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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-11-2022 06:00

The search for something different

For years now, the dissatisfied with this state of affairs have been looking for something different. Their ongoing search for new blood has had some startling results.

In many, perhaps most parts of the world, an increasing number of “ordinary people” or, as some would have it, “real people” would like to send all the politicians they know packing and replace them with others they imagine would devote less time to bickering among themselves over questions that nobody else finds important. Those who think this way criticise politicians for “living in a bubble” where, it is said, they quickly lose interest in the concerns of the lesser beings who must pay for their upkeep.

For years now, those dissatisfied with this state of affairs have been looking for something different. Their ongoing search for new blood has had some startling results. Had it not been for their compatriots’ contempt for standard-issue politicians, Donald Trump would still be no more than a flamboyant businessman and reality TV host, and Jair Bolsonaro would at most be a minor office-holder with a taste for making aggressive statements.

For the many who had long assumed that Lula would win the Brazilian presidential election by a comfortable margin, the strong showing by Bolsonaro, a wild eccentric who often behaves like a pantomime villain, came as a most unpleasant surprise. While his performance must have owed much to doubts about Lula’s personal honesty and that of many members of the Workers’ Party which backs him, Bolsonaro himself has never been seen as a model of rectitude.

In any event, by the standards prevailing in much of the world, Lula’s sins, for which he did jail time, were venial. In other parts of Latin America, letting businessmen give someone like him a place to live in would not have attracted much attention. When it was pointed out that a friendly benefactor allowed Alberto Fernández to use a flat he owned in Puerto Madero, the then-presidential candidate said that, seeing he paid the expenses, taxes and other items, everything was above board. Most found his explanation reasonable enough to let the matter drop. 

Lula’s comeback after falling into disgrace was certainly noteworthy, but it was a close-run thing, with Bolsonaro turning out to be a far tougher rival than he or anybody else had expected. Will the soon-to-be former president spend the next few years making life difficult for the man who beat him? Or will he just fade away so someone else can take over the leadership of what he represented. This is a question many, not only in Brazil but elsewhere, are waiting to see answered.

Like his US counterpart Trump, Bolsonaro got to where he is by breaking most of what, until recently, were thought to be the political rules. Wildly egocentric, both men regularly say outrageous things that would once have debarred them from holding any kind of office, but despite such failings, they enjoy the support of almost half of the electorate in their respective countries. Less than a week ago, Bolsonaro came within an inch of beating Lula in the presidential race, while last time round Trump came close to doing the same to Joe Biden, Many fear that were “the orange man” to give it another shot in 2024, he would have a good chance of returning in triumph to the White House he so reluctantly vacated early last year.

Like it or not, Trump and Bolsonaro cannot be written off as mere demagogues. However, exactly what they stand for is hard to define because they refuse to let themselves be pinned down by those who seek to cast them as believers in some presumably coherent ideology. Type-cast as “extreme right-wingers,” even “fascists,” they have little in common with genuine representatives of such breeds who believe in iron discipline and rigid hierarchies. In many ways they resemble the anarchists of former times who were assumed to be somewhere out there on the far left of the political spectrum, though, given their hostility towards anything smacking of authoritarianism, this was clearly not the case.

One difference between Trump and Bolsonaro is that, while the former does best in the “rust-belt” areas of his country, the latter almost swept the board in Brazil’s relatively prosperous southern states with Lula doing much the same in the chronically backward north. While Trump is seen as a defender of the working man who is being left behind by an increasingly high-tech globalised economy in which "better educated" – perhaps longer educated would be a more appropriate way of putting it – people are doing very well, Bolsonaro has the backing of those who by local standards are economically better off. However, both make much of the danger they say is posed by “socialism” even though Biden’s attachment to the creed is debatable and, as for Lula, over the years he has regularly disappointed his leftist supporters by taking a middle-of-the-road approach to economic problems. 

Neither Trump nor Bolsonaro are particularly eloquent, both are prone to improvise as they go along and, in any event, among those who support them in the polling booth there are plenty of men and women who would not be seen dead in the company of individuals with their personal characteristics but dislike their political foes even more. 

For some time now, politicians on the make have been trying to make out just what it is that has allowed a couple of undisciplined and narcissistic characters to rise to the top and, what is more, to retain enough support to allow them to resurface should they so desire. Is it “charisma,” a magic potion that allows them to cast a spell over large numbers of people? Or is it simply that many of their opponents are so unappealing that many will be happy to vote for anyone whose behaviour really upsets upholders of the status quo? On the whole, the latter seems more likely.

Those impressed by the rise of Trump and Bolsonaro often suggest that, were a more conventional politician of a conservative bent to adopt similar ideas, he or she would have a good chance of staying at the top for far longer than either of them. They suspect that their success owes much to their outspoken contempt for the “woke” pieties and “identity politics” which the allegedly progressive left has adopted in an effort to fill the hole left by their stealthy abandonment of socialist economics.

This seems true enough. Not only in the United States but in many other countries, top-down attempts to force everyone to agree that, with or without corrective surgery, men can choose to be women, newly coined pronouns must be respected and children should be schooled to hate imperialism and, if they are white, beg to be pardoned for the many nasty things done by similarly hued creatures to “people of colour,” are meeting with growing opposition and are affecting political attitudes. So too, for that matter, is the feeling that members of a powerful elite which is well ensconced in academe, the media and most cultural industries, hold in contempt all those who do not share their points of view.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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