate.

A few days later, on October 28th, after the votes were counted and his election was confirmed, Bolsonaro again declared, this time in his winning speech, his commitment to democracy and its institutions. Bolsonaro’s speech, like most of his speeches, began by quoting John 8:32, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”, and proceeded to once again proclaim that his government “(…) will defend the Constitution, democracy, and freedom”. He then added, however, that “this is not the promise of a party — it is not the empty word of a man, but it is a promise before God”. By inscribing his commitment to democracy in the theological sphere, Bolsonaro also removes it from the temporal one, something that, instead of strengthening his promise, ends up weakening it. After an abstract praise to freedom, in the form of “freedom of movement”, “freedom of entrepreneurship”, “political and religious freedom”, “freedom to inform and to hold an opinion”, etc., Bolsonaro promised that “as a defender of freedom, [I will guide] a government that will defend and protect the rights of the citizens [pause] who fulfill their duties and respect the laws. They are for everyone, because so will our government be: constitutional and democratic”.

The (involuntary or voluntary) pause in the speech, that might have implied a comma (which, nevertheless, we have omitted) in our transcription, is revealing from a strictly syntactic point of view: it would change a restrictive relative clause into a non-restrictive clause. If there was such a comma, it would mean that the citizens who fulfill their duties and respect the law would not be the only ones protected under Bolsonaro’s government; on the contrary, the government would do so for all citizens — whose definition this time guarantees that they fulfill their duties — and all would have their rights defended, with no exceptions. From a political point view, however, this pause translates the orator’s guile and dissimulation: under the guise of universality, Bolsonaro would reaffirm one of the maxims of the most typical illiberal Brazilian thought: “human rights for the right humans”. Armed with the well-established distinction between citizens and non-citizens (or even between humans and non-humans), there would be no reason for Bolsonaro to hesitate before the expected affirmation of the universality of the law, something that he sees as a synonymous of a democratic and constitutional government.

The last paragraphs have reviewed some of the reasons for the somewhat inflection in Bolsonaro’s discourse concerning democracy. However, we must emphasize that his anti-democratic tendencies have not been hibernating for the past years. On the contrary, they have continuously re-surfaced, in specific but highly revealing situations. On September 7th 2018, General Hamilton Mourão, Bolsonaro’s vice-president candidate at the time, declared, on television channel Globo News, that, in a hypothetical social anarchy and constitutional power anomy situation, the military could be summoned by their commander-in-chief, the president, in order to intervene over the other powers — a discretion unpredicted in the constitution, as his debaters readily reminded him. Confusingly referencing article 142 of the Constitution, Mourão declared that, in a situation as such, the president “could make that decision, he could decide to deploy the military. Then you may say: it’s a self-coup”. “Yeah, it is a self-coup!”, reacted an incredulous interviewer, the journalist Merval Pereira. Steadfast, Mourão replied: “it is a self-coup, you could say that”. A couple of days later, on September 13th, in a lecture to businessmen in Curitiba, Paraná, Mourão defended a new Constitution — “briefer and focused on immutable values”— one that would not go through a constituent assembly but rather through a “commission composed of notables” — another outrageous declaration against the Constitution.

On October 8th, 2018, in an interview to Rede Globo television network’s Jornal Nacional, Jair Bolsonaro denied authority to the anti-democratic declarations of his vice-president candidate. He did so, however, while minimizing their seriousness, stating that they were mere “goofs”. “He could never trespass the Constitution”. He also reminded the electorate that, if elected, he would be the one in charge of the country, not his vice-president. “He is a general, I am a captain. But I am the president. (…) Mourão is well aware of his responsibility as my chosen vice-president”. Mourão was not, however, the sole spokesman of an anti-democratic discourse during Bolsonaro’s candidacy, and now during his presidency. One of the president’s sons, São Paulo’s Representative Eduardo Bolsonaro — so-called “zero three”40 — gave a lecture in July 2018 for students of a preparatory course for the Federal Police public admission exam, in Cascavel, Paraná. At the occasion, he declared that a “corporal and a soldier” would suffice to shut the Supreme Court. This pearl of wisdom was offered as means of forcibly solving a hypothetical political crisis between the executive and the judiciary powers.

Such declarations by the President’s closest allies should have been enough to give one pause. But more was yet to come. On April 24th, 2020, the Justice Minister, former Judge Sérgio Moro, quit the government while accusing the President of trying to interfere in the Federal Police to protect his sons from on-going investigations. This set off the greatest political crisis involving Bolsonaro, and above mentioned anti-democratic declarations paled in comparison to the public (and private) declarations made by the top tier of the government, including the President himself, at the apex of this crisis. The trigger for these declarations, which will be described in detail below, was the decision by Dean of the Supreme Court Celso de Mello, to consult the office of the Attorney General (in a routine procedure) about possibly apprehending Jair Bolsonaro’s and Carlos Bolsonaro’s — his son, “zero two” — cell phones, after a notitia criminis was presented to Court by the opposition parties. In the same afternoon, May 22nd 2020, the head of the Institutional Security Cabinet, General Augusto Heleno, published a note addressed to the Brazilian nation in which he classified the “request for the apprehension of the President’s cellphone” as “inconceivable and (…) unbelievable”, warning, at the end, “the constituted authorities that such an attitude” was “an obvious attempt to compromise the harmony among the powers” which could, therefore, “have unpredictable consequences for national stability”.

A couple of days after Heleno’s threat, on May 27th, Eduardo Bolsonaro declared during a live stream that “it’s no longer a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’” an institutional rupture would take place in the country. On the next day, echoing the pro-coup sentiments of “zero three”, Jair Bolsonaro published an interview with the legal expert Ives Gandra da Silva Martins on his social media, suggestively titled “The politicization of the Supreme Court and the one-off application of article 142”. On the same day, in what was obviously not a coincidence, Gandra Martins himself had published an article in a juridical news website, Consultor Jurídico, also suggestively titled “It is the duty of the Military to moderate conflicts among the powers”. In the text, Gandra Martins defended the thesis — classified as “constitutional flat-earth theory” by Supreme Court Justice Roberto Barroso — that article 142 of the Constitution allows any of the three powers, if it felt “trampled by one of the others”, to call upon the Military to act “as a moderating power” to re-establish “law and order”.

Soon after, the Supreme Court received a request from an opposition party to clarify the legal situation, a request that was granted by Supreme Court Justice Luiz Fux, who declared that among the institutional missions of the Military “there was nothing about the exercise of a moderating power”. Then, on June 12th, in reply to Fux, President Jair Bolsonaro published a note, also signed by the Vice-President Hamilton Mourão, and by the Defense Minister General Fernando Azevedo e Silva. The note said that, “under [his] supreme authority”, the Military would “not follow any absurd orders”, thus suggesting that the idea of a military coup was out of order. However, the note recalled that the military “also does not accept any attempt by one power to encroach another power by ignoring the law or by promoting political trials”, once again raising questions about their commitment to the Constitution, under the recent clarification furnished by the Supreme Court itself. On the same day, the Minister of the Presidency Office, General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, gave an interview to Veja magazine, in which the same ambiguity appeared. He started by declaring that it was “outrageous” to suggest that the military was plotting to unleash a coup, but then followed this declaration with an ominous warning: “The president himself never preached any coup. But whoever is on the other side must also know this: don’t try us”.

These public declarations, along with the President’s own participation in explicitly anti-democratic protests should be more than enough proof to demonstrate the anti-democratic character of Bolsonarism, and, again, there is still even more damning evidence. On August 14th, 2020, journalist Mônica Gugliano published in Piauí magazine an article titled “Vou intervir!”, an insider account of the events surrounding the previously mentioned Celso de Mello’s decision, based on four different sources, two of which were direct witnesses to the events. According to these sources, in the morning of May 22nd 2020, soon after President Jair Bolsonaro was acquainted with Celso de Mello’s decision (that he erroneously interpreted to mean his cellphone apprehension), his first impulse was to attempt a coup. “Visibly agitated, the president immediately announced his decision amidst curses and swearing: — I will intervene! — he said. Bolsonaro wanted to send military troops to the Supreme Court because the Court, in his opinion, was overstepping its boundaries in its decisions and trampling his authority. His reasoning was that after they arrived at the Supreme Court, the military troops would destitute the current eleven magistrates. Their replacements would be indicated by him from among military and civilians and would remain in the Court ‘until everything is in order’, according to the president’s own words”41.

Apparently, the three generals who were at the Presidential Office on that day were unfazed by the possible realization of Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic dreams. “In spite of the extreme gravity of the announcement, General Luiz Augusto Ramos, a friend of Bolsonaro’s for more than four decades, thought well of the president’s intention to start a fight that would be catastrophic. He thought that a military intervention on the Supreme Court was, indeed, the only way to re-establish the president’s authority, which was being openly attacked by the Court. In his mind, the decision of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes to prohibit the nomination of Alexandre Ramagem as director of the Federal Police had already been an unacceptable abuse of authority. [The Generals Walter] Braga Netto and Augusto Heleno agreed that Moraes had gone too far. They also thought that the Supreme Court Justice’s decision was an inadmissible interference in a sovereign act of the president, though they had doubts about the form and the consequences of a military intervention. Eventually, general Heleno tried to cool off everyone’s heads and told the president: — Now is not the time”42.

General Heleno’s “Note to the Brazilian nation”, which threatened a coup, apparently had been a “consensus proposal” approved in that morning’s meeting to dissuade Bolsonaro from really attempting a coup. It is impressive, and also scary, to learn that the so-called “firefighters”43 did not dissuade Bolsonaro from his attempted coup by referring to the Constitution, but with a simple and worrying “now is not the time”. Moreover, Mônica Gugliano’s article — one of the most important of the year — was neither commented upon nor questioned by the government — which only reinforces its credibility.

Between neoliberalism and Bolsonarism: the liberal imbroglio

Nonetheless, apparently ignoring all the evidence presented here, important figures of the Brazilian political scenario continue to classify Bolsonaro as a democrat. Paulo Guedes, the Economy Minister, made the following declaration after Bolsonaro took part in an anti-democratic protest: “The president is a democrat. Sometimes he might join… if there are protesters waving the Brazilian flag, he runs after them, joins in, he shouts, he hugs everyone, chants his campaign’s slogans, ‘we will end this and that’, but he is a democrat, he is committed to it. We have a commitment to democracy”. At the end of his speech, Guedes offered some optimistic musings: “Everything will turn out alright. I have an enormous faith in the processing capacity of the Brazilian democracy. It can be loud, it can stretch in this and that direction, while the powers all define their boundaries. We are witnessing an institutional improvement”.

Similarly, Supreme Court Justice Dias Toffoli — who, it is important to note, diminished the severity of the 1964 military coup and also acted in favor of one of the president’s sons44 — announced, during his exit from the Court’s Presidency, that “throughout my whole relationship with President Jair Bolsonaro and his cabinet, I have never witnessed any anti-democratic attitude by anyone of them”. Such a statement was corroborated by the Speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia, during an interview to the television show Roda Viva on August 3rd 2020, when confronted about why he didn’t put to vote any of the fifty plus impeachment requests against the President: “I won’t be pressured to put to vote something that I think is simply not there (…). I don’t see any responsibility crime that could ground an impeachment process against the President, not in any of the requests presented so far”45.

In light, however, of the analytical categories presented in this article, we are led to affirm that, from a strictly liberal point of view, the Bolsonarism movement should not be understood as populist, but as anti-democratic. Despite Bolsonaro’s intentions of taking part in elections, there is ample evidence of the fragile and opportunistic character of his loyalty to democracy. The attempts to dress up Bolsonaro as a democrat — even if we understand democracy in the minimalist sense — should be classified, under a strictly liberal point of view, as an effort to make Bolsonarism merely a populist movement, since, as we have shown, Bolsonaro also fails to fulfill any of the criteria for being identified as a liberal.

Given our exposition thus far, we believe that one of the greatest paradoxes of Bolsonarism — and of our national politics — is already clear. It is the connection between the “illiberal” political and moral agenda of president Bolsonaro and the “liberal” economic agenda of his Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes. When he accepted the market’s demands, a crucial movement for his candidacy to take off, had the illiberal Bolsonaro been finally converted to the liberalism credo? Or, perhaps, inversely, when they embraced Bolsonaro’s illiberal candidacy, had the Brazilian liberals submitted themselves to illiberalism?

At this juncture, one must not retreat before the apparent contradiction, but, on the contrary, push forward in the direction of its core as an attempt to understand it and to totally dissolve it. In what sense is it possible to assert the oxymoronic proposition “the Brazilian liberals embrace illiberalism” without historic-conceptual distortions and without taking it as a mere contradiction? Or without tacitly simplifying (for any of the interested parties) the complex phenomenon being analyzed?

It is perhaps instructive (if not excessive) to recall here a distinction which was first introduced in the political debate by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, in the first half of the 20th century. Croce distinguished political liberalism from economic liberalism, calling the first “liberalismo” and the second “liberismo46. Analogously, we could profitably distinguish “liberalism” from “neoliberalism”. Of course, we do not intend with this distinction to prohibit the metonymic (pars pro toto) use of the words, for instance, by denying to a liberist or a neoliberal the right to call themselves “liberals”. This would be equivalent to the denial of the intrinsic polysemy of the political vocabulary, something that falls far from our intentions.

In any case, what matters here is to make explicit the existence of different liberalism lineages and to highlight that, despite a “family resemblance” among them, there are also important conceptual differences to be made (as it happens, in fact, with all the great families of contemporary political thought). It is both common and convenient to classify under the same concept thinkers such as Norberto Bobbio, Carlo Rosselli, Hans Kelsen, Leonard Hobhouse, John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes, and other thinkers such as Freidrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow, Milton Friedman, and even Robert Nozick. Such thinkers belong, however, to very different lineages of the so-called “liberalism”. Again, it is not a question of opposing this loose use of the term, but rather of a conscious effort to untangle (and not confound) the different senses and positions referred to by the same word.

We think there is a certain tendency among liberals to mask, for tactical reasons, the differences between their lineages and authors that we would like to make explicit here. By masking the differences among the various “liberalisms” (a strategy legitimized, perhaps, by equivalent practices coming from the “other side”), one authorizes, in a certain way, the smuggling of ideas, values and concepts among them, strengthening their possible weaknesses. For example, a topic that, from a theoretical point of view, certainly introduces a cleavage among liberals is democracy and social rights. Or, in connection to this topic, the matter of authoritarianism and the role of the State. As we have defined it in this article, liberalism is indeed allergic to authoritarianism, especially as exerted in the form of an autocratic power (such liberal thinkers have the tendency, moreover, to excessively project this authoritarianism over a rigorously democratic left).

It is, however, well-known that certain liberal lineages have flirted with authoritarianism47. Certain neoliberal authors, such as Wilhelm Röpke, for example, were willing to sacrifice democracy and its political liberties in the name of the “freedom of the market”. In a letter to Marcel van Zeeland, another member of the Walter Lippmann Colloquium (considered by many scholars as the birthplace of neoliberalism48), Röpke says: “It is possible that in my opinion about the “strong state” (le gouvernment qui gouverne) I am even “more fascist” [faschistischer] than you yourself, because I would indeed like to see all economic policy decisions concentrated in the hands of a fully independent and vigorous state weakened by no pluralist authorities of a corporatist kind. (…) I seek the strength of the state in the intensity, not the extensiveness, of its economic policies. How the constitutional legal structure of such a state should be designed is a question in and of itself for which I have no patent recipe to offer. I share your opinion that the old formulas of parliamentary democracy have proven themselves useless. People must get used to the fact that there is also presidential, authoritarian, yes even — horribile dictum [horrible to say] — dictatorial democracy”49.

Röpke’s quotation is not an isolated fact among neoliberal thinkers. Another example of a neoliberal epigone willing to accept, even if only provisionally, a dictatorial regime as a way of ensuring market freedom was Friedrich von Hayek, with his famous and polemic declarations about Pinochet’s bloodthirsty dictatorship. Asked by the Argentinian journalist Renée Sallas, “what is your opinion of dictatorships?”, Hayek replied: “Well, I would say that, as long-term institution I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system during a transitional period. Sometimes it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with total lack of liberalism. I personally prefer a liberal dictator to a democratic government lacking liberalism. My particular impression is — and this is valid for South America — that in Chile, for example, there will be a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government. And during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary transitional arrangement”50.

Hayek’s thoughts are evidently nuanced, but still, it seems clear to us that justifying a dictatorship, under any analytical angle, marks a decisive rupture with political liberalism and its conceptual core (plural cleavages, political moderation, and protection of minority rights) — which we have tried to present in this article. Crossing over this border, neoliberalism becomes quite simply anti-democratic. We believe that the Brazilian liberals — the self-purported authentic ones — who not only did not engross the opposition to Bolsonaro’s government, but who have actually taken its side, have similarly crossed over that limit, seduced by the president’s (ever more erratic) movement toward “market freedom”. In the end, this neoliberalism (or neoliberismo, in the words of José Guilherme Merquior51, an author who cannot be suspected of being a covert “lefty”), which sees in Bolsonaro the poison-medicine for all the country’s illnesses, seems to be anything except an authentically liberal lineage.