Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election in Brazil on October 28 with 55 percent of the vote. The former army captain triumphed over Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party pledging to fight crime and corruption, to end affirmative action for “disadvantaged minorities,” and to shatter the straitjacketed discourse on race and sexuality. The leader of the fourth-largest democracy has vowed to uphold traditional family, patriotism, Christian faith, and law and order.
From the standpoint of the Western elite, Bolsonaro’s views are beyond the pale.
“I will not fight nor discriminate,” he said in 2002, “but if I see two men kissing in the street, I’ll hit them.”
“I’m homophobic, yes,” he reiterated some years later, “and very proud of it if it is to defend children in schools.”
“I’d rather have my son die in an accident,” he declared in 2010, “than show up with some mustachioed guy!”
“Brazil is a Christian country,” Bolsonaro insists. “God above everyone! It is not this story, this little story of secular state. It is a Christian state, and if a minority is against it, then move!”
What would he do if his son fell in love with a black woman? The question was put to Bolsonaro in 2011. “I do not run that risk as my children were very well raised,” he replied. In 2017, he promised to end all indigenous and slave-descended quota programs. “Has anyone ever seen a Japanese begging for charity?” he asked. Of course not, “because it’s a race that has shame. It’s not like this race that’s down here, or like a minority ruminating here on the side.”
“Violence is combated with violence” was Bolsonaro’s 2017 summary of his plan to fight soaring crime rates. “I’ll give carte blanche for the police to kill. . . . A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.” He also promised to relax Brazil’s stringent gun laws, so that “every citizen will have a firearm in their [sic] home.” At the final rally in São Paulo on October 21, he said that the armed forces would be involved in imposing order, “with a judicial rearguard to enforce the law.”
The Western media reaction has been predictably apoplectic. “Fascism has arrived in Brazil” was the headline in London’s Independent; Bolsonaro’s victory “marks a setback for civilisation.” He is “arguably the most rightwing leader elected anywhere in the world this century,” opined the Guardian. In Germany, Der Spiegel warned that Brazil is “flirting with a dictator,” while Die Zeit concluded that “Bolsonaro represented a danger to freedom.” According to The Economist, “That such a man will lead Latin America’s largest country is a tragedy.”
Bolsonaro has been dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” because of his populist style and social-media presence. His statements over the years, however, indicate a coherent world outlook which is more ideologically consistent, and far more skeptical of political institutions, than Trump’s.
To understand the difference we need to look at the early days of Bolsonaro’s political career. “I am in favor of a dictatorship,” he declared at the Chamber of Deputies in 1993, “a regime of exception.” This is arguably the most important statement Bolsonaro has ever made. Its significance has evaded the media because today’s commentators and editors are uneducated.
“A state of exception” (Ausnahmezustand) is a key concept in the legal theory of Carl Schmitt. It seems similar to a state of emergency, with the important difference in Schmitt’s insistence that the sovereign is able to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good. A government capable of decisive action therefore must include a dictatorial element within its constitution, freeing the executive from legal restraints to its power. Sovereignty is ultimately the power to commence this state of exception. It reflects Schmitt’s view that the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and foe: “The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing.”
In the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s victory some commentators have expressed hope that “effective governance will require transition ing from the politics of redemption to the politics of pragmatism.” They do not know, and therefore can’t understand, that his entire political outlook is built on “exception.” To Bolsonaro, the “politics of pragmatism” will mean the opposite of consensus and conciliation. He understands that man is by nature evil, that he therefore needs dominion, and that—as per Schmitt—“the political thus understood is not the constitutive principle of the state, of order, but a condition of the state.”
At a time when he is under sustained attack by extraconstitutional power nodes, it would be in the American interest for President Donald Trump to take an interest in the legal theory of Carl Schmitt, or at least to observe—and if necessary emulate—the forthcoming moves by his Brazilian disciple.