By Alex Wittmann
Jair Bolsonaro is not a true fascist, yet he is an authoritarian right wing Populist. However, when looking at what makes a Populist and a Fascist, we cannot rule out the possibility the Brazilian President may have Fascist tendencies.
In order to truly understand what Jair Bolsonaro is, we must look at the key differences between right wing populism and fascism. Populism is a broad term that can be attributed to left wing and right wing movements. On both sides of the spectrum, populists define themselves as representing the masses or “will of the pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” In other words, populists define themselves as movement of the general will of the people against the ruling elite, who only represent certain special interests. Populism on the left combines their movements with socialism, Populists on the right combine their movements with nationalism. Right Wing Populism also combines their ideology and movement with xenophobia and stigmatization of race, they claim anyone opposed to their movement are enemies of the people based on their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. Let’s be clear, populism is not undemocratic. However we must be aware that it is a form of authoritarian democracy that can form a threat to liberal democracy and democratic institutions.
In contrast with Fascism, part of the doctrine of Fascism is one that completely throws liberal democracy out the window. Liberalism rejected the state in the interest of individual rights, while Fascism advocates for the power of the state over individual freedoms. Fascisim can come alive when democratic institutions have been dismantled completely. Unlike right wing populists, fascists take their political agenda further. They imprison their political opponents, legitimize violence to gain power, enact violence against minorities or attempt to strip them of their political rights.
Looking at Jair Bolsonaro and his election. How much of a populist is he? Are there any fascist elements that he espouses? Let’s dissect his movement in relation to the points mentioned on populism. Bolsonaro believes in democracy, it was the very system of citizens voting that propelled him to power. Populists believe in the democratic process. However as mentioned it is authoritarian democracy that has the potential to undermine democratic institutions.
This is one of the instances where Bolsanaro’s case becomes especially interesting. While he was indeed democratically elected and believes in holding elections, he has suggested that his left wing opponents are illegitimate and during his campaign said that members of the Brazilian Worker’s Party should be executed. By threatening political opponents, he is directly undermining liberal democratic institutions of political opposition which is not unusual for populists to do. What is particularly interesting is Bolsonaro legitimizing political violence against his opponents. Before coming to power Fascists such as Mussolinini and Hitler used violence against their political opponents and jailed and executed them when they rose to power, legitimizing political violence. Despite the fact that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric could be dismissed as campaign posturing, any time a right wing populist leader espouses violence and imprisonment against political opponents, we cannot ignore that they may have elements of fascist aims. In terms of rebellion of the general will of the people against the elite, this is not exactly where Bolsonaro fits into the populist playbook. His movement was more of a response to crime running rampant in Brazil. He fits more adequately into the Fascist playbook when he advocates for criminals to be executed without trial. This was how Hitler and Mussolini dealt with their perceived criminals, namely execution without due process. This destroyed democratic institutions and it is exactly what Bolsanaro has threatened to do. Bolsoanro has combined elements of right wing populism and fascism when he has threatened to weaken the rights of Indigenous peoples, Afro Brazilians, and LGBTQ Brazilians, thereby creating targets of his movement, the same way Hitler did with Jews, Gypsies, and political opponents.
After comparing elements of right wing Populism and Fascism, it is clear that Bolsonaro is a Right Wing Populist with Fascist tendencies. The only thing that prevents him from achieving his total Fascist aims at the moment, is the Brazilian constitution, which protects minority rights including those of indigenous people and their lands which Bolsonaro has targeted. For now, Brazil has what prevents most populist leaders like Bolsonaro from turning into Fascists, democratic institutions.
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Finchelstein, Federico. “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past.” in Federico Finkelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017).
Mussolini, Benito, and Giovanni Gentile. “The Doctrine of Fascism.” Enciclopedia Italiana. 1932. http://facweb.furman.edu/~bensonlloyd/hst11/mussolinidoctrines.htm.
Mudde, Cas. “Populism in the Twenty-First Century: an Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism.” The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Pennsylvania,
Sims, Shannon. “Here’s How Jair Bolsonaro Wants to Transform Brazil.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 12, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/01/heres-how-jair-bolsonaro-wants-to-transform-brazil/580207/.