(This is probably part 1 of a neverending series.)
As you might have read (particularly if informed only by the international press), Jair Bolsonaro is a deal-breaker: incompatible with Brazilian democratic principles and popular only because of, presumably, the same reasons that have been giving power to deal-breakers everywhere. But reality is impossibly specific; Marine Le Pen is no Trump and Jair is neither.
The true reason that Jair Bolsonaro is a deal-breaker is that he’s insufficiently post-modern. And I know this sounds like a Jordan Peterson talking point, so let me defend my usage as precise and unpertesonian.
Brazil is a post-modern nation in the most literal — syntactic — possible sense. It once was a quickly modernizing nation ruled by a parliamentary monarchy about as democratic as any modern monarchy (except, of course, for slaves, which is neither here nor there). It fought a heroic nationalistic war against a napoleonic aggressor. It even had a first-grade literary culture best exemplified by Machado de Assis, hailed by people of all nations as the Black Dostoyevsky. Even the Emperor was profoundly modern; having met him in exile, Nietzsche wrote on his surprise on meeting such a cultured, enlightened king.
Then, this Meiji-revolution-in-the-tropics was abruptly interrupted by a military coup, the date of which is still celebrated as a national holiday. One of their first acts is to ban the “animal lotto” that had been ran by the owners of the Zoo. Of course, the animal lotto is omnipresent in post-modern, post-coup Brazil, because the 1889 coup didn’t bring the end of oligarchy, it brough the end of meaning.
Interestingly, there’s not much to say about our post-modern history: the rough-and-tumble of military coups and phony elections (voto de cabresto) that follows until the 1930s is finally overcome by another military coup led by a caudillo-type figure hailing from the very border with Argentina named Getulio Vargas. Getulio eventually rules for 15 full and ininterrupted years — the first seven of which as a weak dictatorship continually challenged by regional military forces, and the last eight of which as a brutal, Gestapo-collaborating, intellectual-imprisoning dictatorship. Hilariously, Getulio Vargas briefly returns to power in the mid-50s by the popular vote and creates Petrobras, which you might have seen in the news lately.
Roughly at the same time (actually two years before, but let me have my narrative) as Getulio takes power for the first time, the quintessential post-modern Brazilian hero (one “without a character”) is introduced — the shape-shifting, race-swapping, preternaturally slothful Macunaíma. By then, the fundamentally chaotic and future-less character (or, in a literary stroke, the lack of one) of Brazilian post-modernity had become clear.
How does Getulio rationalize suppressing Brazilian fascism while inching towards an alliance with Nazi Germany? Macunaíma. How does Brazil suddenly shifts alliances towards the Americans? Well, the foremost Nazi in the Getulio government, Filinto Müller, dies in an inexplicable plane crash — but face it, also Macunaíma. Why did the single true stateman between Vargas and FHC move the capital from the historical Rio de Janeiro (planned from the get-go as the capital of a colonial empire) to the literal middle of nowhere? Macunaíma.
This is why the “Brazilian Trump” story doesn’t work: we’ve been living in Trumpish epistemological conditions since before our great-grandmas’s times.
Trump is a natural international reference point. There are a few more you might have heard if you’re reading the morally agitated press (should you take into account that Glenn Greenwald is married to a politician from a small-time party under near-direct control of former president Lula? that’s up to you): the Military Dictatorship (the singular one that’s not openly celebrated) and, gasp, fascism.
We’ve established so far that Brazil has experienced long strings of military rule since the post-modern coup of 1899. We have not painted this history in the profondo rosso colors of Getulio Vargas’s torture cells smack in the middle of downtown then-capital Rio did — and I say this without any irony — because their blood doesn’t matter much. It’s modern blood, shed by modern archetypes including communists and fascists (and whoever else gets caught in this overly-large net, such as non-Macunaímic master Graciliano Ramos), spilled in the effort to keep modernity from creeping back in. Modern blood, and therefore as distant from Brazilian reality as the blood from the late-1800s War with Paraguay.
This is also why the assassination attempt on Jair Bolsonaro’s life doesn’t seem to matter — despite medical records attesting that he had lost enough blood to die in most alternate realities, the kind of people that gets retweets still claim not to have seen it. It doesn’t show well in the 3-second cellphone camera footage loop that people saw on TV.
So what’s with the particular instance of military rule that Brazilian culture does reject? What, some of the communists killed this time are even the same communists Getulio Vargas missed. It’s not enough to reverse this theory of modern blood and say that it’s “postmodern blood” that gets spilled. In the name of what? Germanic name notwithstanding, general Geisel’s aesthetics, policies and policy aesthetics (but not aesthetic policies — maybe this matters, maybe not) as Dilma Roussef.
The fact is that it’s really hard to say something clear about the abject character of the military rule of the 1960-1970s because Brazilian culture refuses to allow it to die. More time has passed between the end of the Regime and now than between the bombing of Dresden and the creation of an European Parliament, and they had nazis to purge. A key difference is that we didn’t purge ours; we made a pact of amnesty (on all sides — there were plenty of atrocities perpetrated by them commies to forgive) that possibly let some wounds infect, but was mostly broken unilaterally by Dilma Roussef’s party, who after a good 30 years inaugurated the so-called Comittee for the Truth.
At least some observers should have been taken aback by this word – the Truth — but instead, mainstream culture proceeded to congratulate itself for having been right the whole time (this is a lot like if Chacrinha’s proof of Riemann’s conjecture turned out to be correct) and some fringes were quick to the defense of their heroes — quickly transmuted into modern historical figures even as they died of old age in relative poverty. Most ordinary people didn’t even pay much attention — ain’t nobody got the time for modern events.
And yet, out of the sheer sterility of the post-1988 version of post-modern Brazil and the ballooning demands of a bulging urban lower middle class, this modern re-reading of whatever happened between 1964 and 1985 took root. We need to understand the sheer novelty of clear ideas in Patropi to make some sense of Jair Messias Bolsonaro — this is like the pre-calculus for Macunaíma. I’m sorry I can’t make it simpler.