Brasilla: Jair Bolsonaro’s disciples had packed the arrivals hall of this far-flung Amazonian airport, united by their contempt for the left and an unbreakable determination to score a selfie with the man they called the legend “He’s Brazil’s hope! A light at the end of the tunnel! A new horizon!” gushed Fernando Vieira, one of hundreds of fans there to greet a far-right firebrand who cheerleads the dictatorship but could soon become leader of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
When flight 2020 delivered the presidential hopeful to his sun-scorched destination in the northern state of Roraima, pandemonium broke out. “Legend! Legend! Legend! Legend!” the crowd chanted, hoisting their idol into the air and outside through a crush of police officers and partisans.
There, Bolsonaro boarded a carnival float painted like a leopard and began an ear-splitting, hour-long procession through town.
“The Legend has arrived! The Legend is in Roraima! The big democracy party has begun!” bellowed an MC as the rally crept south, pursued by a honking tide of SUVs and motorbikes.
Many would question that last claim, for Bolsonaro – who has been described as “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world” and possibly the most repulsive politician on earth – is not known as a fan of the ballot-box.
Since the Pinochet-praising former paratrooper entered politics three decades ago, he has repeatedly called for a return to the kind of military rule Brazil endured until 1985. “I am in favour of a dictatorship,”he boasted during the first of seven terms as a congressman.
Such incendiary remarks were long dismissed as the ravings of a irreverent and irrelevant extremist – as were his equally inflammatory attacks on women,gay people,black people foreigners and indigenous communities, for which he was last week charged by Brazil’s attorney general with inciting hate speeech
Now, however, Bolsonaro’s ideas have taken centre stage, with the father of five leading the race to become Brazil’s next president after the jailing of his nemesis and main rival, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In his bid to capitalise on Latin America’s lurch to the right, Bolsonaro paints himself as a tropical Trump: a pro-gun, anti-establishment crusader set on draining the swamp into which Brazil’s Futuristic capital has sunk.
On the stump he lambasts not slimeballs and bad hombres, but vagabundos(losers), canalhas (creeps) and bandidos (crooks). He accuses critics of peddling fake news, vows to be tough on crime and repeatedly bashes China. “We will do business with the Chinese – but we will not hand our territory over to anybody!” he told supporters in Boa Vista, to loud cheers.
His speeches, like Trump’s, are often rambling, fact-light assaults on syntax that appear nonsensical when transcribed but are strangely captivating when watched up close.
After that slaloming riposte, Bolsonaro, who broadcasts his views to more than 5 million Facebook followers, vowed to downgrade the environment ministry and evict meddlesome foreigners. “This cowardly business of international NGOs like WWF and so many others from England sticking their noses into Brazil is going to end! This tomfoolery stops right here!”.
Finally, he waxed lyrical about Israeli agriculture. “Israel has nothing – just sand … [and yet] they raise fish in the desert!”
Winter said he was convinced Bolsonaro was “openly copying aspects of the Trump strategy” and believed it could prove a winning formula. “Donald Trump got elected saying that crime in the inner-cities was out of control, that the economy was a disaster and that the entire political class was corrupt … All three of those things are indisputably true in Brazil. So if Trump could get elected, imagine what is possible in a country like Brazil right now.”
“He’s the guy who says you combat violence with violence – and this is something we support,” enthused Wellington Vasconcellos, 28, a security guard who was among the overwhelmingly male crowd.
Bruno Queiroz, a 23-year-old student, hailed Brazil’s “redemption”: “We need someone who has a firm wrist to re-establish order – even if it is through force.”
Guilherme Boulos, who plans to run for president for the Socialism and Liberty party, said thwarting Bolsonaro’s candidacy was now among the left’s most urgent tasks. “Bolsonaro presents himself as someone who is going to combat criminality but he himself is a criminal,” Boulos said. “He’s not Trump. He is a caricature of Trump.”