Among all political leaders now having to deal with the global COVID-19 crisis, the response of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been among the most puzzling. His peddling of "miracle cures" and uneasiness with social distancing measures are not unlike those of President Donald Trump. Still, he has gone a lot further in continuing to belittle the risk posed by the novel coronavirus, and in directly and vocally undermining the public health response put forth by his own health officials. He has even gone as far as firing his health minister in the middle of the crisis.
Bolsonaro’s recent reply to a reporter's question about Brazil's death count was particularly striking in its callousness.
Brazil’s death toll is rising steadily, with nearly 200,000 cases reported. And these numbers are likely far less than the real totals. Given this incredibly concerning trend, Bolsonaro’s recent reply to a reporter's question about Brazil's death count was particularly striking in its callousness: "So what? What do you want me to do?"
It is a response so unhelpful that it gives us pause. Is there any method to this apparent madness? Reasonable as it is to doubt Bolsonaro’s rationality and strategic capabilities, it is nevertheless instructive to think through the incentives to which he might be responding, and what they say about his new brand of authoritarian populism.
The first thing to recognize is that Bolsonaro was and is completely unequipped to respond effectively to a crisis of this magnitude. Having been elected as an anti-establishment candidate, after spending nearly 30 years as a fringe member of the Brazilian Congress, he never prepared himself to run the complex behemoth that is the federal government, in a sprawling nation of 200 million inhabitants with a territory roughly the size of the continental United States. This same anti-establishment rhetoric means he cannot effectively delegate. As such, the best he can hope for is to deflect responsibility as the COVID-19 crisis predictably worsens.
This helps explain his open antagonizing of state governors and local officials — and of his own health minister — who have been pushing for social distancing measures. Even as these measures have weakened — as some recent research shows, also due to Bolsonaro's own words and actions — his clear goal is to pin the ensuing spike in deaths, as well as the accompanying economic collapse, on the governors themselves.
But just as importantly, the rhetorical move against social distancing also underpins a second strategic dimension: polarization. Bolsonaro, similar to other populist leaders, sits as a figure fundamentally outside of the usual mainstream. This means he cannot thrive politically under "normal" circumstances. Plenty of his support comes first and foremost from a strong rejection of the other side — what has been called "negative partisanship." So it suits him to feed the flames of division, and to turn everything into a culture war centered around himself.
The appeal to polarization, facilitated by a social media-fueled and partisan news environment, is a key part of the strategy in normal times. In fact, it helps explain why the "pivot to the center" often expected from populists has a habit of not coming to fruition.
The incentive to polarize becomes even stronger, however, during an extreme period such as the one brought about by the pandemic. This may seem paradoxical: after all, it is intuitive to think that a crisis increases voter demand for a safe pair of hands, and there is evidence that this is indeed the case.
A politician like Bolsonaro cannot possibly offer a calm, uniting response. It is simply not credible.
But a politician like Bolsonaro cannot possibly offer a calm, uniting response. It is simply not credible for someone who has neither the capabilities nor the personality to suddenly convince voters that he can provide purposeful, effective leadership. This, combined with the rejection of science and expertise that is a standard part of the populist playbook, cuts off what could have been alternative paths available to politicians of a different kind.
It follows that the only option is to double down on the original bet. The populist leader may not convince a majority that he's the right guy to have in charge, but the strategy has never been about convincing a majority of that. Instead, the playbook is to keep enough people on board, using partisan media and Twitter (and in Brazil's case, WhatsApp) to project an image of effective leadership — which, given the reality of public health and economic catastrophe, again requires assigning blame to adversaries or foreign entities. Add to this core support enough people who are sufficiently fearful of an alternative, and this can sustain the leader's viability.
In the context of Brazil, where institutions are under stress, only the end goal remains unclear. Will Bolsonaro use the crisis to try to amass extraordinary powers (à la Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel)? We believe he may well try. And he is at the very least acting like someone who would like to. This goes along rather naturally with the strategy of fostering polarization, as his renewed bet generates pushback which then calls for raising the stakes even further.
At the same time, there is reason to think that Bolsonaro’s chances of success in such an endeavor have, if anything, receded. Bluster and aggressive rhetoric can only take you so far, as the trajectories of many populist leaders of the current crop illustrate, but chances are that you cannot fake your way out of a mishandled pandemic and an economic disaster. Bolsonaro may be tempted to up the antidemocratic ante, but we cannot help but think that many of the key players whose support he would need in order to succeed are now less likely to follow his march of folly.