Had he remained around long enough, Evelyn Waugh would surely have approved of Jair Bolsonaro, a man whose views on what is happening to the world are much the same as those that were memorably expressed in the ‘Sword of Honour trilogy’ by his fictitious hero Guy Crouchback who, in a dark moment when everything was going wrong, muttered to himself: ‘The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” So too would have William F. Buckley, Jr, for whom a conservative was “someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘stop’” and believed that “the largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so.”
Over half a century has gone by since Waugh and Buckley started yelling stop. Since then, the trends they so eloquently deplored have rushed onwards, overwhelming all the obstacles placed in their path, but recently the causes they embraced with self-conscious quixotism have found new champions. The “populists,” whose mere existence is driving many “progressives” haywire, come in many shapes and sizes, but they all agree that the “modern age” is a dangerous aberration that must be done away with before it is too late.
After donning the bright-green-and-yellow presidential sash, Bolsonaro laid into his enemies with uninhibited glee. He told them he is dead against anything smacking of socialism, political correctness, corruption in all its many forms, ideologies which help criminals and hamstring the cops, attacks on traditional family values and fashionable attempts to redefine gender roles. As well as saying he stood for “Judeo-Christian values,” he made much of his warm feelings for Israel, a country loathed by leftists who want to curry favour with Muslims, whom they see as allies in the struggle they are waging against capitalist imperialism.
To nobody’s surprise, the international press gave the inauguration of Bolsonaro’s term in office uniformly hostile coverage. As far as it is concerned, Brazil’s new president is a dangerous lunatic, a far-right extremist whose outlandish opinions cannot be taken seriously and who therefore deserves to be treated with contempt. There is certainly much to worry about. Bolsonaro’s evident desire to arm law-abiding civilians so they can do their bit in the war he has declared on criminals could have many ugly consequences, as could the campaigns he has launched with characteristic fierceness against much of the political establishment, left-leaning intellectuals, ecologists and members of often statistically miniscule sexual minorities. However, Bolsonaro got where he is, winning a landslide election victory on the way, because huge numbers of Brazilians are convinced that much that is rotten in their country has to do with the influence of novel “ideologies” imported from the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe.
The “populist” uprising against the status quo that is upsetting long-standing arrangements throughout the Western world is in large measure a cultural phenomenon. Brazilians are far from being the only people who suspect they have been blindsided by those “intellectual cliques” who, according to Buckley over 60 years ago, had already managed “to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies” not only in “education and the arts” but in many other fields. In the US itself, Donald Trump came to power thanks to the refusal of tens of millions of voters to keep toeing the lines (which are constantly changing) that are being drawn by individuals who are out to reconstruct society in accordance with whatever scheme has just taken their fancy, while in Europe the reaction against “political correctness” is, if anything, proving to be even stronger than in its homeland. People worried by “populism” warn us that more and more politicians, who for understandable reasons tend to gravitate to wherever votes are to be found, are adopting “xenophobic” positions, saying that they too are against letting in huge numbers of immigrants from countries in which extreme violence is endemic and marketable skills are hard to come by. None other than Hillary Clinton greatly ruffled progressive feelings by saying that large-scale immigration was bad because it helped “the right.”
As election results keep reminding us, this is true enough, but it is not just a question of “xenophobia,” which in Europe these days is almost a synonym of “Islamophobia,” or fear of “the other.” There is also a growing awareness that people desperately want to belong to communities that are bound together not just by shared tastes but also by shared historical experiences, whether genuine or – as critics like to point out – in many cases invented. For some adventurous souls the nation state as it was until not that long ago may be far too small, too homogeneous, or, as European and even North American enthusiasts for multiculturalism would have it, “too white” to be worth conserving, but for the rest it is something they are determined to cling to. It may be all they have.
By openly declaring himself against just about everything selfstyled progressives hold dear, Bolsonaro has sent a powerful message to his counterparts in the rest of the world. No doubt some, perhaps many, will try to outdo him by colliding head-on with the ideological champions of what, until about five years ago, seemed to be well on the way to becoming the standard orthodoxy in countries, among them those of Latin America, that derive their cultural traditions from Western Europe. Just how all this will work out is anybody’s guess, but for now at any rate the rebels are on a roll and defenders of what, much to their bemusement, has suddenly become the old order, are fighting a rear-guard action that could end with the defeat that usually awaits those who overplay what they thought was a winning hand.