Thursday, April 30, 2020

Bolsonaro's Even Worse Off Than Trump

Francisco Toro and James Bosworth write in The Washington Post that comparing Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro comes up short pretty quickly. They argue that the combination of weak party and recent history of impeachment makes Bolsonaro highly vulnerable, certainly much more so than Trump.

I agree with their assessment, but it also serves as a reminder that we have to be careful about overly flexible use of the term "populist." The essential element of populism--a highly contested term to be sure--is anti-elitism. A populist appeals to some vague notion of "the people" and argues the current set of elites are responsible for their plight. Bolsonaro did that quite effectively. So did Hugo Chávez.

Chávez could have easily faced the same plight as Bolsonaro now if the U.S. hadn't invaded Iraq. The 2002 coup showed he had popular backing but his political position was shaky. The rise of oil prices was critical for him because he had a mass following but was only gradually building his own political establishment to replace the old. In times of trouble, like now, Trump can lean on the Republican Party. Lula could lean on the PT.

Bolsonaro can't lean on a party, or economic growth, or a cash cow natural resource. He can only hold onto loyalists and court the military. That's not a good place to be in a country that happily used impeachment as a no-confidence vote.


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