Ten years ago, Brazil was a left-wing success story. The Workers’ Party’s generous cash-transfer programs for poor families, bankrolled by buoyant commodity prices and constructed on a preexisting foundation of fiscal discipline, helped to lift millions out of poverty. Constitutional order was maintained. The economy grew, and arrangements were reached between the reigning patronage party networks and the new left-wing party to push for change within the existing political-constitutional structure. New avenues were apparently opening in the conduct of domestic policy, and new poles were apparently forming in the structure of international power.
This essay will not tell the story of how Brazil’s growth ground to a halt and then went into reverse; of how its people were dragged back toward poverty by the retreating economic tide, how they swarmed onto the streets and became overnight, so it seemed, as conservative as they had been progressive a year or two before. It will not tell of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, nor of how corruption charges tore a swath through Brazil’s political class, reaching, eventually, the very man who had supervised and symbolized the era of hope: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.1
A chapter or two could now be added—relating how the corruption probe, specifically its former leader (federal judge Sérgio Moro, now minister of justice for Bolsonaro), fell under suspicion of misconduct himself, after the Brazilian division of Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept uncovered messages of dubious provenance but apparent authenticity showing improper collaboration between Moro and prosecutors. The shadow of a possible return to power, if Lula’s conviction can be overturned on these grounds of impropriety, has been cast. But it is a pale kind of shadow, and the drama of Brazilian politics has—it seems for now—moved on.
But there is another story that must be told: the one which culminates not in the fall of Lula but in the rise of Bolsonaro. An unlikely figure led the crusade against corruption and crime, from which arose the popular discontent that upended Lula’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT). That figure was a rhetorically brutish thirty‑year veteran of the lower house, a former army captain named Jair Bolsonaro. And attached to his campaign from an early date were fringe right-wing intellectuals with a hard core of followers on social media. This was the vanguard of the “conservative revolution” against lulismo, the political thought behind the era of PT rule.
We are left to wonder what exactly is the content of this so-called revolution which has replaced Lula and lulismo. To what extent is there a bolsonarismo—that is, an intellectual movement behind Bolsonaro? What is the history of this movement, who are the major figures, and what, so far as it can be discerned, do they believe?
These are central questions for understanding Bolsonaro’s Brazil, but as yet they have never been seriously asked, let alone answered. This article is a partial attempt to do so. Three writers in particular stand out in the history of the Brazilian Right since the 1990s who have influenced, directly or indirectly, the current administration: Bruno Tolentino, Olavo de Carvalho, and Ernesto Araújo. To discover the roots of the ideology attached to the current administration, we are led back to the 1990s when, during the decade following the return of democracy to Brazil, a new conservative sensibility was born on the fringes of Brazilian letters.
More than thirty parties occupy Brazil’s balkanized legislature. Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) is far from a majority in either house, and there is no Brazilian equivalent to the constellation of right-wing think-tanks and conservative legal societies in America. The result is that for six months Bolsonaro’s government had all the confusion, scandals, and infighting of the early Trump administration, with none of the guardrails, such as they were. In addition, Brazil faces serious domestic problems, including alarmingly high levels of violent crime and a pension system hamstrung by economic downturn.
The first fractious months of Bolsonaro’s government thus provoked a sense among political elites that something had to be done, and that Bolsonaro increasingly seemed not to be the man to do it. This in turn fueled rumors of impeachment until a different remedy was recently found. Rodrigo Maia, leader of the lower house of Congress since before Bolsonaro’s election and member of a center-right party, has lately taken over the process of shepherding the administration’s marquee legislation, pension reform, through Congress. In the process he has edged out both Bolsonaro’s minister for the economy, Paulo Guedes, and his official liaison to Congress, a man named Onyx Lorenzoni.2
Maia’s considerable accomplishment—marshaling the necessary supermajority for the pension reform, which requires altering the country’s bloated constitution, in a first round of voting in mid-July—has not come without cost for Bolsonaro. As Maia has labored on behalf of the reform, of which Bolsonaro was never more than a lukewarm champion, he has applied the brakes to many of the president’s other priorities. Maia has also clashed with the beleaguered Sérgio Moro in the latter’s efforts to push his packet of legislation to fight crime and corruption, which are issues of much greater direct importance to Brazilian voters than the pension reform. Congress, pliant to the executive for most of its history until the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, is now taking more control over a positive agenda. “They want to make me into the Queen of England?” Bolsonaro recently complained.
This display of strength by Congress has been possible in large part because Bolsonaro’s government is split between several factions. The most conspicuous of these are, on the one hand, the military men and, on the other, the students of a man named Olavo de Carvalho. The former grouping includes seven of the twenty-two cabinet ministers and, as its informal leader, the vice president Hamilton Mourão, who has assiduously positioned himself as both apologist for Bolsonaro and friend to the press. When Bolsonaro offends, Mourão is there to walk it back.
Mourão’s clever tightrope walk can be viewed, charitably, as a loyal attempt to inject a dose of public credibility into a government whose potential he genuinely believes in. Less charitably, it can be viewed as a bid to position himself as an attractive candidate to take over the helm should Bolsonaro fail to complete his term. Like any smart politician, in Brazil perhaps even more than other countries, he is hedging his bets. And so far it is working: to journalists, he is a James Mattis figure, a lonely voice of reason in a renegade administration. But there is a certain amount of resistance: to the other main faction in the government, that associated with Olavo de Carvalho, Mourão is a traitor to the cause.
Part Roger Scruton and part Alex Jones, Olavo de Carvalho is a unique figure in the global constellation of reactionary thought. Called “Bolsonaro’s guru” by the press and “professor” by his disciples—the latter word means something more like “teacher” in Portuguese—Carvalho in fact has no formal qualifications, nor any formal position in the government. A self-described philosopher, he practices his trade in the classical way: setting up his own shop. His online “philosophy seminars” are open to all, for a small fee. Carvalho’s wide reading habits and sharp pen make him just formidable enough to avoid being dismissed as a crank—which is saying something, given the considerable evidence which exists to support such a charge.
In 2011, Carvalho wrote:
In the current power hierarchy of my native country, my opinion is worthless, except maybe as an anti-example and an incarnation of absolute evil, which is a great satisfaction to me. In the country where I live, the government considers me, on the most hyperbolical hypothesis, an inoffensive eccentric.
No political party, mass movement, government institution, church or religious sect considers me its mentor. So I can give my opinion as I wish, and change my opinion as many times as it seems right to me, with no devastating practical consequences beyond the modest circle of my personal existence [sic].3
Now, just eight years later, the reverse is true. From his exile outside Richmond, Virginia, Carvalho has three-quarters of a million subscribers on YouTube and half a million on Facebook. Bolsonaro has fêted him in Washington. As early as 2013, protestors in Brazil carried signs that read, “Olavo was right.” He even handpicked two cabinet ministers (one of whom has since been sacked, with Carvalho’s assent; his replacement is also a devotee). Several of Bolsonaro’s sons, who exert a significant influence on the president, proclaim themselves students of Carvalho. His alternately erudite and obscene remarks, often directed against reporters and members of the government and generally disseminated via Facebook and Twitter, routinely make headlines. His collections of editorials criticizing Brazilian society and politics have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and his cheerleading during the campaign is widely regarded to have helped win the election for Bolsonaro. In short, he is the most influential Brazilian public intellectual in a generation.
Carvalho uses his newfound bully pulpit to lob rhetorical grenades at three chief targets: the “illiterate media,” Mourão, and another military cabinet member, General Santos Cruz. A representative example: on Twitter, he writes, “This ‘military wing versus ideological wing’ stuff is your mother’s ass! Do you really think the military men don’t have any ideology whatsoever, they’re purely scientific beings?”4
The understanding is that Carvalho, and to varying degrees those affiliated with him in the government, is nationalist in orientation and strongly conservative on social issues. He views the generals as soft on China and the UN, soft on social issues, and tacitly opposed to the conservative popular “revolution” that the 2018 election represented. The military men purport to assist Bolsonaro in his task of setting Brazil on track, but they are in fact working to undermine him, or so Carvalho says on his Twitter page.
It is difficult to determine to what extent Carvalho’s allies with actual positions in the government share his views of the military men in the cabinet. The foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who was chosen by Carvalho, has kept largely quiet on the subject. One of the president’s sons, Carlos Bolsonaro, has been less quiet, but has mostly avoided open fights with military figures. Still, the very public broadsides by Bolsonaro’s “guru” against members of his own government are a destabilizing force, throwing into stark relief ideological and political divides that administrations usually find more expedient to keep hidden.
There are, of course, other factions in the government. There is a lesser pole around Chicago-trained economy minister Paulo Guedes, who carries the banner for economic liberalism within the government and is in charge of the all-important pension reform effort; and another around justice minister Sérgio Moro, who represents law and order. A crusading anti-corruption lawyer, Moro was head of the Car Wash bribery investigation which felled countless members of Brazil’s political elite. Moro’s flashy style in conducting arrests and seizures helped galvanize a popular groundswell against the PT, but he has lost his sheen from recent revelations alleging impropriety and a partisan, anti-PT orientation in his investigation. His clumsy and so far unsuccessful attempts to interest legislators in his package of legislation meant to help reduce crime and corruption in the country—Bolsonaro’s central campaign promise—have not helped matters.
Finally, there is an evangelical presence, including a handful of ministers led by a conspicuously uncharismatic preacher named Damares Alves, one of two women in the cabinet. Evangelicals, whose ranks have swollen considerably over the past decades in this historically Catholic country, now make up some 30 percent of Brazilians, and were the one bloc that voted decisively in Bolsonaro’s favor in 2018. There is an influential evangelical caucus in the legislature, but the evangelical figures in the cabinet do not seem to play a high profile in the government’s internal negotiations. “I listen to every minister,” Bolsonaro said at one point when asked about his decision-making process. “Even Damares.”5
Thus the Bolsonaro administration encompasses influences from the armed forces, from the Chicago School, from figures representing law and order, from evangelicals, and lastly from the new Right, with Carvalho the exile at its center. And while the Brazilian Right has superficial similarities with populist-nationalist movements in other countries (it now proclaims Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Israel as its opposite numbers), the reality is somewhat more complex.
The new Brazilian Right is an outlier because many of the material forces commonly understood to be driving nationalist movements elsewhere in the world are simply absent. Immigration and foreign-born population levels in Brazil have been low for some time and there is little sign they might increase, except in the form of Venezuelan refugees. There is no EU-like supranational body to rebel against. Brazil remains one of the most closed economies in the world.
What, then, caused the rise of the new Brazilian right? In fact, its origins—which are, of course, also Carvalho’s origins—lie in a specific cultural moment: the Brazilian nineties. In order to understand this critical influence on the current government, we will have to venture back into the Brazilian literary scene of twenty years ago. There we will discover the unlikely duo of a former Trotskyite astrologer and a bisexual ex-convict, and the story of how they led a handful of belligerent malcontents with eclectic tastes, murky biographies, few credentials, and no political connections to craft the earliest form of what is now the official ideology of the Brazilian government.
Bruno Tolentino: The Poet as Dissident
Few facts about the life of Bruno Tolentino, grandfather of the new Brazilian Right, can be firmly established. In his account, he was born in 1940 to an aristocratic family in Rio de Janeiro. Raised in the company of the most distinguished figures of Brazilian letters, he grew up speaking more French and English than Portuguese. In the account of one of his contemporaries, however, this is all fiction: he was born into “the most banal of middle-class families,” the son of a military man.6 Tolentino appears, indeed, to have been a habitual mythologizer of himself. But not unlike Herodotus, even his most outlandish claims cannot be rejected out of hand because some of his only slightly less outlandish ones have since proven to be correct.
In 1964 Tolentino left for Europe after a military coup unseated President João Goulart. There he remained throughout the two decades of military rule that followed. He brought out a book of poems in French, then one in English. During this period, Tolentino claims to have befriended W. H. Auden and the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, fathered two children, lectured at the universities of Bristol and Essex, married a Brazilian woman, and directed Auden’s small publishing house in Oxford after the poet’s death.7 But the publishing organ that Tolentino was associated with, Oxford Poetry Now, seems to have no direct connection with Auden or with Oxford Poetry, an already defunct magazine that Auden had edited some forty years previously.
It is certain at least that Tolentino was in Oxford for some of this time, for those who knew him there have written of his affair with a young Englishman, Simon Pringle. Tolentino compelled his “Antinous in skinny jeans” to assist him in an attempt to smuggle hashish from Morocco to England by boat in order to repay substantial debts he had incurred.8 In a lightly fictionalized memoir, Pringle recalls that Tolentino ran the details of the plot by an Irish mystic to discover whether the omens would favor it.9 The scheme did not succeed, but Tolentino seems to have escaped prosecution, for, after a brief return to Brazil, as the military began to stage-manage in earnest the country’s slow transition to democracy, he returned to England to try again.
In September 1987, Tolentino was caught at Heathrow with a kilogram of cocaine in his suitcase. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison and served five, mostly at Dartmoor—where Éamon de Valera had once languished—before being released and deported to Brazil in 1993.10 Tolentino thus missed almost the entire span of the military dictatorship and the transition to democracy, during which the new constitution was drafted and ratified, as well as the impeachment, in 1992, of the country’s first directly elected president in thirty years, Fernando Collor de Mello.
Tolentino’s return to his native country marked the first stirrings of a new conservative sensibility. “Third Way”–inspired policies may have prevailed under centrist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who took office in 1995, but Brazil’s intellectual elite was increasingly married to the left-wing Workers’ Party, and the left-leaning musicians who had styled themselves symbols of resistance during the dictatorship were more widely and officially fêted—all to Tolentino’s chagrin.
In America, aesthetic disagreements tend to follow from political disagreements, but in Brazil it is often the other way around—in this case in particular. Almost immediately upon his return, Tolentino let fly a stinging volley of publications. First was a 1994 book of poems, As horas de Katharina, which went on to win Brazil’s prestigious Prêmio Jabuti. That same year, Tolentino delivered a sucker punch to Brazil’s reigning poetic champion, Haroldo de Campos, inciting a no-holds-barred brawl that would later be remembered as the greatest spectacle Brazilian letters witnessed that decade.
In the culture supplement of a leading national paper, the Estado de São Paulo, Tolentino relentlessly mocked Campos’s translation of Hart Crane’s “Praise for an Urn,” which had recently been published in another leading paper.11 Campos, who had published dozens of books in translation and was widely regarded as a master of form in the Portuguese language, was “ignorant of vernacular English,” according to Tolentino. (Tolentino’s English was not perfect, either—at one point, in one of his frequent interpolations of an apt English phrase, he spelled “prophetic” with an f.)
Campos’s translation was not particularly objectionable, but this was beside Tolentino’s point, which was to try to unseat both Campos and his poetic movement, concretism, from their perch atop the Brazilian literary world. “Four decades with our so-called ‘vanguard,’ the most ancient and dusty shop-window in the Third World,” Tolentino scolded. “Écrasez l’infâme!”
Tolentino, though in his mid-fifties, was playing the part of the enfant terrible. Campos soon responded in kind, calling Tolentino an arriviste and dubbing his work “flaccid and adipose.” The back-and-forth dragged on for months, first in the papers and then in a pamphlet Tolentino brought out, “Yesterday’s Frogs” (“Os sapos de ontem”) in which he presented a sort of alternative history of Brazilian letters. In concretism, Campos’s movement, the dominant one since the 1950s, the words of the poem were not intended to represent anything, but rather conveyed meaning solely through their shape on the page. To Tolentino this was tantamount to “a movement from the essential to the superfluous, a divine canonization of the means as end.”12
The concretists had been the rebels against the literary order in Brazil in the ’50s; now the tables had turned, and the rebel was this ex-convict with his anachronistic formalism and his de haut en bas anglicisms. Tolentino doubled down a year later, telling a magazine that Brazil had gone to the dogs with the inclusion of works by iconic singer Caetano Veloso alongside Lusophone masters like Camões and Fernando Pessoa. He dismissed Brazil’s universities and sneered at the country’s “illiterate elite.”13
In 1998, Tolentino reopened an old and contentious question: What was the nature of Brazilian civilization? Was it an heir to Portugal, carrier of a cultural and literary tradition derived from Rome, or was it something new and, in the broader sense, American?
Machado de Assis, without a doubt Brazil’s greatest writer, represents the former school of thought. A self-taught, self-made man and the grandson of freed slaves who reached the height of his powers in the early years of the twentieth century, Machado wrote ironic if sympathetic accounts of the lives of Brazil’s largely European-descended upper class in a fugitive prose, dense with classical allusion and fabulist digression. Besides the classics, his chief influences were the Church on the one hand, and English and French writers like Sterne and Xavier de Maistre on the other.
The other school of thought is based on “cannibalism.” A poet named Oswald de Andrade published something called the “Cannibal Manifesto” in 1928, touching off a revolution in Brazilian letters. The manifesto is a savage delight. “Cannibalism is the only thing that unites us,” says Andrade, finding in the infamous cultural practice of the indigenous Tupi people a metaphor for his country and its letters. “Tupi or not Tupi?” is Andrade’s formulation of the question at hand. The pun is also, of course, an illustration of the point: it cannibalizes Shakespeare. Andrade caps off his manifesto by dating it to “the 374th Year of the Ingestion of Father Sardinha.” Sardinha was the first bishop of Brazil, who was captured and devoured by Caeté tribesmen in 1556. To Andrade, Brazil was wholly original, and any borrowing it made from other cultures was not really borrowing at all, but rather cannibalism. He rejected the idea that Brazil was a Christian country. “We were never catechized,” he writes. Machado would have begged to differ.
So did Tolentino. “Our dilemma is not ‘Tupi or not Tupi,’” Tolentino wrote, “but rather whether or not to be that which we really are: a great and constantly self-renewed Lusophone civilization.”14 By then, this question—whether Brazil was part of the West—had acquired a political dimension. Left-wing president João Goulart had sought closer ties with China and Cuba until he was toppled in a military coup in 1964. Contrary to the common notion in Latin America that right-wing leaders are necessarily American stooges, some of the military presidents who succeeded Goulart also endeavored to keep the United States at arm’s length. To American consternation, Brazil was the first to recognize the independence of Communist Angola in 1975. And so Tolentino’s denunciation of the lifeless art that followed Andrade—“better for Sardinha that he [was the dinner, and so] did not live to see the dessert”—had political implications, which his successors would later draw out. If Brazil was essentially Western, it ought to align with Europe and the United States. If it was not, it ought to seek other alliances.
Throughout this period, hanging on Tolentino’s every word was a younger man, Olavo de Carvalho, the first to begin to apply Tolentino’s thought to philosophy—and politics.
Olavo de Carvalho: The Conspiracy Theorist as Philosopher
Long a familiar, if marginal figure in Brazilian letters, Carvalho had been a Trotskyite critic of the military regime, during which he dabbled in esotericism and astrology and wrote criticism for the mainstream and alternative press. By the nineties, he had moved to the Right, and fell in with Tolentino’s circle. Under the influence of his friend the poet, who was his houseguest for a time, Carvalho wrote what is regarded as his most sustained intellectual engagement. The Garden of Afflictions is intended as a rather gratuitous polemic against a deceased philosophy professor at the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s most distinguished university. The deceased professor had made attempts to rehabilitate Epicurus as a philosopher deserving of consideration, during a conference he had convened on ethics.
Carvalho apparently feared PT-aligned intellectuals were emphasizing ethics in an attempt to undermine center-right president Fernando Collor (who was soon afterwards impeached for corruption). Accordingly, he threw his considerable erudition and even greater malice into a polemic against this emphasis, which spiraled into a sort of fevered attempt at a history of Western thought—in imitation, it seems clear, of the “Frogs of Yesterday” pamphlet, in which Tolentino had assembled a decline-and-fall history of Brazilian poetry to wield against his opponent Campos. Ironically Carvalho was later to endorse a similar fixation on ethics in politics: the popular anticorruption movement that accompanied the Car Wash investigation and the imprisonment of Lula.
Tolentino wrote the introduction, in a freewheeling, glittering, knife-wielding prose which steals the show from the more meager flourishes of Carvalho’s style. This polemic never took off as Tolentino’s earlier one had, no doubt in part because its target was already dead and could not answer back, but it served an important purpose as a beachhead for Carvalho’s later onslaughts against Brazilian society and its political and intellectual “establishment”—a word which, along with “intelligentsia,” he often prefers to borrow rather than use a Portuguese equivalent. In lieu of any formal qualifications, Carvalho learned to point to the Garden as proof of his philosophical bona fides, and his growing audience considered this more than enough.
One point of interest in the book is Carvalho’s lament for the displacement of philosophers by philosophes, or intellectuals, since the Enlightenment, and the more recent movement in universities away from philosophy and towards the history of thought. (Of course, there is some irony here in that Carvalho classifies his own book as a history of thought, and that he has not written any straightforward work of philosophy.)
Compared to American conservatives who make similar laments, Carvalho’s response has been more defiant. He has decided, in a rejection of the five-hundred-year tendency towards the division of intellectual labor, to claim to know it all. Only an autodidact could make such a claim, as it requires never having been exposed to the code of compartmentalization and deference which is particular to the university. Although his claim has not resulted in much intellectual success, it has been quite successful politically. One need only look up the YouTube video where Carvalho insists that there is “absolutely no evidence” for or against heliocentrism to see how exactly it has panned out.
By the end of the nineties, Tolentino’s energy was nearly spent. He had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1996 and spent his last years revising a final book for publication, The World as Idea, for which he won a third Jabuti before he died in 2007. Meanwhile Carvalho’s star, if that is what it can be called, was on the rise, and year by year he lost more of the aesthetic verve of Tolentino and took on more political vitriol and unabashed crankishness. (Tolentino had an occultist streak, too—but he never committed the indignity of publicizing it.)
Carvalho moved on to political polemics in the form of newspaper editorials and essays drawn together into a series of books over the next several decades, including 1997’s The Collective Imbecile and 2013’s The Minimum You Need to Know to Not Be an Idiot. His book sales grew, and he gained a following online. In 2005 he moved to the countryside near Richmond, Virginia, claiming to have lost faith in Brazil and associating himself with the paraphernalia of American popular conservatism by extolling the South, photographing himself toting shotguns, and wearing cowboy hats. The rate of his polemical output has only increased during his self-imposed exile, which he still maintains.
The overall contour of Carvalho’s views is of traditionalist social conservatism combined with a libertarian critique of socialism that does not extend to a defense of market forces, but uneasily coexists with a suspicion of these forces as a sinister attempt to undermine the nation-state. Carvalho ranges widely, but his expertise is polemic and criticism: he makes no effort to outline a regime which would avoid state planning and compromise on individual freedoms while simultaneously resisting globalization and upholding a traditional social order.
To take one example, a charitable summary of Carvalho’s stance on homosexuality would say that it seeks to offer an Aristotelian defense of the traditional Catholic teaching. Heterosexuality has human preservation as its end, he argues, while homosexuality only the fulfillment of desire, so the two do not deserve equal status (though he does not specify what sort of status—legal, societal, or ethical). If, as he appears willing to concede, gays have a right to express their desire, so far as it does not involve violating the law, then those who are revolted by homosexuality have a right to express their revulsion, again so long as it does not involve illegal discrimination or violence.
As usual, spurious and hallucinatory details—including the unlikely allegation that Mao was gay—sit side by side with arguments that, thin as they might be, also seem forceful and coherent enough to merit a reply.15 Any desire to engage with his writings on this subject and others, however, is considerably diminished by the fact that it is all too often smeared with vulgarities. One often gets an unpleasant sense of whiplash reading Carvalho, jolted between references to Duns Scotus or Eric Voegelin and gruesomely detailed descriptions of where his critics should shove it.
It is unclear what Tolentino made of Carvalho’s writing on sexual politics. His thoughts could not have been simple: despite his own personal life, Tolentino was concertedly Catholic and, as we have heard, a father—though details on his family, which he claimed to have left in Europe, are suspiciously difficult to come by. It is certain that Carvalho could not have become what he is without the aesthetic influence of Tolentino, which is in turn inseparable from Tolentino’s particular experience with love and beauty. Perhaps ironically, the way Carvalho describes the intellectual affair between him and Tolentino during those sleepless nights in the mid-nineties, while Carvalho wrote The Garden of Afflictions, seems to echo Socrates’s discussion of same-sex love in the Symposium: the “begetting of a beautiful thing by means of both the body and the soul.”
Carvalho’s greatest intellectual defect is probably not his penchant for conspiracy theories, which the reader can tune out without too much effort; nor even his vulgarity, which keeps his thought from ascending in any concerted way to the philosophical heights he claims for it; but rather the cruelty and violence with which he habitually treats his critics. Everyone who disagrees with him is an idiot, illiterate, mentally deficient, microcephalic—this last an especially unsavory insult in a country that not so long ago made international headlines for its efforts to combat the Zika virus, which causes catastrophic brain defects in newborns.
This is the hallmark not simply of a man who is bad company, or one who can credibly be accused of “coarsening public discourse.” It is the telltale sign of an inability to seek the truth, as any true philosopher ought, in even the most badly formed criticism of his own thought. But it plays dreadfully well online.
It was Carvalho’s robust online following and the right-wing society that developed around his online “philosophy seminars” that fueled his rise to prominence. He acquired influence with Bolsonaro through the eager participation of Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo in his seminars, and also through his pipe-smoking, cranky defenses of Bolsonaro that he posted to YouTube during the campaign. When Bolsonaro beat his Workers’ Party opponent Fernando Haddad, Carvalho was given the chance to pick two ministers for the new cabinet. One of the two, foreign minister Ernesto Araújo, is another chief figure in the new Brazilian Right.
Ernesto Araújo: The Diplomat as Polemicist
Unlike Carvalho, Ernesto Araújo can credibly boast of a pedigree and CV typical of the Brazilian elite. The son of a former Brazilian attorney general, Araújo grew up in Rio Grande do Sul, in the far south of Brazil. After graduating with a liberal arts degree from the public university in Brasília, he passed the admission test to win one of a handful of spots at the Rio Branco Institute, the official training school for Brazil’s elite diplomatic corps, the Itamaraty.
Named, like the Kremlin or the Pentagon, after the structure that houses it—originally a palace in Rio de Janeiro, now a modernist monolith in Brasília—the Itamaraty is a nineteenth-century remnant of what the diplomatic life used to be like. Despite the elevation of some PT cadres during the Lula years, a trend now being reversed through demotions and retirements, the corps remains aristocratic, bureaucratic rather than partisan, and resolutely hierarchical.
For ambitious, intellectual young Brazilians of the upper classes, a career as a diplomat has long been a coveted prize. The renowned Brazilian singer and poet Vinicius de Moraes was a diplomat for many years in the 1950s and 1960s until he was expelled from the corps under the military regime (more, it is said, for his alcoholism than his politics). Tolentino once said he wished he had opted for this route, a regret for which it is hard to fault him, diplomacy being a somewhat more reliable source of income than drug smuggling.16 Even today, so unlike in America, a diplomatic career sometimes serves as a day job for Brazilian men (and they are mostly men) of letters.
Araújo is one such man. For decades he was a quiet and capable diplomat, serving faithfully under successive left-wing governments and writing science fiction novels in his spare time. He published a book in 2008 which seemed to defend the Lula government’s multilateral approach to foreign policy and its arm’s-length relations with the United States. Blaming the supposedly apolitical, American-spearheaded structure of international trade organizations for entrenching the global status quo—by enforcing free trade practices that kept countries in the global South from developing—Araújo called for a “repoliticization” of trade negotiations through organizations like South American trade bloc Mercosur.
Then, without warning in the fall of 2017, with the center-right caretaker government of Michel Temer in place after the fall of President Dilma Rousseff—and Donald Trump well into his cacophonous first year in office—Araújo published a thirty-page essay in the official journal of the Itamaraty entitled “Trump and the West.”
The essay begins with the polemical claim that Donald Trump is “Western civilization’s Hail Mary pass.” Araújo writes this sentence out in English, then takes an entire page to explain its significance within the context of American football. He borrows the gesture from Tolentino, aiming to outrage his opponents while simultaneously placing himself above them, through a demonstration of his knowledge of anglophone culture.
By way of explanation, Araújo cites a speech Trump gave in Warsaw in 2017 where he extols in fairly clichéd terms the resilience of the Polish people. Araújo, apparently eager to locate in this speech deep significance, launches first into a critique of cosmopolitanism—proposing instead a vision of the world as a voluntary community of robustly independent nations—and then into a sort of pocket history of the West, which is at times moving and at others conspicuously erroneous. He mourns that Europeans no longer consider themselves part of the same drama that saw
Salamis and Thermopylae, Alexander in search of immortality, Hannibal’s elephants at the gates of Rome, the legions in Lusitania marveling for the first time at the majesty of the Atlantic, the logos of Heraclitus and the logos of St. John . . . Percival and King Arthur, the caravels setting sail, Luther’s theses, the Bastille and the Vendée, Napoleon beaten back by the winter, Lourdes and Fátima, Sedan and Verdun, Omaha Beach.17
Then Araújo says the development of nations in Europe during the medieval and early modern period was interrupted by the French Revolution—an event which, according to him, “impugned the nation,” and whose leaders desired a world “without borders.” This is, of course, highly questionable: it is often argued that modern nationalism was born with the French Revolution, one effect of which was to give the word “nation” its current meaning, while another was to trigger nationalist revolutions elsewhere—facts one should be able to admit while also noting that a straight line can be drawn from the Declaration of the Rights of Man to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Araújo so despises. Araújo is clearly not trying to do intellectual history so much as intellectual-historical polemic. The overall idea is that the nations of the West have lost their faith in themselves and their tradition, and Trump is the man to restore this faith.
This is not a terribly original or convincing idea, but there is more interesting material in the blog posts Araújo began to write after the publication of this essay. In one post Araújo seems to offer a conservative defense not just of popular superstition but also, by proxy, of Carvalho’s penchant for the occult. The postmodern world, he says, suffers from a hideous literalism that strips us of our human craving for something beyond the merely rational. This longing is not necessarily religious, he says, though it often is: it manifests itself also in things like popular superstition, UFOs, and boogeymen. In an especially lyrical passage, he says:
This colorful realm, quivering with desire for that which lies beyond—for layers of meaning, in the broadest sense—this realm is the right. On the other side of the political river is the realm of the left, an ashen realm, weighted down, full of downcast men and women who shuffle around murmuring vague slogans and form lines to receive their daily ration of materialism and reductionism—a kind of “soylent green” made from decomposed ideas.18
Here we see that Araújo’s opposition to the Left is, at heart, not based on his conviction that its economic policies are doomed to fail, or that its social prescriptions violate the dictates of his church and his conscience, but that its cold rationalism presents an impoverished view of human nature and works to fetter rather than to nourish its development. He is, in this sense, a Rousseauian kind of conservative.
Araújo also appears here as a man of the elite who seeks to defend the kooky Right, in terms that will be at least comprehensible to his fellow elites, if not entirely agreeable to them—a Brazilian Ross Douthat, if you will (the defense of UFO superstition happens to be a point of agreement between the two).19 Of course Araújo has a long polemical streak while Douthat is more anodyne, but the former is closer to the center than he initially seems.
One of Araújo’s intellectual low points was to propound the “Nazism was left-wing” canard, which was subsequently taken up in public by Bolsonaro, even during a state visit to Israel. The reaction in the Brazilian and international press was furious. As we judge Araújo for this, we might remember that echoes of such a claim are often heard on the American right.20
In the same essay in which Araújo reprises Jonah Goldberg’s “liberal fascism” routine, he also describes his vision for a “liberal-conservative alliance.” The best way to rescue Brazil from the stultifying, dehumanizing reign of the Left, he argues, is to seek an alliance between liberals and conservatives. This “liberal-conservative Right” is, Araújo says, extreme only in its opposition to the Left, which tars it with insults because it knows that only such an alliance can hope to defeat it.
“Liberal” in Brazilian parlance generally connotes the free-market Right, spanning what we would call classical liberalism as well as neoliberalism. On the other hand, conservatism, in this formulation, refers to social conservatives, for the most part religious—Catholic or, more recently, evangelical—some of whom may be skeptical of the free market. In effect, Araújo wants to be the Bill Buckley of Brazil, which to date has not had a “fusionist” right-wing movement that combines economic liberalism with social conservatism.
Araújo argues further that the Bolsonaro government represents exactly this alliance, and has the same goals—to defend individual liberties and the free market, along with the nation, faith, and family. And while there are liberal and conservative elements of the administration (Guedes’s economic team, in the former camp, and Araújo and Bolsonaro’s olavista sons, in the latter), there is also a significant and influential military wing which cannot be associated with either of these tendencies. It is also hard to shake the sense that this sort of talk, which is familiar to American ears—Araújo cites Reagan as an inspiration, though he hardly needs to say so—has little to do with the particular exigencies and realities of Brazil.
What are the prospects of this Brazilian fusionism? Araújo’s erstwhile fellow minister, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, offers an indication. Vélez, a Colombian-born historian of liberal and conservative thought in Brazil, was Carvalho’s other handpicked minister in the initial cabinet lineup of the government, but he only lasted a few months at the helm of the Ministry of Education before he was forced out. In a somewhat cruel irony Vélez, himself apparently a man of the center-right, managed both to alienate Carvalho’s archconservative faction (for having supported center-left politicians in the past) and to enrage economic liberals sitting in opposition in the legislature (by writing a letter instructing public school teachers to film students reciting a slogan used during Bolsonaro’s campaign, “Brazil above everything, God above everyone,” and then hastily retreating). Vélez may have had bad political instincts—acquiescing to demands from every quarter of the political landscape in succession, only to realize he had no choice but to acquiesce to his own ouster—but his downfall nevertheless serves to illustrate the limited prospects for the “liberal-conservative alliance” in the current government.
Vélez’s book on the history of liberal and conservative thought in Brazil gives another argument for why fusionism may not work there. Vélez argues that Brazilian thinkers during the period when Brazil was an independent monarchy (1822–89) were beginning to make progress in the unenviable task of accommodating the thought of John Locke to the “most peculiar structure of Portuguese monarchy,” transforming it gradually into constitutional monarchy by tinkering with representation, when quite suddenly all these efforts were obliterated by the advent of the republic.
The Brazilian Republic was inaugurated in 1889 by a small cadre of agitators, many of whom were animated by a crackpot offshoot of liberalism which happened to be trendy at the time: positivism, the brainchild of the French philosopher Auguste Comte. Comtean positivism, in suggesting that society advanced, or ought to advance, inexorably towards progress via more rational ordering, left open the means of achieving this end. Either one could attempt to educate all members of society—and hope the ordering of many minds would lead to a better ordering of society as a whole—or an enlightened minority could shortcut this by simply imposing a more rational order on society, by force if necessary. Proponents tended to gravitate towards the latter option. Hence the ominous quality of the maxim “Ordem e Progresso” emblazoned on the Brazilian flag.
Liberalism, still a sapling planted in inhospitable soil, had its roots pulled up by positivism and its doctrine of progress without liberty, and according to Vélez it never recovered.21 A recent article in the Economist made a similar argument, crediting the legacy of positivism for Brazil’s lineup of dictators (Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s and ’40s, the military men from 1964 until 1985), accusing Brazilians of putting a desire for order over a desire for freedom, and ending up with neither.22 Like the writers of the Economist, Vélez appears to be a believer in classical liberalism himself. Also like the writers of the Economist, the death of this form of liberalism in Brazil, contemporaneous with the birth of Brazilian positivism, is tantamount in his mind to the death of any real promise of success for the country unless this earlier, purer form of liberalism, with its focus on process, representation, and institutions rather than coercion, order, and progress, can be resuscitated.
This view is, of course, itself rather foreign to the Brazilian condition—based as it is on an Anglo-American vision of “pure” liberalism—but it at least serves as a caution to dreams of a “liberal-conservative alliance” winning an easy victory in Brazil. For such a strain of thought as Araújo’s to find purchase in Brazil, Vélez seems to say, it will have to contend not just with fifteen years of PT rule, but with some 130 years of ingrained unconcern for the kind of institution-building necessary to entrench it.
Araújo himself seems more concerned with writing elegant polemics in favor of his brand of fusionism than with creating the institutions necessary to realize it. He is good at writing polemics, as we have seen, but if Araújo looked closer at the history of the American Right which he wishes to emulate, he would see that its rise to prominence during the second half of the twentieth century depended much more on institution-building than on the writing of trenchant articles. In all likelihood, he sees this to be the case but simply has no patience for the task; after all, it is hard, and writing is more fun.
His critics should hope he does not set his mind to founding a magazine—a Brazilian version of National Review or First Things—after he leaves his ministerial post, at which point one can hardly imagine him reentering the diplomatic corps (although in the Itamaraty, as in all such institutions where the Enlightenment has not yet fully penetrated, a sinecure can always be found if there are favors to be gotten in finding one). Still, any even-tempered observer would much rather have Araújo at the helm of such an enterprise than Carvalho, which may be the alternative.
Araújo at the Helm
It has not escaped notice that Araújo seems to be using his portfolio more as a bully pulpit than as an opportunity to advance Brazilian interests on the world stage—though he certainly talks a lot about the need to do the latter.23 In his inaugural address, he castigated pro‑choice politicians and proclaimed his admiration for right-wing nationalist regimes in Israel, Italy, Hungary, and Poland. He penned an eyebrow-raising article for Bloomberg in which he blamed Ludwig Wittgenstein for Brazil’s debility on the world stage. He engaged in a rousing back-and-forth with Brazilian éminence grise and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (and his associates) over whether the latter’s treatment of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez during the early years of his reign was too lenient, and whether or not more could have been done to prevent the collapse of Venezuelan democracy.24
But what are his foreign policy accomplishments? During Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington, Araújo was sidelined in favor of the president’s son Eduardo, who has ambitions to direct foreign policy himself, and who sat in on the meeting between Bolsonaro and Trump instead of Araújo. The American decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuelan interim president flattered Araújo’s desire for a more aggressive policy on Venezuela, in contrast to the approach favored by the noninterventionist generals in the administration, but he hardly played a role in the decision, and it seems unlikely he will even try to convince the generals to consider military intervention.
Trade liberalization with the United States, some of which would not require the troublesome task of obtaining congressional approval in Brazil, appears to be on hold until the U.S.-China trade spat is resolved and, like everything else in Brasília, until the all-important pension reform is passed. Another factor complicating Araújo’s condemnation of China and entreaties to the United States is the reality that China, not the United States, is Brazil’s biggest trading partner. Selective trade liberalization—say, knocking down nontariff barriers with the United States but not with China—might contribute towards reversing this balance, but nothing of this nature seems to be in the immediate offing.
A surprise breakthrough on the trade front, however, came recently in a form that would seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with Araújo’s 2008 book on Mercosur. A draft agreement on trade between Mercosur and the European Union was signed at the end of June. While major obstacles blocking its enactment remain, the agreement represents a potential diplomatic and economic coup for the administration and for Araújo. It may seem ironic that it is Araújo doing the deal, as he has repeatedly trashed the European Union, calling its supranational tendencies despotic, and aligned himself rhetorically with the United States instead. (In addition, the negotiations have been ongoing for some twenty years, so he can hardly claim full credit.) But the deal is coherent in a certain sense with the position he laid out in his book on Mercosur, and which he has not retracted despite his right-wing turn. He argued that trade negotiations should be approached politically, through the logic of alliance-making to benefit one’s own interest; that trade liberalization should be accepted only on one’s own terms and only when the results can be expected to strengthen the nation politically as well as economically; and that multinational bodies like Mercosur and the EU can be convenient to this end. It remains to be seen whether issues between the signatories, like French wariness of deforestation in the Amazon, will keep Araújo from claiming this deal as a feather in his cap.
Brazil, the Right, and Sebastianismo
It is hard to gauge what the real impact of these figures is on Brazilian political life. That Olavo de Carvalho in particular, despite or perhaps because he is so loathsome to the nation’s intellectual elite, is Brazil’s most successful public intellectual in a generation—as one Brazilian observer has argued—is hard to deny.25 Lula had his pet intellectuals, too, André Singer being perhaps the most distinguished and nuanced, but the direct and conspicuous power Carvalho has exerted on the administration, from picking and choosing ministers to using his social media presence to sow discord between the military men and his allies in the government, is surely unprecedented.
This influence may, because of its sheer noisiness, be easy to overestimate. Araújo’s influence on the Itamaraty may prove equally superficial. Tolentino’s influence notwithstanding, passionate orations and eloquent polemics are generally shorter lived than the more arduous and tacit work of embedding allies into bureaucratic structures—a task at which the Workers’ Party far excelled its right-wing successors. Carvalho is fond of denouncing the Left’s Gramscian habit of colonizing institutions, but this tactic is by no means confined to the Left, and if he had more patience he would devote himself and his cadres to it, too.
Unless either Carvalho or Araújo, or someone else in the movement, develops the patience to strategize more realistically and with an eye to the future, this moment of right-wing intellectual presence in the Brazilian government will be just that, a moment soon supplanted by something else—a fact that should comfort its critics. What will supplant it is hard to say. A disorganized Left and scattered liberal (we might say libertarian) forces that have not aligned with the government—like Kim Kataguiri’s Free Brazil Movement, or the New Party (Partido Novo)—seem unlikely candidates, ideologically speaking. Young congresswoman Tabata Amaral, who combines left-wing social advocacy with fiscal discipline, is adored by onlookers but has few allies in the legislature. The return of Lula, without whom the Workers’ Party has a dim future, remains very unlikely, though not impossible. Meanwhile, the traditional patronage parties, always the default option in Brazilian politics, grow back like weeds after a chemical treatment.
Perhaps the dominant ideology in Brazil is not positivism, leftism, or conservatism but sebastianismo. The term refers to a sixteenth-century king of Portugal, Sebastian, who died in battle leading an army into what is now Morocco. This failed invasion inaugurated a chain of events which led to sixty years of Spanish control of Portugal. Thereafter, a popular myth arose holding that Sebastian had not died in Morocco but was preparing to return to Portugal and free the country from Spanish tyranny. The myth persisted long after what would have been Sebastian’s natural lifespan, giving shape to a forlorn but inextinguishable popular hope.
The legend of King Sebastian lives on in Brazil. Some of Bolsonaro’s critics have pointed out that the rhetoric of Bolsonaro supporters—who often claim Bolsonaro alone can resolve the crisis of corruption and crime wracking the country—shares a logic with the ancient hope that King Sebastian would return. But Araújo himself drew the parallel explicitly in his inaugural address (not surprisingly, considering his reverence for popular superstition).26
This brings us to the fact that Araújo, who alone among the main figures in the new Brazilian Right has actually articulated a vision for the future of Brazil, is at heart a sebastianista. His solutions for the ills of the world are based on his hopes for the coming of a savior. Whether that savior is Donald Trump’s “Hail Mary pass” saving the West, or Bolsonaro and the “liberal-conservative alliance” saving Brazil from the Left, the logic always requires willing an outside force to act upon the nation: that is to say, it sets out no plan for human action, and as such seems politically stillborn.
The other two figures, it is worth noting, are not sebastianistas: both Tolentino and Carvalho seem more pessimistic about Brazil’s future and believe more strongly in the Brazil of yesterday. Carvalho is oddly wary of proclaiming direct allegiance to Bolsonaro and seems to see him more as the best that could have been expected given the circumstances.
More broadly, there are at least three problems with political sebastianismo in Brazil, however lofty and genuine its underlying sentiment may be. First, the people do not agree on who the Sebastian figure is or ought to be—some still think it to be Lula, others Bolsonaro. Second, the subject of such hope, if he is a man and not a legend like Sebastian, can easily show himself to be undeserving of the status of savior. The corruption charges against Lula eroded much of his popularity, and the two pillars on which Bolsonaro’s claim to incorruptibility rest—the military and the judiciary—have recently suffered blows to their image, with revelations of drug-smuggling among military officers and reports of improper collaboration between prosecutors and judges in the corruption investigation.
What would seem to be the inevitable conclusion from these events, that there are no political saviors, is the third problem, and perhaps the central question around which the high drama of Brazilian politics has turned over the past six years at least: sebastianismo is incompatible with a republican form of government. No one will come to save the Brazilian people. They must govern themselves.
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 3 (Fall 2019): 97–122.
2 Simone Preissler Iglesias and Samy Adghirni, “The Man Holding Brazil Together Is Not Jair Bolsonaro,” Bloomberg News, July 17, 2019.
3 Olavo de Carvalho, “Olavo – Introduction,” The United States and the New World Order (blog), March 7, 2011.
4 Olavo de Carvalho, Twitter, May 8, 2019. All translations mine unless noted.
5 “Bolsonaro Diz Que Escuta Qualquer Ministro, ‘Até a Damares,’” VEJA.com, March 22, 2019.
6 Alexei Bueno, Uma história da poesia brasileira (Rio de Janeiro: G. Ermakoff, 2007), 231.
7 Bruno Tolentino, O escritor por ele mesmo, CD (São Paulo, 2001).
8 Chris Miller, “The True Stuff,” PN Review 40, no. 3 (January–February 2014).
9 Simon Pringle, Das Booty (FeedARead.com, 2013).
10 Érico Nogueira, “Introdução,” in Bruno Tolentino, A balada do cárcere (Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2016), 11–14.
11 Bruno Tolentino, “Crane anda para trás feito caranjuego,” O Estado de São Paulo, September 4, 1994.
12 Bruno Tolentino, Os sapos de ontem (Rio de Janeiro: Diadorim, 1995).
13 Bruno Tolentino, “Só entro numa universidade disfarçado de cachorro,” Veja, March 20, 1996.
14 Bruno Tolentino, “Banquete de ossos,” Bravo!, May 1998.
15 Olavo de Carvalho, O Imbecil Coletivo (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Faculdade da Cidade Editora, 1997), 274-284.
16 Reinaldo Azevedo, “Bruno Tolentino 3—Na VEJA, há 11 anos: ‘Só entro numa universidade disfarçado de cachorro,’” Veja, March 20, 1996.
17 Ernesto Araújo, “Trump e o Ocidente,” Cadernos de Política Exterior 3, no. 6 (Fall/Winter 2017): 345–46.
18 Ernesto Araújo, “Objetos Voadores Não Ideológicos,” Metapolítica 17 (blog).
19 Ross Douthat, “Flying Saucers and Other Fairy Tales,” New York Times, December 23, 2017.
20 Cf. Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change (New York: Crown Forum, 2009).
21 Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, Liberalismo y conservatismo en América Latina: la influencia del liberalismo anglosajón en el pensamiento político luso-brasileño de los siglos XVIII y XIX, 1. ed, Colección Universidad y Pueblo 30 (s.l.: Ediciones Universidades Simón Bolívar, Libre de Pereira y de Medellín, 1978), 13–15.
22 “Jair Bolsonaro and the Perversion of Liberalism,” Economist, October 27, 2018.
23 Tom Phillips, “Brazilian Diplomats ‘Disgusted’ as Bolsonaro Pulverizes Foreign Policy,” Guardian, June 25, 2019.
24 Ernesto Araújo, “Contra o consenso da inação,” Metapolítica 17 (blog), March 3, 2019.
25 Pedro Sette-Câmara, “Olavo de Carvalho redefiniu noção de intelectual público, afirma ex-aluno,” Folha de S.Paulo, December 16, 2018.
26 Paulo Roberto Silva, “Lula, Bolsonaro e o sebastianismo à brasileira,” Amálgama (blog), April 2, 2017.