Jair Bolsonaro’s Hard-Right Populism Is Horrifying. But He Didn’t Come From Nowhere.

Rise of the Bolsonaros, a new documentary chronicling Jair Bolsonaro’s ascent, makes for compelling viewing. But it ignores the fact that Brazil’s crises are rooted in its flawed developmental model, not just the rise of a family of reactionary zealots.

President Jair Bolsonaro appears on television during a presidential debate in São Paulo, September 24, 2022. (Rodrigo Paiva / Getty Images)

Now the story of a powerful family who won everything, and the three sons who had no choice but to screw Brazil together. It’s Arrested Development.

So runs the title sequence — give or take some poetic license for the purposes of this review — of the new PBS documentary following the rise of the Bolsonaro family (also shown on BBC as a three-part affair). Released a month before Brazil goes to the polls in what is effectively a two-horse race for president between President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the documentary attempts to warn the world of the consequences of a second term for the incumbent.

However, its criticisms fall rather flat. They reflect how and why the opposition has failed to rally the Brazilian masses. In counterpoising the destruction of the Amazon to Bolsonaro’s claims about exploiting its untold riches, it fails to tell the truth about Brazilian development and its failures. Worse, it allows bolsonarismo to stand as an avatar of material development (a key part of its mythology), when it is precisely the opposite.

With impressive access to former government ministers and Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flávio, Rise of the Bolsonaros, tries — and mostly succeeds — at avoiding the hysterical tone of much international liberal commentary on the president. Indeed, in letting its interviewees speak, it presents the light and the shadows. Inevitably of course, given the subject matter, the portrayal ends up looking like the thinnest of waning crescents.

In all such documentaries, there is a major editorial choice to be made in how to find that contrast, and on which shadows to focus. Bolsonaro’s vulgar bigotry and anti-environmental stance are the primary ones here, with threats against democracy and encouragement of violence shortly behind.

The first of the hour-long episodes patiently and sensitively reconstructs who Jair Bolsonaro is, from his humble roots in the interior of São Paulo, through his time in the Rio de Janeiro army barracks, to his seven terms as a member of the so-called lower clergy (bottom-feeding uninfluential politicians) in Congress.

Too irrelevant to be at the nexus of big money corruption, Bolsonaro emerges in episode two as the key politician to exploit anti-corruption sentiment and surf the moralistic, right-wing wave that gripped Brazil from 2015 to 2018 — all the way to the Planalto. Former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon is given ample screen time to exhibit his enthusiasm for Bolsonaro, who, he insists, inspired Trump as much as the other way around.

Here we might note a missed opportunity. Despite access to a range of domestic and international pundits, the documentary never really goes beyond the tired and erroneous “Trump of the Tropics” narrative. In that sense, it fails to tell us something about Brazil, and about how the Bolsonaros are particularly Brazilian, as much as they might also be part of a global rightist wave. There are nods to this in the portrayal of the “new Brazil” of the interiorzão, of cities hundreds of miles from the coast, of cattle, soy, and guns. But that is hardly the whole story, and misses out how one of the fastest-growing economies in the world through a good part of the twentieth century has stagnated — despite the commodities-driven boom at the start of the twenty-first.

Focused on his term in power, episode three similarly tells us little about the authoritarian continuity represented by the military’s elevated role in society and politics under Bolsonaro. Jair, we are repeatedly told, is nostalgic for the 1964–1985 dictatorship, but this appears as a personal defect, a purely ideological inclination, and not a force within Brazilian society that has gained confidence as Brazil finds itself unable to find an exit from perma-crisis.

This deficiency is most clear on two axes. First, there is the Bolsonaros’ bigotry. Most by now know the litany of outrages, but to repeat them is no sin in and of itself; their words present a window into the bolsonarista worldview. But there is little given materially to back it up. A clip of congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s third son, giving “the banana” (basically an “up yours” gesture) to opposition congresswomen is leaned on so heavily across the three episodes that it almost leaves one wondering if that’s the extent of the incriminating evidence. (As they say, there’s always money in the banana gesture.)

The reality — that moralistic explosions emerge at moments of social crisis — is missed.

The issue of rising political violence is broached principally through the bloody 2018 assassination of black, bisexual socialist Rio city councilor Marielle Franco. This is hugely important. But the use of this episode as an example of the consequences of Bolsonaro’s sexism and homophobia is to get things upside down.

Franco was assassinated because she was a fierce opponent of brutal policing, mafia politics, and the military intervention in Rio, conflicts and struggles that are obscured in PBS’s telling. That she was a non-white woman probably made her more of a homo sacer — someone who can be murdered with impunity — but it was not the root of the matter. She was murdered because she presented a threat to the authoritarian mafias born out of Brazil’s police and military that control Rio de Janeiro.

More broadly, throughout the documentary, the sheer everyday violence of Brazilian society is rather glossed over. It would be churlish to take a three-hour-long documentary to task for not including more — it does plenty, and does so attractively and engagingly for a non-Brazilian audience. But given the centrality of violence to Bolsonaro’s appeal, a few more minutes on this would not have gone amiss. The daily insecurity in Brazil’s urban peripheries and beyond, created and sustained by a range of parties — large gangs, low-level criminals, vigilante groups and militias, the military police — creates a desire for reprisal. As Matthew Richmond has noted, many “do not like Bolsonaro, but think ‘at least he’ll give the bandidos a beating.’”

Instead, we learn about Bolsonaro’s loosening of gun laws; an important development but one only likely to only accelerate an existing dynamic. It doesn’t really explain Bolsonarism or why it might prove a successful political recipe.

In seeking roots, particularly with regard to the aforementioned homophobia and sexism, we are told on several occasions that Brazil is a very traditional society. But it isn’t. And to the extent that the president’s bigotry is a major connection point for the president with his hard-core base, it is not tradition as such that is at work. The right-wing shift in Brazil was the product of political mobilizations rather than some immutable curse ingrained in Brazilian society.

Brazilian culture has traditionally had a certain moral laxity at its core, which manifested as hypocrisy once it was put into contrast with moralizing claims. This bred a particular “corrosive tolerance,” a spirit of accommodation with the imperfect world. There is always a deal to be found, a cordial resolution. To preach something like the eradication of homosexuals or to see the devil behind every door, as some evangelical pastors do, is a puritanical sort of ethos that is relatively new to the country — at least in its current form. Previous episodes of puritanical outbursts have actually been momentary political interruptions at moments of social crisis, rather than the norm.

For many working class and poor Brazilians, salvation is often the one hope that is held on to, mediated by a rapidly growing Pentecostalism that promises health and wealth, immediately. If an election were held only among self-described evangelicals (around 30 percent of the population), Bolsonaro would win the first round in a landslide.

Capitalist society is a war of all against all, but in Brazil, the war is almost literal (sixty thousand homicides a year). Moreover, masses of people are deprived of traditional anchors such as formal employment (the informality rate is up to 40 percent) after also having been wrenched from the agrarian society of old. In this context, trying to preserve what little you have takes on an existential connotation. Hence the emphasis on family, and why Bolsonaro has had success in presenting himself as the only true defender of it.

The second axis on which Bolsonaro’s deficiencies are portrayed is the environment — effectively the president’s cardinal sin. At the limit, the documentary comes close to suggesting that this is the one reason you should care. The Amazon is “the issue that would define [Bolsonaro’s] reign,” we are told, while the title sequence calls the Bolsonaros a “family with the fate of the world in their hands.”

Bolsonaro’s term has seen a reprehensible degree of omission and impunity in the Amazon as protection agencies have been defanged and defunded, with deforestation, increased conflict, and invasion of indigenous lands ensuing, as well as the killings of indigenous leaders and environmentalists. This, we learn, is justified in bolsonarismo by its view of the land as an El Dorado (with freelance miners thus given free reign). This would consequently be Brazil’s path to enrichment. In this, Bolsonaro is portrayed as picking up where the military dictatorship left off.

But viewers are being served the falsest of dichotomies: jobs, wealth, and development against saving the planet. Anyone would be excused for choosing the former, especially struggling workers, if this were indeed the choice. But it isn’t, and it is precisely the dichotomy that fervent Bolsonaro supporters seek to present to the public.

The incursion into the deepest reaches of Brazil’s interior in pursuit of expanding primary production — agriculture and extractive industries — is an acceleration of Brazilian de-development. Brazil is a poster boy for premature deindustrialization for its diminution of manufacturing as a share of output and employment at a still relatively low income level (well below where advanced economies were at during the same time in the 1980s, for instance).

No political force is seriously seeking to reverse this tendency, one that intensified over the Workers’ Party’s period in power and that a new government will have to face up to if Lula is victorious. This was one of the reasons that party’s political base shrank, and it cannot be explained away by citing the constraints after taking power or blaming the right-wing counteroffensive, given the implications for the Brazilian working class and the country’s future as a whole.

The reality is that the destruction of the Amazon is not a sad consequence of development but a reflection of its failure. The Workers’ Party may have done a decent job of slowing deforestation, while Bolsonaro has encouraged it, but both are working within the same set of limited choices. The disaster of Bolsonaro is that he represents an acceleration of Brazil’s worst developmental tendencies.

These are, sadly, issues hardly unique to Brazil. The entry ramp to development looks closed off for most, while the consequences, such as deepening inequality, sclerotic politics, and spectacular populism, are quasi-universal today.

The weakness of the opposition to Bolsonaro is evident in that it has not managed to present a truly alternative vision. “Don’t be a bigot, don’t destroy the state, don’t make society more violent, don’t burn up the Amazon” is preferable to its opposite, but it serves only as a containment of the Brazilian crisis, not its resolution. It is no wonder then that the opposition seemed ineffective and lost until Lula returned to the political scene in March 2021 — and one wonders how much road there is left in lulismo anyway.

Ultimately, though Rise of the Bolsonaros is hardly a poor documentary, it reflects this stance. The producers should maybe not be held entirely responsible; if you seek only to document, you cannot invent an ideological pole of opposition where there isn’t one, you can only reflect back what’s there.

In the end, we are left with a documentary that presents itself as “crazy goings-on in goofy old Brazil” but that also concludes the world is going to end if Bolsonaro is reelected. Deep historical criticism remains wanting; it’s more Arrested Development than it is the crucial tale of arrested development.