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Why has the American far right embraced Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro?

Why has the American far right embraced Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro?

Why has the American far right embraced Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro?

Why has the American far right embraced Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro?

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  • Bolsonaro has received a warm welcome in America.
  • He spoke in the auditorium of a Trump hotel just outside Miami in early February.
  • Kirk and Bolsonaro enthusiastically described common ground between the Brazilian and American right.
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This Saturday, as American conservatives gather in Maryland for the Conservative Political Action Conference, they’ll get a sense of how far and wide their own ideas have spread. Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will speak on the same stage where former US President Donald Trump will deliver the event’s closing remarks a few hours later, a man the Brazilian leader has purposefully mirrored since the start of his presidency.

Bolsonaro has received a warm welcome in America, far from his home country: on social media, mostly Brazilian fans post videos of meeting Bolsonaro outside his south Florida rental and running into him in parking lots, food courts, and grocery stores, where he appears in shorts and sandals, grinning and posing for photos with children.

Bolsonaro has made a number of appearances in US hotel conference rooms and evangelical churches aimed at Brazilian expats, giving speeches that come across as both timid and awkward, as he pauses to wait for interpreters to catch up to him and does not always appear to understand what is being said.

He spoke in the auditorium of a Trump hotel just outside Miami in early February, which was hosted by none other than conservative activist and far-right organiser Charlie Kirk. Kirk, who admitted to knowing little about Brazil, was surrounded by the flags of both countries: a gold-fringed, star-spangled banner from the United States and Brazil’s unmistakable bright green flag with a yellow diamond and blue circle in the centre. “The fight against socialism and Marxism knows no borders,” Kirk said by way of introduction to an audience of mostly Brazilians who were there to see Bolsonaro – “the myth,” or legend, as they call him.

Kirk and Bolsonaro enthusiastically described common ground between the Brazilian and American right in a separate podcast interview. Bolsonaro explained his decision to skip Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s inauguration: “I didn’t want to be accused of collaborating with the clumsy way they began their mandate, because we have completely opposing political views: conservative, on the right, and theirs, closer to socialism on the left.”

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“Sounds very similar to what we’re dealing with in the United States,” Kirk responded.

The similarities continue. Bolsonaro and Trump had a lot in common while in office, from expanding gun rights to downplaying COVID-19 to opposing abortion and advocating for tougher immigration policies. Since then, the two have continued to mirror each other, both avoiding their successors’ inauguration ceremonies and fleeing to the embrace of conservative society circles in Florida, where Trump has relocated and Bolsonaro has been living for more than two months.

But there’s another reason for Bolsonaro’s continued appearances on US stages: they serve strategic purposes for far-right movements in both countries.

A far-right alliance that benefits both parties

Participating in US political events strengthens Bolsonaro’s claims that he has not left politics and will eventually retake leadership of Brazil’s rightwing opposition, despite his current trip abroad.

Publicly allying with a foreign figure helps the American right expand their reach and creates the appearance of confirming conspiracy theories that originate in the US. Hungarian hardline leader Viktor Orban made headlines at CPAC in 2022. This year, it’s Bolsonaro’s turn.

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According to Madeline Peltz, Deputy Director of Rapid Response at Media Matters, who studies right-wing media and has been tracking how extreme rightwing figures like Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and Alex Jones talk about Brazil, American and Brazilian activists can see each other’s countries as laboratories in which to test and observe tactics.

Peltz adds that after a bruising midterm election, Republicans are now debating whether to continue down the path of being pushed further to the right or to take a more measured approach, distancing themselves from election denialism and the violent acts of January 6, 2021, conveniently attributing such behaviour to their party’s radicals.

“The Republican Party was sort of testing this thesis about, do we continue down this path of Trumpism, of extreme election denial, and that was being reflected in the right wing media’s commentary on Brazil as well — they were testing that thesis both in the American elections and in the Brazilian elections,” Peltz said.

The blueprint hasn’t shown the expected results, she said. “Republicans underperformed, to be charitable, and Bolsonaro lost.”

Bolsonaro is attempting to find his place in this balancing act. Though he condemned his supporters’ invasion of Brasilia on January 8, he welcomed peaceful protests in the days following the election, while his party filed petitions for an audit of voting machines, alleging fraud. He fed his followers misinformation about election fraud and made vague comments about a possible coup.

When asked if Bolsonaro was too problematic and messy to be brought into American politics — as a one-term president who famously defended rape, torture, and a military dictatorship and is currently facing multiple criminal investigations at home — he replied, “No, he’s not.” Peltz quipped, “They get their power from problematic and messy.” Shock value and controversy can actually confer clout in the American political universe, she said.

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Bolsonaro has long been backed by prominent American conservatives. “(Steve) Bannon has long considered himself to be the international boogeyman of the left,” Peltz said, adding that his “next act” after leaving the White House was to form a global coalition of far-right movements. Brazil was a shining example of his political assassination.

Back in 2018, Bolsonaro hired Bannon to advise his first presidential campaign, and Bannon began mentioning the South American leader to his American audience more and more, posing for photos with Bolsonaro’s children on US visits, and voicing his support for the president on social media whenever he was under fire.

He is not alone in this. As Bolsonaro and his party filed petitions to have tens of thousands of votes thrown out in the days after the Brazilian presidential elections in November, another prominent conservative voice joined in. Despite Brazilian courts rejecting fraud claims and a military investigation finding no evidence of rigged voting machines, an anchor Tucker Carlson questioned the legitimacy of the vote.

According to Rodrigo Nunes, a philosophy professor at the University of Essex and the author of “From Trance to Vertigo,” a collection of essays on Bolsonarismo, Bolsonaro’s value to US conservatives stems from two factors.

First and foremost, he is a former president of a fairly significant country. He was a fairly important geopolitical ally to Trump because he was completely aligned with Trump. “Bolsonaro’s voice, as a former leader of the global far-right and a member of the “ecology,” can be amplified in the US whenever his ideas are relevant, according to Nunes.

Second, Bolsonaro frequently mimics and echoes the discourse of the far right in the United States, which can be fed back into the United States as additional confirmation of what the far right is saying there, according to Nunes.

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“That’s a lot of how this ecological approach to political organization works. When you’re using the internet, how do you make something real? You spread sufficient sources of it so that it looks like it’s coming from several different places at the same time, and suddenly, this produces an effect of reality, it looks like it’s real, because there’s a lot of people saying it and where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The cycle is exemplified in some ways by the January 8 copycat insurgency in Brasilia. It’s impossible not to see the January 6 influence in the actions of the rioters there, and yet “the Brazilian Jan 6” was defended by Carlson and Bannon even as the reaction from Bolsonaro and many in his camp was mixed.

Bolsonaro condemned the riots in a tweet the day after they occurred in Brasilia. “Peaceful demonstrations that follow the law are part of democracy. However, depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, escape the rule,” he said.

In American politics, however, what Bolsonaro thinks or says is less important than what the invasion of public buildings thousands of miles away means for American voters who believe their own election was stolen.

“The way his narrative is built, to a large extent, as a copy or a mirror image of the narrative that they have in the US is very useful in the sense of showing people this is happening in other places, too. This proves the whole idea that there is a global conspiracy, a global left wing conspiracy to keep us, the people who represent the real people, out of power,” Nunes said.

In another recent speech, Bolsonaro addressed a crowd of Brazilians from the pulpit of an evangelical church in Boca Raton, Florida, saying, “My mission is not over yet.”

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In the same breath that he extolled Brazil’s wonders (“There is nothing like our own land”), he urged his supporters not to be disheartened, and said he planned to return to Brazil in the coming weeks to lead the opposition against Lula. If that is the case, CPAC could be his final appearance in American politics before returning to an uncertain political future at home.

To Peltz, it would be the natural conclusion of what she described as Bolsonaro’s “strange, directionless detour to America,” given CPAC’s waning influence in the American political landscape. “CPAC no longer launches the careers of hopefuls looking to make an impact, rather, it’s now simply a box to check off. And with little else on his agenda, Bolsonaro might as well check it off.”

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