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“THE WORLD’S FOURTH-LARGEST DEMOCRACY has elected a neofascist as president. The editorial and opinion pages of respectable newspapers the world over warn of the dangers of Jair Bolsonaro; prominent foreign intellectuals and economists have signed open letters urging the country to reconsider. But educated cosmopolitan types in Brazil—the kind who would normally place great store in the words of the Washington Post or The Economist—take no heed. Here, the center never bothered holding; the coalition assembled behind Bolsonaro is more than content to tolerate authoritarian head-banging when the alternative is moderate social democracy.
The one thing that unifies Bolsonaro supporters—from big financiers to small businessmen, young urban liberals to neo-Pentecostal evangelicals—is antipetismo, or hatred of the Workers Party (PT), the former ruling party cofounded by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known familiarly as Lula. They stole the state and broke Brazil, runs the refrain in the centers of respectable opinion. They’re Bolivarian Bolsheviks come to turn Brazil into Venezuela and/or our kids gay. Who’d want that? Better to go with the guy who’s marketed himself as the anti-that.
Bolsonaro, though, is “beyond the pale, a military evil.” These are the words of Ernesto Geisel—not a leftist of any description, but Brazil’s military dictator in the late 1970s—spoken in an interview in the early 1990s. Bolsonaro represents an extreme dissident tendency even within the military establishment. For him, Brazil’s hard right 1964 military coup—the “day that lasted twenty-one years” —did not go far enough: the dictatorship “should have killed thirty thousand more,” he said in 1999, while serving the third of his seven running terms as congressman. “We’re going to machine gun down the petralhada”—a portmanteau of PT and the Portuguese name for the cartoon criminals The Beagle Boys—Bolsonaro exulted on the campaign trail. Lest anyone think this was a random moment of unscripted campaign excess—an occasion to take Bolsonaro—at an October 21 rally the candidate promised to “carry out a cleanup never before seen in Brazilian history,” in which “red outlaws would be sent to jail or into exile.” Driving the point home, he pledged to the leaders of the left opposition that the “police, with legal backing, would make the law felt on your backs.” When it comes to the use of state violence to punish and persecute his foes, the “outsider” politician has remained remarkably consistent.”
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