A Brazilian Diary of the Pandemic (Part II) – Bolsonaro’s Narrative Takes Hold

History Professors, Mateus Pereira & Valdei Araujo, of the Federal University of Ouro Preto, Mariana (Brazil)continue to diary the corononavirus pandemic in Brazil and around the globe. (17/04/20)

We have been waking up with the feeling that we can do little to reverse possible tragedies as the strongest wave of the crisis approaches. As it seems Bolsonaro bets that his political future depends more on controlling the narratives in his support base than on facing the reality of the pandemic. If the scenario is controlled by the isolation policies, which he criticises so much, he will reaffirm the issue of the flu, and if the situation gets out of hand there will be the cursed PT (Brazilian Workers’ Party) inheritance and the Chinese to blame.

What seems certain, however, is that the “updatist” communication machine set up by Bolsonarism will be ready to explore any scenario. In 2016, to exemplify how faithful his support base was, Trump said he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and would still not lose a vote. Bolsonaro has exposed his supporters to the virus on a daily basis and, so far, he doesn’t appear to have lost many votes.

To guarantee this unprecedented level of loyalty, it is necessary to maintain an unceasing flow of narratives that shape reality to the interests of the “updatist” leader and his base. It is also necessary that the leader and the base feel like one. In a way, Bolsonaro not only represents his base of support, he embodies it, that’s why there is this continuous need to show mutual support in public demonstrations. As we write these lines, on April 11th, the press reported yet another break in the quarantine, with the president gathering supporters visiting a field hospital in the state of Goiás.

In last week’s column we said that the experience of the “updatist” time is related to the digitization and digital reality. Thus, this experience is directly related to infodemia. The explosion of news in continuous flow is a phenomenon that has evolved with the internet and surveillance capitalism. In this process, we realize that the value of truth is constantly confused with the value of newness or the latest update received.

This updatist structure prevents the past, even the most recent one, from being brought into reflection. Another element that seems to support this form of communication is the real-time diagnosis of the values and dispositions of the support bases. This diagnosis is backed by new and old channels, from the synergy with evangelical leaders, military and conservative business groups, to the legal and illegal use of digital data mapping and manipulation.

And isn’t that exactly what Bolsonaro has been doing in recent weeks? The fluctuation in his statements, a certain revision of the negationist stance, that is, naming Covid-19 as “little flu”, certainly has to do with the perception, on the part of his team, of the fall of his popularity, especially among the richest.

Even so, his approval rates have been more or less stable, varying between 33% to 40%, considering the margins of error. A Datafolha poll of April 8th showed that 83% of the people who voted for Bolsonaro, in the second round, did not regret the vote. For 33% the president’s conduct was excellent or good in the current crisis and 25% thought it was regular, that is, the majority. For 39%, the president’s conduct in the crisis was bad or very bad. Considering the 3-point margin of error, it is possible that the number of approval and disapproval was the same, i.e. 36%. A poll conducted by Ideia Big Data, of the same day, indicated similar percentages.

What happened, since the president’s popularity was falling? As an article on the website of Piaui magazine, signed by José Roberto de Toledo, shows, Bolsonaro made two tactical changes: he moderated the discourse, but basically as a diversion, and he changed the agenda when he started to defend, even more, the miraculous medicine for the cure for Covid-19: chloroquine.

In his speech, also on the 8th, he praised the doctor of former president Lula, who said he used chloroquine in his treatment, accompanied by other doctors. In the same speech, he sympathized, for the first time, with the victims’ family. In addition, he reaffirmed that the responsibility for isolation rests with the governors and again opposed his own health minister.

In this movement, as in others, Bolsonaro closely follows Trump’s agenda, with accessory differences. In Brazil, Bolsonaro fights with Mandetta, his health ministry,  in the USA Trump often disallows and is disallowed by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a medical expert at the White House. Dr. Fauci even had his personal security reinforced after receiving several death threats from Trump supporters who believe that the quarantine measures are part of a plot to sabotage the president.

In both cases, the presidents profit from allegedly choosing a competent technician to lead the crisis response and, at the same time, feed on conspiracy theories against those same technicians. Trump’s insistence on the healing powers of hydroxychloroquine motivated The New York Times to publish, on April 9th, a special article on the myths surrounding the drug that begins with the following phrase: “There is no evidence that any drug can cure or prevent coronavirus infection”. Meanwhile, on Brazilian Twitter, several people publish in their profiles the same healing story of the same cousin, which later would become a meme. The question remains: how many president’s supporters are willing to spread lies to defend their narratives?

On April 8th and 9th Jornal Nacional – Brazil’s most influential TV news program, showed that one of the effects of Bolsonaro’s action was the reduction and relaxation of social isolation. Meanwhile, in different actions, until the 11th, the president was causing crowds during his passages through public spaces. And on his live, on Facebook, on the 8th, he made a provocation by stating that complaints about the quarantine should be sent to the state governors.

The calculation seems to be as follows: if the number of deaths is high, and even if his popularity declines, he is likely to say that the isolation did not work. If the outcome of the pandemic is not so tragic, he will attribute the economic crisis to the governors, in addition to the press for having caused “hysteria”.

In other words, it is possible for him to win (or profit) in any scenario, even with and despite the current political isolation. Yet, paradoxically, he leaves this crisis weaker than he entered. Certainly the virus, in three months, caused more damage to his image and his government than the opposition in one year. In addition, since April 10th, the social network pots and voices against the president’s performance are more present in the public space and in the media. Even on the walls of large cities, such as the marginal Pinheiros, on April 10th, in São Paul we can read “Bolsonaro is a killer”:

Still, we believe he will gain more if the epidemic crisis is contained.

What about the impeachment?

At the moment, it seems to be a difficult option to materialize because the bolsonarist base remains mobilized and willing to fight and defend its president. It is difficult to assess the extent of the trauma that an early term interruption would cause on such a faithful base. And if it happens, that fact would fulfill the fantasies of persecution and conspiracy.

Even on the left wing, there are those who doubt that the replacement of Bolsonaro by General Mourão (the vice-president) would represent any progress. The so-called illustrated elites, who have distanced themselves from bolsonarism, may come to join again Bolsonaro`s base, particularly when the fiscal adjustment agenda resurfaces as the panacea for the economic crisis. After all, world alt-rights have been effective in bringing together obsolete and updated sectors in their base with agility.

The question, therefore, is to understand bolsonarism.

In this regard, we highlight the audio received from a friend, about our text, on the first 100 days of the pandemic. According to him, we, the authors, are helping to sink the country economy, because we only criticize the president, something that, according to him, did not happen with “that wh*re Dilma”. The media would be interested in overthrowing the president, especially Rede Globo news network. “Instead of talking about Bolsonaro,you should warn people not about the deaths, but about the patients who recovered from Covid-19; warn that those who are young must work and those who must stay at home are only the elderly.

He is afraid that Brazil will become Cuba or Venezuela. Our friend also cries out that the opposition should respect the president and let him rule, that the left wing and the communists must be extinguished in Brazil: this seems to be the desire with the greatest emotional content, although communists can be anything in this type of speech, there is no clear ideological outline. He repeated, almost in a trance, several themes of bolsonarist propaganda: the crisis is just a pretext to overthrow the president; quarantine is a way of implementing communism in Brazil, since he cannot have his business, he cannot come and go.

Unfortunately, this reaction doesn’t appear to be an extreme or isolated case. So, the question remains: what is the space for dialogue and argument with this type of reaction? What percentage of the bolsonarist base has reached this point of radicalization that seems to have no way back? Could any change in reality break this circle of loyalty and emotional identification?

In bolsonarist networks, Chinese communists are the enemies of the day. Even more with  PT and Lula disappearing from the news. All of this can be seen in images circulating in Whatsapp groups that change another news network logo (Band) and show moderates politicians meeting Chinese authorities:

Articulating bolsonarism with current surveillance capitalism can contribute to overcoming certain illusions. Like the one that Brazilian democracy was consolidated and solid. An illusion that led the majority of the progressive field to not see right and center-right activism, particularly after 2013. Thus, it is necessary to understand that bolsonarist negacionism doesn’t admit its irrational or unscientific aspect, on the contrary, it feeds the expectations that a “true science” legitimizes their narratives.

In this point of view, we can ask ourselves to what extent we are experiencing a real war of ideologies and the extent to which deliberate disinformation strategies make it impossible to even speak of ideologies. We also don’t know how far figures like Bolsonaro and Olavo de Carvalho (a so called philosopher assumed as the government ideologue) have great intuitive knowledge and “charismatic” control over their followers.

In the current cultural war, perhaps the first step to be taken by a significant part of the left is to recognize defeat, that is, to accept that bolsonarism has a social base that actively supports and defends it, despite our tendency not to accept . This means understanding that the current pandemic, as well as bolsonarism, is articulated with a basic fact: the human tragedy produced by capitalism in its digital stage. Many people who had and have their lives destroyed by this economic model, unequal and cruel, had hopes of transformation from the voice of Bolsonaro. From our point of view, the victims of this economic model are easy targets for disinformation, which must be separated from the spontaneous appropriation of narratives and hate speech.

Considering humanity’s grave moment, we would like not to have to discuss the gains or losses of Bolsonaro’s irresponsible political disputes, in a scenario in which the most relevant is, in the end, the struggle for the survival of human life, without distinction of ethnic, religious or political creed. This, knowing that black, brown, indigenous and poor people, both in Brazil and in other parts of the world, are being and will be the most affected, unfortunately.

Bolsonaro will not fall by himself, as many hope. And his re-election is not unfeasible, as many believe. Stripped of any theory or political passion, we can say that it is shocking and revolting to see our country’s highest authority playing with the death of others. Unfortunately, as long as we are unable to regain some collective control over the production and circulation of data and information, today’s politicians will continue to bend reality in their favour. But that is already the subject of the next column.

See you later! And stay at home!

P.S: This column was written by two hands, sometimes in real time, on the Google drive platform and with the support of Mayra Marques.

Mateus Pereira & Valdei Araujo, are History Professors at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, Mariana (Brazil), you can read their previous diary on 100 days of the pandemic here.

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