They’re not The Addams Family but the script might just as well have come from straight from Hollywood. They’re not a freak show in aesthetic terms (on the contrary, they are all pretty good-looking) but the rhetoric might have come from a horror movie, it’s so bloody-minded and politically incorrect. They’re not blessed by Brazil’s electoral king-maker – namely, the Globo media conglomerate – but they have no real interest in seducing it either, as they unabashedly flaunt a king-sized scorn for the major media outlets.
Besides, there can be no doubt that they are inspired by the current occupant of the White House. They love to talk of “fake” and “fato” (fact) news, and to type on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook incessantly. The traditional media? For these political hopefuls, social media seems to be enough.
They are the Bolsonaro clan and they are not one but four, all joined together this year by the campaign. Such is their sense of teamwork that they have opened accounts on social media networks under the name of “Familia Bolsonaro.” And they are showing that candidates need not rely on just the traditional outlets.
The patriarch of the clan is Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a former Army captain in the paratroops regiment who is now presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL, in its Portuguese acronym), the paladin of the extreme right with a rhetoric which is xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-system and anti-establishment. “É Bom Jair Se Acostumando” (“You’d better start getting used to Jair”), the warning to his critics, is one of the most broadcast campaign slogans, coming from this Bolsonaro, the emerging product of recession, unemployment and a “begone with them all” phobia for traditional politicians.
Flavio, the oldest son, has been in politics since 2002. He is currently state deputy for Rio de Janeiro. He carries the family DNA of adopting extreme positions: “To be normal is to be heterosexual,” “I doubt any father is proud of having a gay son,” “I’m in favour of the death penalty,” etc. It’s in line with the family’s combative approach against the media, which Flavio has accused of “applying human rights for the benefit of crime and criminals.”
His brother Eduardo is a federal deputy for São Paulo for the same party and is assumed to be linked to the most radical wing of the Donald Trump camp. Or rather the ‘ex-Trump’ camp, since the link is with no less than Steve Bannon, the founder of Breitbart News. “It was a pleasure to meet Steve Bannon, strategist in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign: We had a great conversation and we share the same world view,” tweeted Eduardo Bolsonaro in August, adding that Bannon was an “enthusiast of Bolsonaro’s campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural Marxism.”
The third son is Carlos, a municipal councillor in Rio de Janeiro. He won his Rio City Council seat for the first time in 2000 at the age of 17, when his main rival was his own mother no less, already separated from his father Jair. “The son of a caveman is also a caveman,” was Jair’s comment when his son Carlos vanquished his ex-wife at the voting booths.
As for Jair, he is now running second in the opinion polls for the October election, behind former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, currently jailed for corruption in a Curitiba prison. Without Lula in the electoral fray, Bolsonaro would be the front-runner today. Backed by his more than 1.3 million followers in Twitter, his is not a legion of voters to be scorned.
The Bolsonaro clan also has its own website – Vista Pátria. “We are a patriotic enterprise, tired of seeing the country destroyed by socialist and social democratic promises, which are always seeking big government suffocating our economy and corrupting our Western values,” it declares.
The curious thing about the proposals on Vista Pátria is that they are not proactive but literally reactionary, “anti” this and “anti” that. This negative attitude leads to its political banners being fiercely fought by the leftist groupings. A deadly trap which, according to the analyst Brian Winter (once a Buenos Aires Herald staffer) is causing the Brazilian media to make the same mistakes their US counterparts made during Trump’s electoral campaign in 2016, when reporters and political pundits then jumped on any gaffe by the former reality TV star to declare his presidential candidacy dead in the water.
“But all his gaffes had the opposite effect,” making him stronger, wrote Winter for O Globo recently. In his view, Bolsonaro is a Banana Republic version of Trump, although he added that the danger offered by this extremist could be diluted by the fact that party alliances (mandatory in Brazil) could end up realigning the extreme toward the centre.
But they haven’t skipped all the traditional media outlets. This week’s formal campaign launch on TV showed a triumphant Bolsonaro beaming while being interviewed on Globo’s Jornal Nacional, which has run a series of in-depth interviews with each candidate. In his debut, Jair Bolsonaro fought back, answering with cheap hot shots when cornered by reporters, knocking back the verbal whiplashes with his sharp tongue and leaving seasoned journalists exposed. He thus showed how an anti-establishment ultra-rightist can defend himself by counter-attacking the media voices of the establishment.
Yet you can always win a battle and lose the war. Brazilian electoral campaigns have been historically defined by advertising and debates on TV. Yesterday, the different parties began airing their TV ads, with airtime awarded based on the share of a candidate’s coalition in Congress. Bolsonaro, with a feeble coalition, has a ridiculously small TV quota. He says that he does not need the traditional media but can he advance to the presidency without them?
Pundits point out that TV’s influence is not what it once was but also that it defines this election all the same. Will that come to bear or will this forecast be off the mark, as in the case of Trump? They say that Bolsonaro is a good fighter on Twitter and in lashing back when cornered. They also say he has failed so far to present a narrative or plan of government. And finally they mischievously recall that while he boasts of being antisystem, of being an innovator sent to shake up politics, Jair Bolsonaro is in his seventh parliamentary term. He has been sitting for 27 years in Congress.
All the while, ever larger multitudes are flooding to see Jair at his rallies and political meetings, carrying him on their shoulders and begging him for selfies. Mere momemtum or a hinge in Brazil´s political history? Perhaps the young Brazilians that root for him have offered us a clue: they call him ‘Bolsomito,’ which in their jargon means simply: “Blowing everything up.”