Assembling the Bolsonaro “myth”
“Hybrid war” combines familiar intelligence tactics and high technology with semiotic resources to impact and mobilize citizens’ action to destabilize progressive governments.
Taking into account that, following the illegal overthrow of President Dilma Rousseff, a virtual State of exception has been established in Brazil, the latest elections were conditioned by that situation to provide a “democratic” coat of varnish to the coup process. This is not only a question of the failure of the electoral justice system to address the fraudulent nature of a flagrant act: that of inducing the population to elect candidates on the basis of fake news massively disseminated in a permanent and repetitive way. It is also the media-judicial-military collusion in order to impede a new presidential victory of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT).
Although the media campaign against the PT governments began in 2005, three years into the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, centred on the theme of “corruption” with the scandal called mensalão (monthly payments) – that revealed a scheme of bribes in the purchase of votes from members of parliament from other parties, in place since the end of the eighties –, it is not until 2014 that a more elaborate strategy was drawn up in tune with the Operation Lava Jato (carwash), that motivated President Rousseff to combat corruption.
Yet from the moment that Lava Jato began its work, the fight against corruption was practically transformed into a combat against the PT, with the solid support of a media campaign, especially from the powerful O Globo group, that converted the leader of this operation, judge Sergio Moro, into a champion of “moral purity” of the country, with faculties to act even above the law, as happened repeatedly with operations in the form of high-intensity media spectacles which subsequently went viral on the digital networks.
Thus, a psychosocial environment was established for the subsequent promotion of the anti-corruption/anti-PT crusades, mainly using invented or twisted facts and with a storyline, doled out in increasing doses, to inculcate hatred. Moreover, this was based on a key factor: the enormous media synchronization that became even more evident when it came to instigating and organizing the four mobilizations for destitution of the President that took place in 2015, with lessons learned during the so-called “Action Days of 2013".
In August 2016, Rousseff was removed from office, without any proof of illegal acts, by the votes of 61 Senators (out of 81), 41 of whom are involved in legal proceedings for corruption, but who in the circumstances assumed the role of champions of ethics. In July 2017, former President Lula da Silva was condemned, also without any proof, and in April 2018, imprisoned. Later his presidential campaign was annulled through legal chicanery and military threats, precisely because the polls indicated that he could win in the first round of the election.
After all, the coup d’état designed to bring Brazil once again onto a neoliberal path under the command of national and international financial capital, was hardly about to submit its fate to the electoral roulette.
The soft coup
In order to grasp the nature and meaning of these events, that would subsequently weigh heavily on the electoral process, it is necessary to understand the process of reconfiguration within the rightwing, beginning with strategies of “hybrid war”. This phenomenon combines familiar intelligence tactics and high technology (from propaganda to digital networks), with semiotic resources to impact and mobilize citizens’ action to destabilize progressive governments, the technological version of the Cold War.
In June 2013, Brazil was the scenario of student mobilizations against the rise of transport fares and the demand for quality public services, promoted by the Free Pass Movement (MPL – Portuguese acronym). With time, however, this acquired a different meaning due to the intervention of leaders trained in the EPL program (Students for Freedom) who through social networks turned around the ideas of the MPL to install those of the MBL (Free Brasil Movement) that promotes the defence of the free market and the privatization of public services. Moreover, they also managed to change the character of the mobilizations, casting them as non-partisan (or simply anti-political) and in favour of the destitution of President Rousseff.
From that time on, the MBL consolidated as a group, counting on significant backup from the Atlas Network of the United States, an entity that collects funds from businesses and private foundations in order to recruit, train and subsidize young people in defence of the free market and to combat regimes considered authoritarian, along the line of soft coups. The expertise thus acquired was to allow this organization to play a very significant role in the process of impeachment. And later, in Bolsonaro’s campaign, since his candidature was supported by the PSL (Social Liberal Party) whose command includes leaders who come from this movement.
Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a former army Captain, is not an outsider to politics. Since 1991, he has been a member of parliament, moving through a dozen political parties until arriving, in January 2018, at the PSL that proposed him as candidate for the Presidency. Scarcely noted for his presentation of law bills in the House, he stood out rather for his firm defence of the former military dictatorship and verbal violence against his adversaries, as well as for his racist, homophobic, misogynist and exclusionary positions, peppered with a moralistic tone.
In the June 2013 Action Days, he initiated the hybrid war still underway, according to semiologist Wilson Roberto Viera, who specifies that there has subsequently been a systematic demonization of politics and the removal of the government from office, poisoning of the national psyche and the polarization that depoliticizes and inhibits any rational debate. All this was initiated with the semiotic bombshells set off daily by the mass media, that later expanded with the viral velocity of the digital networks. And in this environment Bolsonaro became a “myth”.
After years of daily effort in the media-judicial complex designed to spur anti-PT hatred and to destroy politics itself and political figures, the elections become a nuisance for ordinary people. Moreover, following this trend to void politics of meaning, when the electoral authority itself weakens the format of the elections: with less campaign time, “self-funding”, restriction of various traditional forms of propaganda, etc., a favourable environment is set up for what is supposedly “new”, identified with those candidates who are seen as “anti-political” and “anti-system”, explains Viera.
All this, he notes, played in favour of the campaign of Bolsonaro, concentrated in the digital networks, and counting on the expertise of Steve Bannon. Thus, the new right discovered the viral culture: it no longer appeals to the masses in a public sphere, but to isolated individuals with their mobile devices, in a re-feudalized public sphere. That is, the right learned that memes, fake news, rumours and lies have a viral effect and create events – climates, atmospheres, perceptions. Denunciations or ethical or judicial condemnations, a posteriori, cannot undo the effects.
The “good citizen”
In an analysis of the electors of the ex-captain, social anthropologist Isabela Oliveira Kalil points out that the Brazilian extreme right “has made street demonstrations a kind of ‘laboratory of experimentation’ to put to proof a new type of communication and hence a new way to do politics. That is, it is a phenomenon that one finds on the Internet, but that is part of an interconnection between the street and the social networks”.
In this sense, she notes, the communication strategy of candidate Bolsonaro was based on the segmentation of information for the different profiles of potential electors, and although he leaves the impression that there could be a series of contradictions and incoherence in his speeches, “by segmenting the direction of his messages to specific groups, the figure of the ‘myth’ – as it is called by his electors – manages to assume various forms, beginning with the different aspirations of his followers.”
In this respect, Oliveira argues, the most important factor in the “typing of constituents is that ‘the elector of Bolsonaro’ does not exist as the characterization of a specific social group”, but it is possible to identify “certain diffuse values captured in the figure of the ‘good citizen’ – both men and women”, that are established in the public demonstrations “as an element of distinction between the participants of the ‘peaceful demonstrations’ with regard to participants of the ‘troublemaker demonstrations’”.
“The ‘good citizen’ refers to a set of individual conduct in private life, a set of specific forms of political claims in public life and a set of issues and agendas that pass as legitimate. Thus, the ‘good citizen’ extrapolates the forms of individual behaviour and comes to designate those who are not ‘communists’, ‘petistas’ (of the PT) or leftwing – considered as supporters of corruption and ‘non workers’. It is a matter of a specific notion of persons and a sentiment of belonging to a correct manner of being in the world”, she notes.
Thus, the figure of the ‘good citizen’ is seen as a kind of repository that manages to capture and attract a series of critical dimensions with respect to society and established power. And with time manages to “capture ‘antisystem’ tendencies (‘against all the parties’, ‘against all the politicians’, ‘against everything and everyone’), in order to attract dimensions of anti-corruption critique (both in its strict financial sense and its moral form and its religious form). Thus the ‘good citizen’ also comes to distinguish him/herself from categories, groups and persons linked to the left”, consequently as “a kind of moral and political barrier to the ‘advance of communism’, to ‘gender ideology’, to the threats to religious freedom”.
Based on field work undertaken over the past three years, Isabela Oliveira identifies 16 different profiles of Bolsonaro’s electorate: 1- good persons (strengthened institutions to end impunity), 2- virile masculinity (arms for civilians to do justice with their own hands), 3- nerds, gamers, hackers and haters (the construction of a myth), 4- members and ex-members of the military (war on drugs as a solution to public security), 5- women and “bolsogatas” (“bolso-cats” - empowering women beyond the “me-me-me” – “discourse of victimization” of women) 6– rightwing mothers (for schools without “gender ideology”) 7– conservative homosexuals (a man is a man, no matter whether he be gay or hetero), 8– rightwing ethnic groups (persecuted minorities, in order that they take a position in favour of Bolsonaro), 9– students for freedom (rebel vote against “Marxist indoctrination”), 10– right-wingers from the periphery (the poor who desire a minimalist State), 11– meritocrats (anti-PT liberals who “triumphed” by their own merit), 12– digital influencers (liberals and conservatives “saving Brazil from becoming Venezuela”), 13– religious leaders (the defence of the family against the “gay kit” and other sins), 14– religious faithful (Christians for the “traditional family”), 15– monarchists (the return to a glorious past), 16– the exempt (“one does not discuss politics” – in circles of close friends and family reunions).
In this framework, we should not lose sight of ongoing military tutelage, which has come out of its apparent neutrality to mark the field. Thus, during the coup process, a few days before the destitution of the President, judge Sergio Moro was awarded the “Medalla del Pacificador” (medal of the peacemaker), the recognition of highest honour of the Army, as a tacit recognition of his place in this group.
With the coup, the prominence of the armed forces increased, both due to the crisis of public security in several States, as well as to the vicissitudes of an unpopular government. Thus, gradually, high ranking officials in retirement and even those in office – against the military disciplinary code – have been taking a stance on political questions, generally in defence of measures of exception implemented over the past two years. One of the most striking signs in this sense is the already memorable tweet of Army Commander General Villas Bôas, on the eve of the sentence of habeas corpus for Lula da Silva by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, when at decisive moment he subtly expressed opposition to conceding freedom to the ex-president, as a virtually institutional stance. The verdict came in line with this position. Lula remained excluded from the electoral process and hence the way was open for Bolsonaro.
In the military establishments, the figure of the retired captain was seen with reserve due to his colourless career, all the more so since he had been expelled from the institution for indiscipline. But with the inclusion of General Hamilton Mourâo as joint candidate for the vice-presidency, this formula is implicitly or explicitly accepted by the military institution in their desire to reassume leadership in national life. And it became clear that, of ten key posts in the government, four would be in the hands of the military.
“With God and the family”
Along with the military establishment, there is another key contingent: the neo-Pentecostal evangelical communities that are asserting more and more presence among the impoverished middle classes and the poor in the peripheries in the big cities, although they also have specific policies to reach out to a variety of other social segments. But in the final count, this is the only territorially organized support that Bolsonaro has, a relationship established from his third marriage, with Michelle, a member of the Baptist Church.
Since during the PT administrations, there was a blurring of one of their main initial postulations – ethics in politics –, the campaign of the winning candidate was posed in terms of values with a tone of moral war, on the basis of the combat against corruption, appealing to the evangelic rhetoric from the premise: “God above everyone.”
Being in tune with these communities that have territorial contact with people, it ended up giving him an activist base that presumes to be an example of moral values, even though several bishops of these churches are facing denunciations of money laundering and for the utilization of donations from the faithful to expand their own businesses and consolidate the media conglomerates they own.
This crusade, far from ending with the elections, is looking to be one of the core areas of the upcoming government in order to “moralize” the country in terms of a virtual theo-politics. In this sense the darts are aimed at so-called “cultural Marxism” that is seen as the main threat to traditional values, the family, and in brief, to civilization. For example, when the Minister of Education, Colombian Ricardo Vélez, was designated, in his first statements he pointed out that Brazilians are hostage to a system of teaching that seeks to impose “an indoctrination of a scientific nature and rooted in the Marxist ideology,” such as gender education. While the new foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, considers that globalization and global warming, among other things, amount to an invention of “cultural Marxism.”
The President-elect has already anticipated that “people power does not need more inter-mediation. New technologies will allow for a direct relation between the voter and his representatives,” since, in his understanding, the press is inundated by leftists who fabricate lies to hurt him. This implies that he will continue with the strategy based on misinformation to destroy the sense of reality itself, to nullify debate, and move into this vacuum with dogmas of faith.
It remains to be seen if this strategy will be sufficient when it is no longer a question of campaigning but of governing, which requires credibility. For the moment, the leader of the combat against corruption already faces difficulties to clarify the denunciations of the Council of Control of Financial Activities concerning atypical financial movements that involve his son Eduardo. All the same, it does not appear to bother him that nine of the twenty-two Ministers in his cabinet are under judicial inquiry for acts of corruption.
And what about WhatsApp?
The “tropical Trump” as Bolsonaro has been internationally labelled, due to his reverence for the US leader whom he attempts to emulate, during his campaign – distinct from his opponents who preferred spaces on TV – bet all his cards on digital social networks, in which he already had a significant practice in saying what he would not say on an open channel.
This formula is likely to continue – intensifying the moralizing crusade with new “denunciations” that further attack Lula and the PT through lawfare – in order to cover up or at least distract the citizenry from the severe neoliberal austerity measures and the reduction of rights that have been announced. So it is useful to briefly look at the communication mechanism that has been assembled by the team of the new Brazilian head of state.
“Considering the campaign of Bolsonaro for the presidency, the network diagram, that is being revealed little by little, appears to be organized at three clear levels”, according to Euclides Mance in a detailed analysis of the issue. The first level of this network of networks is made up of military, political and economic actors; this is where “strategic decisions of high command are taken. This level constitutes a centralized network. But Bolsonaro is not at its centre. He is only a secondary actor in the midst of a group of connections and network flows that already existed before him.”
The second level is decentralized, since “every nucleus of the second level is connected to a determined group of nodes of the third level and not to all of them,” he notes, specifying that “the connection is basically through WhatsApp. Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube are important for the segmentation of different publics according to their preferences and for the open positioning of different contents.” At this level, “the robots or bots, operating with algorithms of artificial intelligence, fulfil a central and indispensable role in the organization of the flow of communication.”
“The third level of the net is distributed: the connection is done “peer to peer – with high capillary action and participation of the receiver in the aggregation of a larger group of interpreters to redistribute the received message, adding commentaries. Here, in fact, it is a question of the persons who receive messages with their mobiles and pass them along to family groups, to churches and others,” notes Mance.
(Translated for ALAI by Jordan and Joan Remple Bishop)
- Osvaldo León, an Ecuadorian communicologist, is the director of América Latina en Movimiento.
Article first published in Spanish in ALAI’s magazine América Latina en Movimiento, titled “Brasil: ¿e agora?” (Brasil: So now what?), 18/12/2018
 Steve Bannon is a US political advisor who, in Trump’s campaign, acted as the executive director and in that role hired Cambridge Analytica in order to appropriate data accumulated in the profiles of Facebook.
 “Bolsonaro é um avatar. Como enfrentá-lo?”, https://cinegnose.blogspot.com/2018/10/bolsonaro-e-um-avatar-como-enfrenta-lo.html
 Sérgio Moro, designated as Minister of Justice in the new government, is the judge who condemned Lula.
 There are versions that indicate that this was imposed by military commanders.
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