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In Brazil’s ongoing experiment with a far-right populist President, there is a gap between Jair Bolsonaro’s performance in face-to-face rallies and on social networks and his minimal accomplishments as a politician constrained by a complex constitutional network of institutions and norms.
Bolsonaro’s oral and written communication is filled with the hallmarks of extremist populism: far-right ideology, anger at elites, mistrust of experts, nativism, conspiracism, conservatism, fundamentalism, and tribalism. The medium is Facebook livestreaming. He has a weekly live program in which he rails against his “enemies” of the day. Without filters, Bolsonaro feels free to vent.
On Twitter, by contrast, he is often more circumspect, resorting to retweets, sometimes from family members. Bolsonaro has three sons in politics: a councilman in the city of Rio de Janeiro, a House representative, and a federal senator. The councilman is widely known as the person in charge of Bolsonaro´s strategies in social networks, a kind of Brazilian Steve Bannon. Bolsonaro often retweets his messages. During his other son’s tenure as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (2019-2020), foreign diplomats interpreted his posts on social networks as a subtle way for his father to deliver messages that would otherwise be too harsh for a president to voice.
But Bolsonaro is keenly aware that his ideological and radical supporters comprise no more than 15 percent of the Brazilian population, according to polls. Tweets that appeal to this ideological base of supporters display more engagement (likes, replies, and retweets) and reach a broader audience when they are spontaneously shared by millions of Brazilians through other platforms, such as WhatsApp and, more recently, Telegram.
Yet many of Bolsonaro’s most flamboyant outbursts on social media are followed by quiet retreats in implementing concrete policies. His behavior might be interpreted as willingness to accommodate as many actors as possible to make sure the policy outcome will be perceived as strongly legitimate. However, this is not Bolsonaro’s intent. On the contrary, the president has been clear in his willingness to pursue an agenda that conflicts with other branches of government, and attempts to circumvent constitutional checks and balances. Bolsonaro backs off because he is in fact powerless to bypass institutional controls, despite his blustery outbursts on Facebook.
The Brazilian press took note early of this paradoxical aspect of Bolsonaro’s political behavior. After his first month in power, the daily O Globo published a special report on Bolsonaro’s retreats, and depicted him derisively as a moonwalker—someone skilled at executing the dance step popularized by Michael Jackson, in which the dancer creates the illusion of moving forward while actually sliding backward. For example, Bolsonaro posted a video on his Twitter account in which he was depicted as a lion surrounded by hyenas that represented the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the United Nations. He later deleted the post and apologized to the Supreme Court “and those who got offended.”
There were other occasions in which Bolsonaro was defeated by the Court or by Congress. In a short period of time, the Court ruled against Bolsonaro on matters such as criminal investigations involving members of his family and public policies to curb the pandemic. On multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021, Supreme Court justices issued arrest warrants against elected representatives, businessmen, brokers, social media celebrities, and leaders of extremist organizations that support Bolsonaro. Also, a unanimous judicial review prevented Bolsonaro from closing consultative councils that protected minorities. An investigation was initiated into the demonstrations in which Bolsonaro himself had participated in an abortive effort to shut down both Congress and the Court. In yet another setback for Bolsonaro, the Court decided that mandatory vaccinations for COVID do not violate Brazil’s constitution. More recently, senators have launched a probe to investigate Bolsonaro’s feeble response to the pandemic. These hearings have further diminished his already low approval ratings. A criminal prosecution may follow.
Why has Bolsonaro so spectacularly failed in his ongoing efforts to undermine Brazil’s political institutions?
One explanation is the resilience of the country’s multi-party system, which forces the president to organize a coalition that can accommodate a variety of interest groups. During the 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro promised to break with this tradition of coalition presidentialism. Indeed, at the outset of his administration, the president preferred to fill cabinet positions with military officers rather than politicians from rival parties. By doing so, he isolated himself and became more vulnerable to Congressional opposition and oversight.
After a series of defeats in his first year in office, Bolsonaro changed his confrontational approach. Moderating his rhetorical attacks, he tried to form a makeshift and informal coalition with the Centrão, a group of parties without clear ideology that seeks to command ministries and agencies with vast budgets. As a result, Bolsonaro spent more than his predecessors not only to buy support in Congress to approve his bills, but also to shield himself and his family from criminal prosecution.
Such expediency alienated parts of his political base, and so, this year, Bolsonaro has pivoted yet again—and launched another round of confrontational attacks, this time targeting the Supreme Court. But after an unsuccessful (and clumsy) self-coup on Brazil’s Independence Day (September 7), Bolsonaro once again retreated.
At the same time, it turns out that Bolsonaro does not have anything that resembles a coherent political program, apart from wholeheartedly defending the authoritarian interests of the military and law enforcement personnel and against the rights of minorities. To appease the unease of investors, he was forced to appoint a neoliberal Minister of Finance—just as he was eventually forced to appease a variety of centrist parties by forming a congressional coalition with them.
In any case, Bolsonaro seems to be mainly guided by his approval ratings. He’s turned out to be more like a windsock than a powerful demagogue—a man at the mercy of outside political forces, willy-nilly blown this way and that.
That’s not to say his reign has been harmless. As head of the executive branch, he has power to issue executive orders and to withhold federal funding for handpicked adversaries, such as universities and research institutions. He has also made it harder for Brazilians to assert their civil rights, and curbed policies designed to protect the rain forest, Black people, transgender people, Indigenous populations, and so on. By shedding doubt on the accuracy of the Brazilian electoral process, he is paving the way to contest a peaceful transfer of power, should he fail to win reelection.
So far Bolsonaro’s performance in rallies and on social media has been much more impressive than his ability to marshal and wield political power. While appearing to plow ahead, he continues to retreat—and that gives cause for cautious optimism that better days are coming for Brazil.
Felippe Ramos holds a BA and MA in Sociology from the Federal University of Bahia and is a PhD student in Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He has taught Politics and International Relations in Brazil and was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Central Arizona College.