Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the presidency of Brazil last year provoked a media meltdown similar to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Just as in the U.S., journalists in Brazil and abroad predicted the “Trump of the Tropics” was akin to the second coming of Hitler, ushering in the end of democracy, revoking gay rights, and sending women back to the kitchen.

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, bombastic statements, and lack of political polish have fueled the hysteria among his opponents, but the reality is that none of these apocalyptic predictions made by the chattering class has come to pass.

The broader context of Bolsonaro’s election is the key to understanding his rise. He took office from a left-wing party that had mired the country in the worst corruption scandal in its history. That, combined with the overheated doomsaying of his opponents, has set the bar for his performance in voters’ minds extraordinarily low.

Many of Bolsonaro’s voters will readily admit he was not their first choice, but they were desperate for change. Bolsonaro looked attractive when the only real alternative was another president from the democratic socialist Workers’ Party (PT).

“I’m neither disappointed nor pleased,” Bolsonaro voter Hendrika Vasconcelos said in an interview. “I wasn’t expecting much from him. I just knew that everything would go downhill if we stayed with the other party.”

PT governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016, and many Brazilians believe it ran the country into the ground. Brazil has been foundering in a deep economic crisis for five years. Crime has soared. In 2017, there were an astonishing 63,880 homicides. Moreover, PT—along with many other Brazilian political parties—is mired in a massive corruption scandal known as Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash. It involved the deviation of billions of dollars of public money to benefit parties belonging to the PT’s governing coalition in exchange for political support.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—a founding member of PT and the most famous politician in Brazil—is currently in prison. His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for corruption in 2016. Rousseff’s replacement, Michel Temer of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), was also briefly jailed due to Lava Jato.

“Bolsonaro was the only guy who had never been involved in a corruption scandal—and that’s pretty rare in Brazil,” Gabriel de Arruda Castro said in an interview. Castro is a communications officer at the Mackenzie Center for Economic Freedom, a free market think tank based in São Paulo, and had previously worked as a journalist covering Bolsonaro. “Voters thought maybe he’s our last hope to have somebody who is not part of the system,” he said.

Bolsonaro decided to run for president a full three years before the election, but  didn’t have even the most basic elements of a campaign in place. He switched political parties three times. Shortly before the deadline to file his candidacy, he joined the conservative Social Liberal Party (PSL)—which calls itself “liberal” in the sense of being committed to free market capitalism. PSL rewrote its platform to accommodate its dynamic new candidate.

After vacillating endlessly about who should be his running mate, Bolsonaro finally selected Brazilian Army General Hamilton Mourão, despite his membership in a different political party. Bolsonaro, who himself served as a captain in the Brazilian Army, has shut Mourão out of decision-making.

Bolsonaro’s chaotic personal style is exacerbated by his lack of executive experience. He is the first president of Brazil who has never held an executive government role. He served in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, for 28 years. Before that, he was a member of Rio de Janeiro’s city council. 

Bolsonaro also can be extremely vulgar and unpresidential. Castro interviewed Bolsonaro in 2011, and said Bolsonaro kept in the top drawer of his desk a bottle of cachaça, Brazilian rum, with the brand name Cura Viado, which is an offensive slang expression for a “cure for homosexuality.” Bolsonaro made a point of serving it to visitors, Castro said.

Bolsonaro’s rise prompted an outcry among LGBT activists around the world. In May, he cancelled a trip to New York where he was scheduled to collect an award, after LGBT pressure groups targeted the event. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called Bolsonaro “a dangerous man,” in part because of his comments about homosexuality.

Many of Bolsonaro’s perceived homophobic comments are an expression of the Brazilian macho military culture that shaped him. But Castro believes Bolso naro is also motivated by fatherly concern for his eight-year-old daughter, Laura. “In recent years, he became more concerned about LGBT indoctrination in schools,” Castro said. “He sees his daughter as a potential victim of leftist teachers and socialist government that are trying to push the LGBT agenda. That’s one of the few things that makes him really angry,” he said.

Despite his controversies, Brazil’s evangelicals and conservative Catholics are among Bolsonaro’s strongest supporters. They may cringe at his vulgarity, but they also understand this is part of what makes him an authentic person and not a scripted politician. Vasconcelos, who is evangelical, said, “He seems more honest and more transparent. He seems like a humble man, even though he is blunt and crass sometimes.”

Brazilians in general tend to be more tolerant of political incorrectness than Americans. “My dad was in the army,” Allan Antonio, a lawyer living in São Paulo, said in an interview. “Bolsonaro reminds me of my dad.”

The average Brazilian also warmed to Bolsonaro’s tough talk on crime, which was a departure from the history of soft comments even from Brazilian conservatives about respecting human rights. “A good criminal is a dead criminal,” Bolsonaro said often on the campaign trail. Once elected, one of his first actions was to loosen the country’s draconian gun-control regulations, giving more people the ability to defend themselves.

The dire state of Brazil’s economy was also a top concern for voters. Some of the other candidates had stronger economic credentials than Bolsonaro. He circumvented that problem by announcing that, if elected, he would appoint Paulo Guedes, a staunch free marketeer, as his economic minister. Guedes is widely respected, having studied at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman—like the “Chicago Boys” who overhauled the Chilean economy under General Augusto Pinochet. With Guedes by his side, Bolsonaro won the support of Faria Lima, Brazil’s Wall Street.

Guedes and Bolsonaro are currently pushing an enormous pension reform bill through Congress. Most political parties at the national level agree that some type of pension reform is needed. The question is the extent to which Guedes’ proposal will be watered down. He has threatened to resign if the bill that passes Congress falls short of what he believes the Brazilian economy needs.

If they succeed with pensions, Guedes and Bolsonaro hope to tackle Brazil’s labyrinthine tax system. Tax rates need to be lowered and the entire code needs to be drastically simplified. This will be crucial for stimulating entrepreneurship.

One of Bolsonaro’s most controversial moves to date is his proposal to cut 5.8 billion reais (US$1.5 billion) from the budget for public education. On May 30, there were massive demonstrations all over Brazil against the cuts. Marchers carried banners calling Bolsonaro the enemy of education. In fact, the PT presidents before Bolsonaro made much bigger cuts to education spending.

On foreign policy, Bolsonaro does not have a clearly articulated stance. On the crisis in Venezuela, he has been talking tough against President Nicolás Maduro, and has said he wouldn’t be opposed to U.S. military intervention. However, he also made it clear Brazil will not participate if the U.S. military does take action.

The “Brazilian Trump” met the actual Trump in Washington in March. Bolsonaro is proudly pro-American, and the two presidents showered praise on each other. Bolsonaro promised “a new chapter of co-operation” between Brazil and America. But it remains to be seen how much of that will actually materialize.

Bolsonaro is usually compared to Trump because of his outsider status and combative style, but his non-traditional family life also remarkably mirrors that of Trump. Bolsonaro has three sons from his first marriage who are in their thirties, Flávio, Carlos, and Eduardo. After he divorced, Bolsonaro had a long-term relationship with a woman he never married. This produced a son, Renan, who is in his early twenties. His current wife Michelle, the mother of Laura, is 27 years his junior.

Flávio, Carlos, and Eduardo all hold elected office. As with Trump, Bolsonaro’s adult children are his closest advisors. In fact, when Bolsonaro met with Trump in the Oval Office, it was his son Eduardo who accompanied him, rather than Brazil’s foreign affairs minister.

Bolsonaro’s sons have already caused trouble for his administration. Flávio is the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation involving several hundred thousand dollars. “It’s on a pretty small scale when you are in Brazil, and people are stealing billions of dollars,” the Mackenzie Center’s Castro said. “That’s almost excusable in the Brazilian context.” But Bolsonaro’s opponents are making political hay out of the investigation.

During the campaign, Carlos masterminded his father’s social media strategy, and most political commentators agree it was a factor in Bolsonaro’s victory. Even after the election, Carlos continues to run his father’s social media accounts. “Bolsonaro rarely tweets. Almost every time, it’s Carlos,” Castro said.

In March, Carlos used his father’s Twitter account to share a video of two gay men engaged in lewd behavior in public during Carnival. Carlos was outraged by the incident and wanted to raise awareness, but the tweet backfired spectacularly, attracting international criticism. Even worse, it offended Bolsonaro’s Christian supporters. Despite this, Bolsonaro continues to give Carlos free reign on social media.

Bolsonaro’s wife Michelle is a devout evangelical who volunteers as a sign language interpreter during church services. She helped Bolsonaro understand that evangelicals, who represent around 25 percent of Brazil’s population, could be important allies for his campaign. Bolsonaro himself is Catholic, and recently signed a proclamation dedicating Brazil to the protection of the Virgin Mary.

During the campaign, Bolsonaro released a video in which he tearfully recalled Laura’s birth. He shared that he was done having children, but his wife Michelle wanted a baby. He eventually acquiesced and had his vasectomy reversed.

Michelle has also been an important moderating influence on her husband. “He was always a conservative, but he was more focused on crime and some economics,” Castro said. “In the last 10 years, he has grown closer to conservative evangelicals.”

Part of this change is Bolsonaro distancing himself from his past as an advocate for the military prone to harsh rhetoric. “There’s a video from 1999 where he said Brazil’s problems can only be solved by a civil war and some innocent people will die,” Castro said. “That is not something he would say today.”

Bolsonaro’s election may signal a broader shift to the right in Brazil. The states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais—which together comprise the country’s economic engine—all recently elected conservative or libertarian governors.

This is probably a natural result of the older generation, which was indoctrinated in Marxism, starting to die off. Younger Brazilians have access to far more information via the internet. They may not identify as classical liberals, but they can now see clearly that Venezuela and Cuba are disasters, while countries with freer markets enjoy prosperity.

“Bolsonaro is a step in the right direction, but we need an even stronger free-market president after him to take us further,” São Paulo lawyer Antonio said.

Brazil lacks strong conservative institutions such as think tanks, universities, media outlets, and even political parties, as evidenced by Bolsonaro’s difficulty in finding a political party that shared his views. The country needs a solid conservative foundation if the current shift to the right is going to last beyond Bolsonaro’s presidency.

Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid” certainly applies to Bolsonaro. The fate of conservative politics in Brazil depends on whether the economy improves during Bolsonaro’s term. If it doesn’t, the left can try to resurge on the argument that free markets were tried and didn’t work. On the other hand, nearly any reforms Bolsonaro makes are likely to have a positive impact, due to the dire state of the Brazilian economy.

Given the low expectations of Brazilians who have suffered for years under a crippled economy and corrupt political system, even small positive improvements under Bolsonaro will seem like a significant turn for the better. While it’s still too early to judge, there is a chance Brazilians are in for a pleasant surprise.


photo of Bolsonaro (Alan Santos/Brazil’s Presidential Press Office via AP)