Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: Marcelo Chello / Shutterstock.com
There is nothing like a pandemic to bring out the fascist ideology in countries under far-right rule. In the world’s three largest democracies, national leaders are using the COVID-19 crisis to wage war on immigrants and minorities, while testing the limits of common sense.
NEW YORK/NEW HAVEN — In stark contrast to the effective leadership shown by German chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean president Moon Jae-in, and Singapore’s autocratic technocracy, the world’s far-right nationalists have met the COVID-19 crisis with something not seen in decades: the fascist politics of disease. And no one typifies this brand of politics better than Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.
True, a few other world leaders — including Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and the dictators of Belarus, Turkmenistan, and North Korea — still deny that the coronavirus poses any threat. But, among coronavirus deniers, Bolsonaro is in a league of his own.
Among other things, Bolsonaro recently fired Brazil’s minister of health, Luiz Mandetta, merely for advocating mild social-distancing measures. Bolsonaro seems to be emulating his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, who recently ousted a senior health official for resisting his efforts to champion an unproven treatment for COVID-19.
Throughout the crisis, Trump has been out of his depth, oscillating incoherently between denial and calls for decisive action, and most recently speculating that the coronavirus could be treated by injecting household disinfectants. And yet he and Bolsonaro channel the same political impulse to place themselves above science and expertise, exalting their own gut instincts and justifying their decisions with faith and myth. Though their “strategies” are superficially distinct, both share a fascist historical background, which centers around the cult of a leader and the myth of national greatness — a greatness that has supposedly been compromised by internationalism and liberalism (which fascists equate with communism).
Around the world, far-right leaders’ responses to the pandemic feature key elements of fascist ideology. After members of Spain’s right-wing nationalist Vox party were infected at their own political rallies, they suggested that their antibodies represented the nation’s fight against a foreign invader. As one Vox leader, Javier Ortega Smith, put it, “my Spanish antibodies fight against the damned Chinese viruses.”
Similarly, Bolsonaro, in his first major speech on COVID-19 (on March 24), claimed that Brazil was not particularly vulnerable to the virus. Unlike feeble Italy, with its “large number of elderly people,” contemporary Brazil, he argued, “has everything, yes, everything to be a great Nation.” Bolsonaro then touted his own “athlete’s history,” thus indulging another standard fascist motif: the leader as the embodiment of the nation’s health and vigor. According to “Bolsonarismo,” Bolsonaro simply is Brazil.
There is good reason why some in the media have dubbed Bolsonaro, elected in late 2018, “the Trump of the tropics.” Bolsonaro’s affinity for Trump has never been clearer than in his reaction to the pandemic. When Trump called in late March to reopen America by Easter, Bolsonaro quickly imitated him.
But, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro actually follows through. While Trump has often hinted at a desire for absolute power, he invariably retreats. By contrast, Bolsonaro joins public protests in support of intervention by Brazil’s military to disband Congress and the courts. He is essentially Trump’s id, acting out what Trump can only fantasize about. And, given that fascism is, at root, a fantasy of total domination by a leader, Bolsonaro has now surpassed his teacher in approaching it.
Moreover, in fascist politics, reality is merely an instrument through which to propagate ideology and assert domination. As Hitler put it in Mein Kampf, “[t]he national State will look upon Science as a means for increasing national pride.”
Beyond Brazil and the United States, one other great democracy — the world’s largest — has come under far-right rule: India. There, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have used the pandemic to advance an ongoing campaign of demonization directed at India’s Muslim population.
To that end, the Modi government has been publicly attributing the spread of the coronavirus to an annual meeting of the Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat, while ignoring similar meetings held by Hindu groups. It is not surprising, the journalist Rana Ayyub observes, that “the hashtags #CoronaJihad and #BioJihad have inundated Twitter” in recent weeks.
The Modi government’s message is based on a repugnant lie, but it has far-reaching consequences for India’s Muslims. Well before COVID-19 arrived, Muslims were being targeted by a campaign of state discrimination. In addition to an official government effort to strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship, there has been an upsurge in extrajudicial violence against Muslims, including a pogrom that coincided with Trump’s lavish official visit to India earlier this year.
In fascist politics, members of the hated outgroup are almost always depicted as bearers of disease. That is how the Nazis described the Jews, and it is how far-right governments today justify policies targeting immigrants and minorities. In Italy, home to the first fascist regime, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League party argued in February that “[a]llowing migrants to arrive from Africa, where the presence of the virus has been confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there were already 229 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Italy, and just one in all of Africa.
Not surprisingly, the Trump administration, too, has used the COVID-19 crisis to strengthen its anti-immigrant stance. Going beyond its obsessive attacks on undocumented immigrants, the administration has also now imposed a sweeping moratorium on legal immigration.
Political leaders will always be tempted to blame problems on familiar ideological enemies, because doing so provides narrative coherence. But as Hannah Arendt reminded us, “[t]he chief disability of totalitarian propaganda is that it cannot fulfill this longing of the masses for a completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense.”
Now that the US has surpassed 92,000 confirmed (and almost certainly far more total) COVID-19 deaths, reality is asserting itself against propaganda. But, as we know from the history of fascism, there is no guarantee that common sense will prevail.
Federico Finchelstein is a professor of history at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. He is the author of From Fascism to Populism in History, Transatlantic Fascism, and The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War.
Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and the author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
This article was first published at Project Syndicate on May 4, 2020.