Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Key to Bolsonaro’s Survival

Can Brazil’s president now hold on to his most loyal supporters?
President Jair Bolsonaro at a press conference after the resignation of minister of Justice Sergio Moro.Photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images
Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Heroes also make mistakes,” tweeted Leandro Ruschel, a right-wing Brazilian influencer, early Saturday morning. And just like that, conservatives began the process of rationalizing the dramatic resignation of their longtime idol Sérgio Moro as justice minister, while maintaining their support for President Jair Bolsonaro.

Mirroring conversations in WhatsApp groups and households across Brazil, Ruschel at first admitted to being rattled not only by Moro’s departure, but his accusations that Bolsonaro attempted to interfere in investigations by the Federal Police. “It’s a nuclear bomb for the government,” he wrote. But just hours later, the narrative had shifted: Yes, Moro had done a great service to Brazil as a corruption-fighting judge. But he was also a preening egomaniac who was primarily interested in his own political future, and never a true “movement conservative” to begin with. “MORO BETRAYED BRAZIL,” blared one viral videoOlavo de Carvalho, the Brazilian right’s most influential philosopher, posted with characteristic self-restraint on Facebook: “Moro deserves a statue. Whether in the form of an ass or a dick is up for discussion.”

Behind all the fireworks, a serious truth: Bolsonaro’s survival in office depends above all on maintaining his base of 30-35% of Brazilian voters, who have so far stood by him with a loyalty and energy reminiscent of Donald Trump’s supporters. If Bolsonaro’s base significantly erodes – whether because of Moro’s departure, criminal allegations against his family, or the worsening health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – Brazil’s Congress will surely try to impeach him before the end of the year. But that’s a bigger “if” than some commentators believe. Early signs suggest some voters are abandoning ship – but not enough to put the president in imminent danger quite yet.

Social media is of course an imperfect window into public opinion (though it is absolutely central to understanding bolsonarismo). So let’s look at polls. In a Datafolha survey taken on April 17, 36% of respondents called Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis “great” or “good” – a mirror of the faithful base. (The poll did not ask about the president’s overall approval.) But more revealing was the 52% who said they believed Bolsonaro still “has the ability to lead the country.” In a separate survey 10 days prior, 59% of Brazilians rejected the idea that Bolsonaro should resign – after that possibility was floated by a group of leftist politicians.

The content of Moro’s accusations on Friday was also grave, and possibly criminal.

It’s likely those numbers are now shifting: Moro is more popular than Bolsonaro, and his presence in the government was a seal of approval for more moderate-minded voters. The content of Moro’s accusations on Friday was also grave, and possibly criminal. But at least until recently, there was another 20-25% of society beyond Bolsonaro’s base that seemed to be saying: “Damn, can’t you guys in Brasilia just work this out? We just had an impeachment in 2016. We still haven’t recovered from the worst economic crisis in our history. Now we’ve got a pandemic. We may not like this president much, but we still think he’s capable of getting us to the other side.”

As long as a majority, or near-majority, of Brazilians feel that way, it’s hard to imagine Congress – which has image problems of its own – acting to remove the president, no matter how much its members despise him.

That said, the sense of siege is only expected to intensify in coming weeks and months. Due in part to Bolsonaro’s persistent denialism of COVID-19’s severity, Brazil is now losing patients at the rate of at least 350 per day. The peak is not expected until May. The economy is forecast to shrink more than 5% this year, and unemployment was above 11% before the crisis even began. Hence the importance of Bolsonaro’s true believers as a wall of last resort – and the efforts to rally the troops before Moro even stopped speaking on Friday, as the hashtag #FechadoComBolsonaro – basically, “I stand with Bolsonaro” – became Twitter’s top trending topic in Brazil by the end of the night. 

Many supporters are motivated by the same considerations of class, privilege and race in Brazil that have always underpinned bolsonarismo, and the 1964-85 military dictatorship before that. But after spending the last 48 hours reading Brazil Twitter – God help me – and talking to numerous friends and contacts on the right, it seems that anti-petismo – opposition to the leftist Workers’ Party that governed from 2003-16 – still remains their most powerful animating force. I texted a retired Brazilian general on Sunday to ask if his views had shifted. He replied with a torrent of fresh memes and carefully edited videos, plus a list: “I’ll stop supporting President Bolsonaro… when he betrays our country and gives away money to communist dictatorships… when he uses our educational system to create functional illiterates… when the scandals are about corruption and plunder, instead of him simply firing somebody in favor of someone more qualified.” The memory of the last period of recession and scandal remains, at least for now, more potent than the current one.     

Will it be enough? There are so many unknowns, from the course of the criminal investigations underway, to Bolsonaro’s efforts to form an alliance with the powerful “Centrão” bloc in Congress, to the unpredictable nature of the virus itself. But don’t underestimate the power of tribalism in the Age of Social Media – particularly a tribe that has much of the military, the police, truckers, and other formidable groups in its corner. How will they behave if their leader is truly threatened? Even if Congress did move to impeach Bolsonaro, would he just walk calmly out the front door, the way Dilma Rousseff did in 2016? Brazil is not the only country in the world contemplating previously unthinkable questions in April 2020. But it has been plumbing the depths for years now, only to find it hasn’t hit bottom quite yet.


Reading Time: 4 minutesWinter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a seasoned analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region’s ups and downs.

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Tags: Bolsonaro, corruption, democracy, Impeachment, resignation
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