This story has been updated.
The intellectual guru to Brazil’s next president lives at the end of a country road in Virginia, in a modest house with duct tape covering a crack in the front window, an American flag on the porch and a huge English mastiff named “Big Mac” standing guard.
And that’s not even the most surprising part of Olavo de Carvalho’s story.
Despite not having lived in Brazil since 2005, and liberally sprinkling his columns and speeches with references to little-known 19th century philosophers, the pipe-smoking 71-year-old has built a fervent social media following of more than 500,000 people – among them President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who prominently displayed Carvalho’s book The Minimum You Need to Know to Not Be an Idiot on his desk during his election night victory speech in October.
Carvalho’s championing of individual liberties and Christianity, and his combative, obscenity-laced vilification of globalism, Islam, communists and the left in general, recalls a Brazilian Sean Hannity or Steve Bannon, with a bit of the Marlboro Man mixed in. Such ideas were completely out of the mainstream in Brazil just six months ago – but novelty is precisely the core of his (and Bolsonaro’s) appeal in a country still reeling from its worst recession in a century and a series of scandals that left the previous political establishment in ruins.
The day I visited him in November, Carvalho was riding high. Bolsonaro had just named as his foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, a career diplomat whom Carvalho by all accounts single-handedly plucked from relative obscurity and recommended for the job. Araújo had on his personal blog called climate change a Marxist conspiracy and complained about the supposed “criminalization” of heterosexual intercourse, oil and red meat. “I started reading (the blog) and I said – ‘This guy is a genius! He has to be foreign minister!’” Carvalho enthused. “He understands the risk from globalism is real … he’s a Christian, and he’ll do the best he can.”
He wasn’t shy about his influence on Bolsonaro, despite the fact the two have never met in person. “Look, I think the person he listens to most is me,” he said. That struck me as an exaggeration, but a few days later, Bolsonaro would name another Carvalho pick as education minister – leaving two portfolios critical to Brazil’s future in the hands of his disciples.
During an interview that lasted almost three hours, Carvalho was charming and solicitous, despite a reputation for lashing out at journalists who challenge him, as I repeatedly did. He invited me to join him in a glass of Grand Muriel orange liqueur (I accepted, even though it was 1:30 p.m. on a Monday). He proudly showed me his collection of rifles and detailed his love for the United States, especially “rednecks,” whom he called “the best people in the world.”
In our conversation, Carvalho also justified state-sponsored mass murder in Brazil during the last dictatorship, though he later said he meant this “ironically.” He explained why he believes George Soros, Facebook and China are all part of a globalist conspiracy, compared Bolsonaro to George Washington (“They didn’t know something was impossible, so they just went and did it”) and marveled at his own fame. “This has never happened in the history of the world – a writer who had this kind of influence on the people,” he chuckled. “It could only happen in Brazil.”
From communist to conservative
Throughout his career, Carvalho has been a professional astrologer, a newspaper columnist, a teacher of philosophy and… a communist militant in the 1960s.
By the late 1990s, he had embraced a mix of economic liberalism and conservative social mores familiar to anyone who has ever watched Fox News. But such ideas were utterly foreign in Brazil, which had been governed mostly by the left and center-left since the last military dictatorship ended in 1985.
“There was no conservative opposition to speak of at the time. Carvalho invented it,” said Gerald Brant, a Brazilian hedge fund executive who is close to the Bolsonaro family. In terms of influence, he compared Carvalho to William F. Buckley Jr., the premier U.S. conservative intellectual of the late 20th century.
I began my interview with Carvalho by asking him to explain his intellectual evolution, half-expecting to hear names like Buckley or Ronald Reagan. But instead, he embarked on a long monologue about the “death of high culture” in Brazil beginning in the 1960s, which he blamed mostly on the left and particularly the Workers’ Party of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010.
Indeed, Carvalho’s popularity may be derived less from what he supports, and more from what he opposes. Even at the peak of the left’s power in the late 2000s, when Brazil’s economy was booming and Lula enjoyed approval ratings near 90 percent, Carvalho never stopped his attacks on “cultural Marxism” and Brazil’s ever-expanding state, which he saw as a threat to individual freedoms. “I was criticizing people who had never been criticized – untouchables, gods. Lula was a god. And he was the most ridiculous of all,” he said.
He also criticized feminism, called Barack Obama’s birth certificate a fake, and lashed out at what he deemed the Workers’ Party’s excessive coddling of the LGBT community. “I don’t believe it would have been better if my father, instead of depositing his sperm in my mother’s womb, had injected it into the rectal passage of his neighbor, from where the liquid in question would have gone into the toilet at the first opportunity,” he wrote in a 2007 newspaper column included in one of his “best of” books.
Such messages were restricted to a fervent circle of believers – until the economy began its spectacular collapse. When anti-government protests broke out in several cities in 2013, many people carried posters saying “Olavo was right.” As the country imploded further, with the eruption of the “Car Wash” scandal, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and, finally, Lula’s imprisonment on corruption charges in April, Carvalho began to be treated as a kind of oracle – the only person who saw the apocalypse coming.
The book Bolsonaro featured on election night has sold more than 350,000 copies – a truly gargantuan sum in Brazil. But Carvalho’s fame also stems from his YouTube channel, where he sits at his desk, smokes his pipe and simply talks. I watched several hours, and was struck by the inclusive, often soothing tone: Carvalho makes his listeners feel like they’re sharing an intimate secret as he ruminates on philosophers from Plato to Eric Voegelin to Antonio Gramsci.
His wife Roxane, who came in and out during our interview, was one of his students in the 1980s. “I started listening, and I thought – ‘Wow, this exists! I’m able to understand!’” she recalled. Carvalho nodded in satisfaction, adding: “People don’t know they’re intelligent, that they can understand the reality, until you show this to them. It’s like starting a fire.”
A clear influence on policy
Within Brazilian conservative circles, there is debate over how much pull Carvalho really has – or should have – within the next government. Even some admirers distance themselves from what they call Carvalho’s “excesses,” and say his ideas are tempered by more pragmatic figures, especially the retired generals Bolsonaro has appointed to his cabinet.
But the influence is undeniable. As a relatively recent convert to ideas like small government, Bolsonaro seems to depend heavily on Carvalho’s ideas for guidance, as well as a degree of legitimacy with his base. His son Eduardo, a congressman, is the closest member of the family to Carvalho – the two communicate often – and has echoed many of the guru’s messages almost word for word.
For his part, Carvalho expressed a nuanced view of the president-elect. Like many Brazilians, the first thing he liked was his reputation for not being corrupt. “Even if he has a shit government, he won’t steal. That struck me as a sufficient virtue,” Carvalho said. He acknowledged Bolsonaro “doesn’t speak well” and “doesn’t have a single economic idea in his head,” but said he appreciated his tough stance on crime. Only a “true war” on drug gangs, he said, could fix a country with more than 63,000 homicides a year.
When I pointed out that shoot-first security policies have rarely produced lasting positive results in Latin America, Carvalho cited several false or highly dubious claims. He said “thousands and thousands of Islamic agents are coming in through the Amazon,” and blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for being a main source of illegal arms in Brazil (the FARC signed a peace deal in 2016). He also said many Cuban doctors working under a special program in Brazil were secret agents conspiring with local drug gangs and the landless workers’ movement.
“They’re all forming an army,” Carvalho said. “Do you think these people can be conquered through social policies?”
For foreign investment, Carvalho said Brazil should favor the United States, “because it’s a Christian people, a benevolent people.” “They could potentially steal, but they won’t steal much, eh?” he said. By contrast, he said the Chinese “always have a strategic agenda,” and that with Beijing’s aid, “communists are penetrating Latin America today with incredible force.” He also warned of an “Islamic plan for world domination,” adding “they’ve been globalists for 14 centuries.”
All of these ideas clash with long-held principles of Brazilian foreign policy, which is traditionally skeptical of Washington and cultivates ties with the developing world. But in the weeks after my visit, there were signs Carvalho’s agenda was gaining traction. Bolsonaro took steps to force the Cuban doctors to leave Brazil, and move Brazil’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. A policy paper leaked in which Araújo, the new foreign minister, proposed an “alliance of the three biggest Christian nations: Brazil, the U.S. and Russia.” And during a visit to Washington on behalf of his father, Eduardo Bolsonaro donned a “Trump 2020” hat and pledged to “support policies to stop Iran.”
Turning back the clock
As our interview drew to a close, I shared my biggest concern about Bolsonaro: that his government could trample democratic institutions and cause the deaths of numerous innocent people. I cited Bolsonaro’s frequent lament that the “biggest error” of Brazil’s 1964-85 dictatorship had been “to torture (people) instead of killing them.”
Carvalho chuckled. “You know, sometimes I think that way.”
“Oh, Olavo, please,” I said.
He took a puff from his pipe. “We see all the misery those guys created. Look – how many communists were there in Brazil back then? 20,000? You kill 20,000 people back then, and you’d have saved 70,000 Brazilians a year.”
The implication was that, by eliminating leftists in the 1960s, Brazil might have been governed by more virtuous people who would have never allowed murder rates to reach their current level. (After this story was published, Carvalho said on his Facebook page this was intended as an “ironic declaration,” and that he was not “an apologist for state genocide.”) We argued about this for a few minutes until I said that as an American who loves Brazil, I didn’t want to see its government engaged in mass murder.
“The Americans are idealistic people with good hearts,” he replied. “They believe other peoples are the same. Well, let me tell you something: Outside of (this country), there are just filhos de puta.”
I must have looked upset, because Carvalho shifted his focus and said Bolsonaro would only depart from a democratic path “if he’s very poorly advised.” Instead, he said he would encourage Bolsonaro to “take one problem at a time,” focus on combating crime during his first year, delegate in areas like the economy that he doesn’t really understand, and tell people: “It’s been 70 years of mistakes, and I can’t fix everything in one day.”
“I think Bolsonaro has enough humility to be a great statesman,” he concluded. And then, with a courteous smile, he showed me out the door, and back into the Virginia woods.
This story has been updated to include Carvalho’s statement, made after this story was published, that his comment about state-sponsored murder was meant “ironically.”
Tags: Jair Bolsonaro, Olavo de Carvalho