Earlier this week, Brazil became the latest democratic country to embrace the far right. Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman and former army captain who until recently had been on the fringes of Brazilian politics, crushed his left-wing opponent, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, with 55 percent of the vote.
I caught up with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald over the phone to discuss the implications. Greenwald is the founder and current co-editor of The Intercept, and he lives in Brazil with his husband and their two children. The transcript, which has been edited for clarity and length, follows.
We here at Paste were extremely interested in hearing what this means for you personally…I mean this this guy that was just elected is basically modern-day Pinochet, right?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a fair way to look at him…it’s possible that he could actually be even a little bit worse. You know, he was just near fatally stabbed a month ago and seems to have become angrier and kind of more unhinged and deranged about the world and his political enemies as a result. So, you know, I don’t think anyone knows exactly what the outcome will be. There’s a lot of variables, but certainly his ideology and his long sustained outlook of the world is comparable to Pinochet, if not worse. A lot of people have compared it to [Rodrigo] Duterte. But I think there’s a very strong case that he’s even more extreme than Duterte. I regard him as kind of a more figure closer to say like, General [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi in Egypt, is someone I think is a good analogue.
Well that’s terrifying. Are you going to stay in Brazil?
It’s certainly not our intention at the moment to pack our bags and leave. We have an established life here. I’ve lived here for 13 years. My husband has a political career that we spent the last several years building and has become its own movement. And we have two children we just adopted last year who are Brazilian and have had a lot of upheaval in their lives and only speak Portuguese—and it would be very traumatic and very difficult to leave Brazil. And it’s nothing I feel I should have to do and it’s not something I want to do. I regard it as my husband’s country and the country of my children and I’m not going to just run away or flee and abandon people here because I can and because there’s some risk.
On the other hand, it’s possible that things could take such a dark and dangerous turn that we don’t have a choice. During the military dictatorship that reigned from 1964 to 1985 that Bolsonaro was a part of—and aspires to replicate—dissidents and journalists of all kinds, including very high-profile ones, were disappeared and tortured, imprisoned, killed, or exiled forcibly or driven out involuntarily. So you can’t say what the future holds. My intention at the moment is to stay but we’re obviously aware of the risks might entail as they unfold.
That’s— that’s a terrible position to be in…
Yeah. You want to kind of find the right balance between not being hysterical or panicky, but also not being blind and gullible and foolish, and it’s a little hard to calibrate that balance given how many variables there.
Now, my understanding of this is that an economic crisis made worse by corruption in the government and widespread violence precipitated Bolsonaro’s rise. Is that accurate? What do you think made this man? What got him elected?
Yeah, I think what you suggested is—in a very broad stroke—generally accurate. I mean, I do think it’s important to note that Brazil is not a far-right country. In the last four national elections, it voted for a center-left party called the “Workers Party” that was founded by a very militant labor leader Lula da Silva. And his successor in office was a former Marxist Guerrilla who was actually imprisoned and tortured in opposition to the military dictatorship, Dilma Rousseff. So a country that from 2002 to 2014 voted overwhelmingly for the Workers Party and never showed any signs of any connection to, or support for, the far-right—the competitor to the PT was kind of center-right, kind of Jeb Bush-like, you know, banker-friendly, mainstream conservative party.
It’s not a country that has any leanings toward far-right extremist. There’s obviously a portion of the country that is that, but Bolsonaro has, throughout his entire career—until about a year and a half ago—been relegated to the fringes. He was a joke. Basically, he was kind of like a curiosity that the media highlighted just out of shock because he was saying the things he was saying. But a collapse in confidence in all the institutions of authority as a result of all the crises that you alluded to, has—just like it did in the US with Trump and the UK with Brexit, and throughout Western Europe and Eastern Europe—caused a big part of the population to gravitate to whoever seems to be on the outside of the political establishment that they’ve rightly come to regard as the author of their plight, and to support whoever promises to burn it to the ground.
And in this case it was Bolsonaro. And he capitalized on that hatred of the ruling class. And so the more the ruling class attacked him, in a lot of ways that stronger he became and the more attractive he became. And that’s why huge numbers the people who never would have voted for a far-right candidate before—including people in our lives—out of desperation and hopelessness, voted for someone they at least thought would just take the country in a different direction with nothing to lose.
So you definitely see parallels between Bolsonaro and Donald Trump in how they got elected?
Yeah, I don’t see parallels in terms of their ideology or the threats and dangers they pose to democracy or human rights. I think Bolsonaro is in a completely different universe. And I also think he has a different ideological lineage—he’s really obsessed with the Communist threat, whereas that’s never something Trump thinks about or talks about. But I think the dynamic that led to Donald Trump’s victory then led to Brexit, and that we’re seeing replicated throughout the West, is very similar to the principal factor in Bolsonaro’s victory, which is: When faith in the established institutions disappear due to legitimate grievances, demagogues who successfully exploit that will be empowered.
I have to say I agree with you. It’s terrifying. And it does seem that these liberal center-left movements that are identity-centric are ineffective. I mean, the women that organized in Brazil that the media became very enamored with towards the end…it didn’t seem to stop him.
No, it had no effect. That didn’t work at all. And I mean in part, it’s because that movement was a very kind of middle class, bourgeois, kind of left-wing, not really hardcore leftist, but kind of a liberal feminist movement that also ended up attracting a lot of similar male opponents to Bolsonaro. I mean it started off as a women’s march, but it really became a more general anti-Bolsonaro march. But it was very kind of, culturally removed from the vast portion of the population that lives in favelas or lives in the interior of the country. And it feels like that the language of that style of politics is very removed from anything that they feel connected is to them.
Now, Bolsonaro’s coalition included the low-income workers, but it also included a lot of wealthy whites. Why do you think that is?
So just to be clear, if you look at cities that are generally richer—like however you define that—Bolsonaro overwhelmingly won those places. And if you look at neighborhoods or cities that are poorer, Bolsonaro overwhelmingly lost them. So that statistic is being used to suggest that Bolsonaro’s support was largely wealthy, and it’s incredibly deceitful. Brazil is a country that has a massive wealth inequality gap. So the number of people in Brazil that you can call “rich,” or anything remotely approaching rich, like using a really broad definition of that term, is extremely small—like maybe five percent of population; maybe seven percent if you’re using an extremely generous definition of “rich” or even “upper-middle-class.”
So five to seven percent. Bolsonaro got 55 percent of the votes cast—of the valid votes cast. So even though he may have lost in most of the places—the neighborhoods that we can call “poor”—even in those places, he got huge numbers of votes: of black voters, of working-class voters, poor voters, people who live in favelas, people who live in the interior. You can’t win an election in Brazil without large numbers of those votes, because that is who composes the majority of the population.
So yes, overwhelmingly the rich in Brazil voted for Bolsonaro in part because they want the police and the military to be unleashed in the favelas where they’re going to indiscriminately kill people, and also because Bolsonaro did something very shrewd. Even though he’s largely been an interventionist in economic policy throughout his career, he doesn’t really know much about economic policy, he doesn’t really care much about it and admitted as much during the campaign, and [he] hired as his economic guru this kind of classical privatizer, neoliberal who literally is from the University of Chicago school, not figuratively. He did his doctorate at the University of Chicago, and is exactly the kind of Chicago Boy-type of economist that ran the Chilean economy into the ground under Pinochet.
And so that’s why, if you look at the Brazilian Reals when it became apparent Bolsonaro was going to win, the Brazilian Real has exploded as has the Brazilian stock market because international capital, international finance, and the plutocratic class in Brazil is celebrating. That’s their wet dream…He’s promising to privatize and sell off state resources—all the standard, you know, austerity and privatizing programs that are designed to just strip the country of all of its resources and sell it in corrupt ways to international capital. So that’s why rich people voted for Bolsonaro: because they want violence to used against poor people and they want the economic benefits. That’s easy to understand. What’s harder to understand is why poor people or black people voted for Bolsonaro until you realize that they were just desperate and hopeless and believe correctly that the political system has failed them.
Well, it’s interesting because you see some of the same lines of reasoning used against the “economic anxiety” narrative here in the states where, you know, Trump supporters were by and large better off than Hillary supporters, but that doesn’t really paint the whole picture.
Not at all. And you know, history just teaches so completely that the idea of “economic anxiety” and bigotry or tribal resentment or whatever, aren’t separable. They are inextricably linked. And the more economic anxiety people experience the more susceptible they become to scapegoating. I mean, this is something that obviously Adolf Hitler understood better than anybody. If you go and you all look at all the interviews with the Nuremberg defendants who were asked by psychiatrist and historians, “How could you possibly have participated in a political party that was scapegoating Jews?” They would say, “We thought that was just a political tactic and we needed to blame economic woes on somebody and they were an easy target. We never really thought that he meant it.”
These things have always gone hand-in hand and fed one another. On top of which, if you go and look at like, people who are in the upper say, five to ten percent income bracket in Brazil, if you look at it from the outside, you’d say “look, those are the rich people.” But if you go and look at how they live, they don’t seem rich and they definitely don’t consider themselves rich. They don’t have very much savings in the bank. If they lost their job because their company closed or moved overseas or whatever, they really have very little security and they could fall over to the other side. So economic anxiety is actually something that even people who are called “rich”—you know, other than billionaires or people who have a couple hundred million dollars in net wealth— can experience, even though if you look at just objective metrics, you might think that they’re in the summit. That’s not how they perceive their own lives.
Right, and that’s that’s something that tends to get lost today.
But I think that’s why Brazil is important beyond Brazil. It’s because no one thinks Putin was involved in the election and you can’t look at Brazil’s history and say that it’s country where the majority of people support racism because unlike in the US, whites are a minority in Brazil; people of color are in majority. And so all of the dynamics that we see in the U.S. with Trump are repeating themselves in countries around the democratic world. And so it’s becoming increasingly impossible to sustain this narrative that was created, designed to protect the Democratic party in the U.S., of blaming the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party on all these very specific factors that don’t exist anywhere else in the western world where these same dynamics are emerging. So, until there’s some recognition on the part of ruling classes in the establishment that it’s their ideology, sustained over several decades of globalization, free trade, and just being incredibly greedy at the expense of everybody else that now is finally starting to realize who are the real sources of their woe—until the ruling class starts to accept that responsibility, we’re going to see more Bolsonaros and Trumps and Brexits and Marine Le Pens, and way worse ones coming.
And Putins as well. Go back to the soup that Putin rose out of, it’s very much the same thing: economic woes, a government that wasn’t addressing them, and a strong man who comes and promised answers. I mean, that gets repeated throughout history and I don’t know what it’s going to take for people to learn it. Frankly, it’s frightening because you look at the opposition to these demagogues and it seems completely impotent. Here in the US, you have the Democratic party that won’t talk about the realities of the economy.
It’s because they can’t. They can’t. This is the problem that there’s no way out of which is that the causes of suffering for the majority of the population that are voting for these extremists and demagogue—those policies were implemented by the ruling class of the countries in which these dynamics are emerging. And those people, the last thing that they want—the thing that they fear most—is any kind of an acknowledgement that it’s their ideology and their policies that caused all of the suffering, which is why they’re so desperate to just find anything that will distract attention away from the real question and the real debate that needs to be had, which is, “how has this prevailing ideology caused suffering for so many people?”
And that’s why the Democratic party is incapable of jettisoning this economic ideology because that’s what their funders are demanding. They’re captive to that economic agenda because of the way that they get their funding, which is from Wall Street and the defense industry and Silicon Valley and the like. And so they don’t have any language, and they aren’t going to until they free themselves from the fundraising model that Bill Clinton pioneered in the early 1990s. They’re never going to have answers until they fundamentally change the structure of how the party is funded.
So essentially, they would rather let the world fall to fascism than adapt?
Yeah, I mean…one of the things that happened in Brazil is that Lula, who has been the dominant figure on the left for 30 years—and the Workers Party has dominated the left for 30 years—was leading the polls and had a very good chance of being elected. I don’t think it’s as inevitable as other people think because those early polls were not necessarily reliable, but the early polls all did show him winning and winning easily until they imprisoned him. They rushed his conviction on dubious grounds and rushed the appeal so that he would be barred from running because they were petrified that he would win again.
So while in prison he just refused to accept the fact that he was going to have to give up control of the left because there was so much animosity towards the Workers Party that it was going to risk having the right take over. And so he had a choice to unite behind some really charismatic and dynamic left-wing candidates who didn’t have the stench of the Workers Party on them, but that Lula didn’t control. And he just couldn’t accept the fact that he was going to have to give up control. And so he rolled the dice and said, “I would rather risk the empowerment of the right—even somebody like Bolsonaro—then change how the left functions because I want to maintain control over the left. I’d rather lose and keep my control over the left than have the left win if it means giving up a little bit of control.”
And so he told all of his voters, “don’t vote for anybody other than the person I hand-pick.” And the person he hand-picked was a weak candidate that nobody knew and also had the anti-PT stigma attached to him, and that’s a big part of why Bolsonaro won, because Lula was unwilling to give up control. He would rather have lost than reformed. And you know, that’s something that I think we see in lots of other western democracies as well.
Well Glenn, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, and please stay safe. If it gets too hairy, get the fuck out.
Don’t worry. We’re definitely keeping our antennas very high and very attentive to how things are developing now.