Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the Brazilian presidential election marks the triumph of a new, digital form of totalitarian movement in which masses are the driver of their own manipulation. But this doesn’t make it less harmful than traditional fascist models.

  • Antoine Acker

    Antoine Acker teaches and researches in the field of global history at the University of Zurich. He is the author of a book on Volkswagen in the Amazon and several contributions about Brazil's international connections during the period of the military regime.

It is a fact that Jair Bolso­naro, who has trium­phantly been elected presi­dent of Brazil with more than 55% of the vote, has publicly approved torture, regretted that his country’s former dicta­tor­ship did not kill enough people, and wished Brazil a civil war with 30,000 dead so as to rege­ne­rate itself. But does this make him the leader of a fascist move­ment? Some histo­rians have argued that this “imported” deno­mi­na­tion over­looks the conti­nuity of a dome­stic tradi­tion of autho­ri­ta­ria­nism, and espe­ci­ally, the unre­solved heri­tage of the mili­tary regime which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. Indeed, the elected presi­dent is a former mili­tary officer trained during this period and has never hidden his nost­algia for this regime. But while the latter was a pecu­liar mix of state oppres­sion and controlled elec­toral processes that included a limited oppo­si­tion, Brazil also has its own, authentic fascist tradition.

In the 1930s, it was home to the world’s second Nazi party, which was affi­liated to Hitler’s NSDAP and attracted members from, but also beyond, the country’s German colony. Another move­ment, the “Brazi­lian Inte­gra­list Action”, emerged in the same decade to defend a national order based on catholic, rural and mascu­line values. It openly claimed its lineage with Italian fascism, as well as inclu­ding a strong anti­se­mitic current. With a member­ship of over one million persons, in a country of about thirty-five million, it became Brazil’s largest mass move­ment. Bolsonaro’s personal and ideo­lo­gical story is intert­wined with the modern heri­tage of these interwar expe­ri­ences. His friend­ship with the neo-Nazi Marco Antônio Santos, who posed with him dressed as Hitler follo­wing an invi­ta­tion to the Rio de Janeiro city council by Bolsonaro’s son (himself a city coun­cilor), is well known. Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan, “Brasil acima de tudo” is a literal trans­la­tion of “Deutsch­land über alles” (except for the country’s name). This is not just a coin­ci­dence, but a watch­word imported to Brazil in 1969 by the “Nati­vist Spark” (Centelha Nati­vista). The latter was a group at the radical fringe of the mili­tary, fasci­nated by Nazi symbols, pushing for more hard­line autho­ri­ta­ria­nism and whose influence survived the demo­cratic tran­si­tion thanks to poli­tical perso­na­li­ties like the newly elected presi­dent. 

Troubling resem­blances with interwar Europe

Elements that previously precluded a descrip­tion of the Brazi­lian mili­tary dicta­tor­ship as “fascist” are now repre­sented in the discourse and prac­tices of Bolsonaro’s move­ment. Such elements include the cult of perso­na­lity of “the myth” – as his partisans call him – and an esthe­tics of violence symbo­lized in the first place by the “Bolso­na­rist” sign of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, which consists in miming shoo­ting with both hands. It is troubling how pictures of Brazi­lian mobs poin­ting their hands in the air as if these were revol­vers recall the coll­ec­tive mimicry of the fascist salute. Their candidate’s call to “fusil­lade” the members of the Workers Party (PT) and the threat of one of his elected depu­ties to “shoot” left-wing members of Rio de Janeiro’s state assembly are also in line with the fascist concep­tion of the poli­tical compe­titor as an enemy to be exter­mi­nated.  While Bolso­naro has no struc­tured militia, a portion of his most fervent supporters have behaved like Mussolini’s Black­shirts, commit­ting hundreds of acts of physical violence (inclu­ding at least three assas­si­na­tions) against PT campai­gners, homo­se­xuals, trans­se­xuals and indi­ge­nous people. Swas­tikas as well as graf­fiti and bills threa­tening the murder of black and LGBT+ Brazi­lians were displayed on the streets, within schools and even on the walls of churches, crea­ting a climate of inti­mi­da­tion during the polls.

„Finger-Revolver“, Quelle: www.jungewelt.de

Bolsonaro’s campaign itself was based on the mani­pu­la­tion of the masses through a large-scale industry of “fake news” that circu­lated on social networks such as Whatsapp and Face­book, slan­de­ring left candi­dates and leaders with accu­sa­tions of corrup­tion, the sexua­liza­tion of children, rape and even Sata­nism. It produced a culture of moral denun­cia­tion and poli­tical perse­cu­tion recal­ling the darkest hours of interwar Europe. Imme­dia­tely after Bolsonaro’s victory a congress­woman from his party invited secon­dary school students to use their cell­phones in the class­room to film teachers prac­ti­cing “leftist indoc­tri­na­tion”. The general hosti­lity towards the “reds” has turned into a tota­li­ta­rian deli­rium, with even Francis Fuku­yama being abhorred as a “commu­nist”, and people in the street being atta­cked simply for wearing red clothes. This witch hunt against the left – a word emptied of its actual poli­tical meaning – has taken the form of an irra­tional search for scape­goats for the economic crisis, with troubling resem­blance to the first histo­rical stage of fascist harass­ment against reli­gious and ethnic minorities.

Admit­tedly, there are also good reasons in being cautious before attri­bu­ting “Bolso­na­rism” (let us call it that way until the debate is settled) a fascist label. Bolso­naro does not possess Hitler’s dogmatic subs­tance, and his appro­xi­ma­tive syntax shows him far from Mussolini’s famous writing skills and capa­ci­ties of intellec­tual arti­cu­la­tion. He is another avatar of the enig­matic inter­na­tional success of far-right figures (Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen, and USA’s Donald Trump), whose mediocre appearance and unpo­lished language contrast sharply with the rheto­rical sophisti­ca­tion of tradi­tional fascist leaders. Another notable diffe­rence in the current Brazi­lian situa­tion is the absence of a mass party –  the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which Bolso­naro only joined in March 2018, was just one of the few small groups which offered to make him their presi­den­tial candi­date. Only during the final days of the campaign did it grow to become Brazil’s second poli­tical party, and it still lacks the struc­tured rituals and mili­ta­rized orga­niza­tion of histo­rical fascist move­ments. Finally, Bolso­na­rism does not seem to display preten­tions of terri­to­rial expan­sion in the way Euro­pean fascisms did. But this latter point must be discussed in the geogra­phic context of Brazil, a country of 8.5 million square kilo­me­ters whose vast inte­rior has always been considered by local autho­ri­ta­rian move­ments as a huge void to be conquered and brought into submis­sion, in order for the nation to survive and grow. Hence Bolsonaro’s promises to amplify defo­re­sta­tion and dismantle indi­ge­nous terri­to­ries could be as well inter­preted as a tropical version of Lebens­raum.

Why histo­rians should mind the very short term

While this geogra­phic context can help situate the PSL’s poli­tical plat­form as a “brazi­lia­nized” varia­tion of fascism, the histo­rical context of the present always remains some­what harder to grasp for histo­rians. Most of the profes­sion had seen the autho­ri­ta­rian drift of Brazi­lian insti­tu­tions coming since the uncon­sti­tu­tional impeach­ment of elected Presi­dent Dilma Rousseff in 2016, but the result of the first presi­den­tial round caught ever­yone by surprise. A week before, Bolso­naro was still not the favo­rite, and most of the progres­sion which led him to 46% of the vote was built in the last forty-eight hours. Of course, there are long and medium term expl­ana­tions for this rise, and these belong to the kind of causa­li­ties histo­rians are used to dealing with. Such strands are the spirit of revenge of a reac­tionary elite whose prospe­rity lies on the struc­tural heri­tage of slavery, the soci­ally down­gra­ding power of the harsh economic decline of the past four years, and the collapse of the poli­tical system amidst huge corrup­tion scan­dals. The growing adhe­sion of evan­ge­lical priests to Bolsonaro’s project of resto­ring a patri­ar­chal family order also played a signi­fi­cant role towards the end of the campaign. Their influence is itself the result of fifty years of local commu­nity presence in soci­ally segre­gated neigh­bor­hoods, under the auspices of churches which have been able to appro­priate the tools of the enter­tain­ment industry and digital world to propa­gate their dogma.

Anhän­gerin von Jair Bolso­naro © Silvia Izquierdo/AP/dpa, Quelle: www.zeit.de

But these histo­rical deve­lo­p­ments do not suffice to explain the elec­toral Blitz­krieg that took place in many parts of Brazil, for example in the state of Rio de Janeiro where support for Bolsonaro’s hard-line ally and candi­date for governor Wilson Witzel grew from 14% (in the poll most favorable to him) to 41% in less than twenty-four hours. What histo­rians have not been able to detect is the power of digital tech­no­lo­gies to dupli­cate and acce­le­rate the effects of social and poli­tical evolu­tions, which the profes­sion is not trained to analyze in such a short time­frame. Accor­ding to data published on October 28 by the polling insti­tute Data­folha, 65% of Brazi­lian voters acknow­ledged having informed them­selves poli­ti­cally through “news” received on Whatsapp, and 47% admitted to belie­ving these news items.

The rise of a digital, “on the spot” fascism

In this context, Bolsonaro’s campaign was able to invent a new form of fascism, of which social networks were the birth­place. The stun­ning rapi­dity with which lies could spread digi­tally made the fascist mass party as an instru­ment to mani­pu­late society obso­lete. To be sure, this opera­tion was pati­ently planned from the top, as shown by the news­paper Folha de São Paulo, which reve­aled on 18 October how hundreds of busi­nessmen involved them­selves in massive elec­toral fraud at the service of the PSL. In complete ille­ga­lity, compa­nies paid up to four million dollars each to acquire users’ data, to create Whatsapp groups and bombard millions of private accounts with defa­ma­tion of PT candi­dates. But the point is, once such a poison is intro­duced into the digital world, mass mani­pu­la­tion quickly becomes a parti­ci­pa­tive process powered by the masses them­selves. Through their cell phones, Brazi­lians distrac­tedly forwarded to their rela­tives, friends and colle­agues, “fake news” fabri­cated to influence their vote, amidst a flow of emoti­cons, personal messages, and other, non-political infor­ma­tion. This cons­truc­tion of an “on the spot” fascism, rendered fluid by means of inter­ac­ti­vity, may also dispense Bolso­naro and his clique from cons­truc­ting a govern­mental appa­ratus of surveil­lance and repres­sion in the future. As the Brazi­lian jour­na­list Fausto Salva­dori wrote in one of the best analyses produced after the second round, who needs censor­ship and a poli­tical police when school students film teachers with their cell phones? And, perhaps in an attempt to envi­sage the worst case scenario, one could add – who needs planned tech­ni­ques of state violence, when hundreds of thou­sands of anony­mous “trolls” use the internet to propa­gate calls for raping or murde­ring members of ethnic and sexual mino­ri­ties? – as has happened in the past weeks.

Protest gegen Bolso­naro; Quelle: zeit.de

For similar reasons, the tradi­tional fascist orator also has no reason to be in the world of social networks, in which commu­ni­ca­tion consists in quick sentences, some­times with a strictly limited number of signs (Twitter), and a language cleansed from syntaxial comple­xi­ties. Digital rhetoric does not produce charis­matic tribunes, but “influen­cers”, who speak ever­yday language, make them­selves noted by provo­ca­tive decla­ra­tions crea­ting “buzz”, and stage them­selves through Insta­gram pictures and live videos made from their hospital room or their home sofa, as in the case of Bolso­naro during the campaign. As clas­sical histo­rians of fascism have pointed out, there can be many kinds of fascist move­ments. Bolso­na­rism is the first to take a digital form. But this does not make it less tota­li­ta­rian in its project of poli­tical perse­cu­tion, as became clear in the PSL leader’s almost surrea­li­stic speech on October 22. While the speech was attended by thou­sands of supporters on São Paulo’s main avenue, the candi­date addressed the mob virtually, filmed by a cell­phone as he was stan­ding in random home dress in a place which seemed to be the laundry room of his personal resi­dence. The speech content, however, belonged to fascism of the most grue­some kind, espe­ci­ally as Bolso­naro inti­mated to his poli­tical oppon­ents to “leave the country or go to prison” and promised to “send them all to Ponta da Praia” (a mili­tary base which func­tioned as a center of torture during the dictatorship).

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 Now is time to apply the fascist label

Since the late 1980s, the emer­gence of right-wing popu­lism in Europe’s elec­toral land­scape has led to an incre­asing use of the “fascist” compa­rison in poli­tics and the media. Many histo­rians thought to compen­sate for common exag­ge­ra­tions by applying the fascist label to contem­po­rary move­ments strictly sparingly. Now is the time to use this label again, for Bolso­naro is not just the “Trump of the tropics”. He cham­pions far-right tota­li­ta­ria­nism, but in a context of digital connec­ti­vity that makes dicta­to­rial plans much less discernable than in the time when these used to be embo­died by tradi­tional fascist struc­tures. To reco­gnize Bolso­na­rism as digital fascism is not a matter of academic jargon, but of using an adequate histo­rical compa­rison that informs us about the risks of what is curr­ently happe­ning: fascism produces bloodshed, espe­ci­ally when the inter­na­tional commu­nity fails to iden­tify it in its early stage.

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