“Most Extremist Leader in the Democratic World”

Far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has been elected Brazil’s next president, marking the most radical political shift in the country since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. Bolsonaro, a former Army officer, openly supports torture and dictatorships, has a history of making racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments, and has threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents. He defeated Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party with 55 percent of the vote. His ascendance to power is leading many to fear the future of democracy in Brazil is in danger. We speak with Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one of the founding editors of The Intercept, in Rio de Janeiro. He says that Bolsonaro is “by far the most extremist leader now elected anywhere in the democratic world.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Brazil, where a far-right former Army officer who openly supports dictatorships and torture has been overwhelmingly elected president. Jair Bolsonaro’s election marks the most radical political shift in Brazil since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. He won 55 percent of the vote, easily defeating Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party.

Bolsonaro campaigned on a promise to end corruption and crack down on crime, but many fear the future of democracy in Brazil is in danger. For decades, Bolsonaro has openly praised the country’s former military dictatorship, once saying the dictatorship should have killed 30,000 more people. He also has a history of making racist, misogynistic, homophobic comments, has spoken in favor of torture, has threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents. He has also encouraged the police to kill suspected drug dealers, once told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape. He also said he would rather hear that his son had died in a car accident than learn that his son is gay. On Sunday night, Jair Bolsonaro claimed he would help liberate Brazil.

PRESIDENTELECT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] You are my witness that I will be an advocate for defending the constitution, for democracy, for freedom. This is my promise. It’s not one of a political party. It’s not the word of a man. It’s an oath to God. … We will liberate Brazil and the Foreign Ministry from the ideology of its international relations that it’s subjected Brazil to in recent years. Brazil will no longer be different from the countries of the developed world. We will seek bilateral relations that add to the economic and technological value of Brazilian products. We will restore international respect for our dear Brazil.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of protesters poured into the streets of São Paulo and other cities in Brazil to protest Bolsonaro’s election.

PROTESTER: [translated] I am in mourning, not for me, but for Brazil, which doesn’t deserve this. It doesn’t deserve this ignorance. The Brazilian people are ignorant. Brazil owes a lot to Lula.

AMY GOODMAN: Jair Bolsonaro directly benefited from the jailing of the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had been leading all presidential polls earlier this year. He has been in jail since April on what many consider trumped-up corruption charges to prevent him from running for president. Bolsonaro will be sworn in January 1st, 2019.

Just moments ago, President Trump tweeted, “Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who won his race by a substantial margin. We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congrats!”

To discuss the implications of Bolsonaro’s victory, we go to Rio de Janeiro to speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the founding editors of The Intercept.

Glenn, welcome back. Your response to Bolsonaro’s victory?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think it’s really important to put it into its proper context. For a long time, the Western media was referring to him as “Brazil’s Trump.” That’s how he was marketing himself. The reality is much different. He’s by far the most extremist leader now elected anywhere in the democratic world. He’s far closer, as we’ve discussed before, to Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, or even General Sisi, the dictator of Egypt. A journalist, Vincent Bevins, based for a long time in Brazil and now in Indonesia, has made the argument that he’s far more extreme than Duterte.

I think that the key thing to understand about Bolsonaro is that he really comes not from this modern “alt-right” movement of the type of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, but the Cold War far right that carried out enormous atrocities in the name of fighting domestic communism, which is what Bolsonaro believes his primary project to be. He recently vowed to cleanse the country of left-wing opposition, which he sees as a communist front.

And so, the threat and the ideology is far more extreme than anything in the democratic world. But the dynamics as far as why he won are quite similar, in that it was driven not by a sudden far-right ideology conversion on the part of this population in Brazil, but anger and desperation and hopelessness about the failures of the establishment class.

AMY GOODMAN: During an interview with a Brazilian television program back, oh, like almost 20 years ago, Jair Bolsonaro said, “Through the vote you will not change anything in this country, nothing, absolutely nothing! It will only change, unfortunately, when, one day, we start a civil war here and do the work that the military regime did not do. Killing some 30,000, starting with FHC [then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso], not kicking them out, killing! If some innocent people are going to die, fine, in any war innocents die.” Talk about his stances, Glenn Greenwald, on many issues, from LGBTQ issues to women’s rights, etc.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, that’s why I say he’s a real throwback to the kind of far-right movements of, say, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s than he is this more updated, modernized version. So, if you look at far-right leaders throughout the West, you don’t really see much of a focus on, say, abortion and LGBT issues. If anything, sometimes the far right in Europe coopts those issues as a way of inciting xenophobia against Muslims, saying Muslims are regressive and want to drag the country back thousands of years in terms of social issues. Whereas Bolsonaro is kind of this much more old-school fascist, where a major part of his campaign was depicting LGBTs as a direct threat to children, saying that the reason LGBTs want to infiltrate public schools is because they want to convert people’s children into being gay so that they can have sex with them—an obviously highly inflammatory claim to make about a marginalized population in a society that’s already pretty conservative on social issues.

But the much graver threat is the fact that he explicitly reveres and wants to replicate the worst elements of the military dictatorship. When he stood up, very recently, in 2016 on the floor of the Congress and voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff, he specifically said he was doing it in honor of the notorious colonel who tortured not only dissidents in general, but Dilma specifically. So this is the kind of regime he wants to reinstate. Whether he’ll be able to do that is a looming question, but that’s definitely his intention.

AMY GOODMAN: Foreign Policy has a headline, “Jair Bolsonaro’s Model Isn’t Berlusconi. It’s Goebbels.” Glenn?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I think the Western media is only now starting to come to grips with, is that he really isn’t even placeable on the standard ideological spectrum that has come to define even this new right movement that has obviously succeeded in the U.S. and the U.K., with Brexit, and is flourishing in many places in Western and Eastern Europe. He’s far more extreme than that.

Whether Nazi comparisons and the like are healthy or productive is something I’d prefer to leave to the side, because that tends, just generally, to obfuscate. I prefer to use Nazi analogies for people who have actually committed genocide. But I think that the threat that he poses to just basic human rights, the right of dissent and the ability to have an ongoing viable democracy can’t be overstated.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump applauding him, the significance and the importance of the U.S.-Brazilian relationship, Glenn?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, I think that we all know now how President Trump sees the world, which is in this very simplistic framework where people who say good things about him are people that he likes and people who say bad things about him are people that he hates. And Jair Bolsonaro is somebody who has consciously modeled himself on Donald Trump. His children, when they came to New York, met with Steve Bannon. Trump—Bolsonaro himself has saluted the American flag and talked about how much he loves the United States under Trump. I’m sure he was very effusive in his praise of Trump when he spoke to him, and therefore Trump’s current posture, in his childlike manner, is to view Jair Bolsonaro as somebody that is an ally and a friend and somebody worthy of praise for that reason alone.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at Brazil, where a far-right former Army officer who openly supports dictatorships and torture has been overwhelmingly elected president. Jair Bolsonaro’s election marks the most radical political shift in Brazil since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. He won 55 percent of the vote, easily defeating Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party.

Still with us in Rio de Janeiro for Part 2 of our discussion is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the founding editors of The Intercept.

Glenn, we spoke to you before this election. Now President Trump has just tweeted, congratulating Jair Bolsonaro. But, Glenn, while people protested in the streets as his victory was announced, 55 percent of Brazilians—and you can explain who votes and who doesn’t—voted for this far-right former Army official.

GLENN GREENWALD: Exactly, and I think that’s a critical point. It is true that Bolsonaro won wealthier neighborhoods, predominantly white regions of the country. So the upper class was absolutely, at least in the second round, supportive of Bolsonaro. He wasn’t the primary choice of the establishment in the first round, but in the second round they were behind him. But Brazil is a country with massive inequality, and a tiny percentage of its population is rich. So the only way you win 55 percent of the vote in a country where voting is mandatory is if you also win a huge number of people who are anything but rich and anything but white and anything but ensconced in safe enclaves. So, I think that it’s very important to avoid the storyline that fascism won because rich white people got behind it. They did get behind it, but a huge number of other people got behind it, or else he wouldn’t have won.

And the reason they got behind it is not necessarily because they support fascism. A lot of them have spent the last 16 years voting for the center-left Workers’ Party. It’s because they feel like the ruling class of Brazil, which includes not only the oligarchical class but also the center-left establishment of PT that has governed the country for 14 years, has turned their back on them and failed them. And when that happens, when enough people in the country perceive that the ruling and establishment class do not care about their futures and don’t care about their welfare, they’re going to run into the arms of demagogues, who, rightly or wrongly, accurately or inaccurately, are portraying themselves as outsiders to that system and are threatening to burn it down. And that’s the lesson of Brazil, but also of the U.S. and European democracies, as well, that we are very reluctant to embrace.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what the jailing of Lula, the previous president—well, before Dilma Rousseff, who also was impeached, his successor—what this meant, since he was the front-running presidential candidate but then was jailed?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, Lula is obviously a singular political force. There’s almost nobody like him, even in the entire democratic world, when it comes to charisma and the ability to connect with people on a visceral level. There’s certainly no leftist leader anywhere in the world like him. And so, the project of Brazilian elites for the last three or four years has been to destroy PT and finally remove them from power, because they thought they were going to get this center-right, banker-friendly party and candidate in their place. It all backfired terribly.

But that plan could only work if Lula was banned from running. The only way you could ban Lula from running is if you quickly imprisoned him on [corruption] charges and then upheld that conviction in a very fast and dubious way, which is what happened. So, Lula’s imprisonment was done under very questionable circumstances, to put that mildly. It was obviously carried out with the intention to bar him from running.

And it is true that public opinion polls showed him as the front-runner. I think we should be cautious, though, about assuming that had Lula been able to run, he would have won. It’s certainly possible. But even those early polls showed him at 35, 38 percent. A lot of these polls showed early on that Bolsonaro was very, very low in the polls, at 20 percent, not really able to get over that. I think it’s very possible that the climate of the country was such that they were going to reject anyone associated enough with the old political system, even Lula. But certainly, just because of his personal charisma and connection to the populace and the popularity that he had because of his success, he was by far the candidate most likely to win from the left, which is why, for sure, they ended up imprisoning and barring his candidacy.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to comments Bolsonaro made earlier this month, speaking to a crowd of supporters through his cellphone, when he pledged a cleansing never seen before.

JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] We are the majority. We will build a new nation. They lost in 2016, and they will lose again next week. Only the cleansing will now be much wider: Either they leave or go to jail. These red outcasts will be banished from our homeland. And, Lula da Silva, you’re going to rot in jail. Wait for Haddad to get there, too. Since you love each other so much, you’re going to rot in jail. … It will be a cleansing never seen before in Brazilian history. You will see proud armed forces, a civilian and a military police with legal backing to enforce the law against you. Criminals from the Landless Workers’ Movement, criminals of the Homeless Workers’ Movement, your actions will be typified as terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Jair Bolsonaro right before this election. Talk about the significance of what he is—what he means by this “cleansing” and the military and the police going after—and for those who aren’t familiar around the world—the landless movement, the Workers’ Party, etc., Glenn.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. So, I hope nobody needs me to explain how terrifying that language is. I mean, I wasn’t personally surprised by it, but a lot of people who had declared their neutrality—I’m talking about prominent, influential people in Brazil who have long been in the center or even the center-right and hate PT—were so alarmed by that unhinged rhetoric that they actually declared their support for PT, saying, “I never thought that I would do this ever in my life, but I’m voting for PT, because although PT has robbed me for the last 15 years, they’ve never threatened me this way.”

So, as I said in the first part of the show, what’s not being fully appreciated about Bolsonaro is that he’s not part of this newer “alt-right” movement, but instead comes from the military regime that ruled the country for 21 years during the Cold War and carried out, like all of these far-right anti-communist regimes did, atrocities that they thought were justified in the name of fighting communism. And there’s a really moving and remarkable op-ed in this morning’s New York Times that I would encourage all of your viewers to read, by a Brazilian writer named Marcelo [Paiva], whose father, during the dictatorship, was an elected member of Congress, a socialist—not a communist, but a socialist. And when the military junta took over Brazil, with the help of the U.S. and the U.K., they simply canceled his mandate in Congress. They removed him from Congress. And then, one day, a couple years later, they came to his house, arrested him, his wife and his 15-year-old daughter, in front of their three small children, took them to where people were tortured, and they never saw their father again. He was tortured to death over the next 48 hours.

Those are the kinds of atrocities that were committed by the very people that Bolsonaro—who are still alive today, and that Bolsonaro intends to empower and who he explicitly wants to replicate. So, again, it’s hard to put into words the kind of threats that are posed to basic human rights and the right of dissent and democratic values, as he made very clear in that speech that you just played.

AMY GOODMAN: Brazil’s dictatorship ended in 1985. Do you think Brazil’s Congress, the Legislature, the Supreme Court are strong enough to keep him in check, or even to survive?

GLENN GREENWALD: I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that. First of all, the Congress, it’s important to point out, has been flooded with the far-right movement of which Bolsonaro was a part. People that no one had ever heard of two months ago were swept into office by virtue of nothing other than affiliating themselves with Bolsonaro. So he has huge support in the Congress for whatever it is he wants to do.

The question of the court, his son got caught on tape just three months ago—it was just released and found in the last week—when he was asked what he would do if the Supreme Court tried to impede his father’s ascension to power or his agenda, basically said, “Well, we could just send a tank and an army to outside of the Supreme Court, and I don’t think anyone’s going to go into the street in support of the Supreme Court.”

So, the only faction that can really impose limits on Bolsonaro is the military. And that is the big looming question, is, on the one hand, you have a military that obviously ran the country under the dictatorship and is still connected to the people who did it; on the other hand, they now have had three decades of being inculcated with the idea that their principal patriotic duty is to defend democracy and the constitution from anyone who might threaten it. And so, they’re now definitely consolidated behind Bolsonaro. For a long time, they hated Bolsonaro, because they thought that he made the military look bad, when they were trying to rehabilitate their reputation. They’re now united behind him. But that is the big mystery, is: To what extent will the military kind of be a backstop, protecting democracy and the constitution against Bolsonaro, the way, say, the Turkish Army used to do, before Erdogan, when it came to protecting Turkish democracy? That’s the question no one knows the answer to.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Glenn, what role did both social media play, and also the stabbing of Bolsonaro, what effect did that have?

GLENN GREENWALD: Social media played an enormous role. And in this country, in Brazil, for a long time, the corporate media was even more dominant than it was, say, in the U.S. in the 1980s and the 1990s, before the proliferation of cable news and the internet. All of the information was centralized in the hands of a tiny number of television outlets, owned by the same four or five rich families that had the same political ideology. It was impossible to win the election without their support.

They didn’t support Bolsonaro, at least from the beginning. He really was a candidate of the internet. He was created and driven—his movement was—by young people who were very internet savvy. They circumvented the establishment media institutions. They used WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned free telephone communications service, to spread all kinds of mass information, much of which were just outright lies about PT and about Bolsonaro. So, their ability to exploit these new means of communication, to disseminate their messaging, but also lies, was a huge part of why he won.

And the stabbing of Bolsonaro, which really came very close to killing him—had he arrived at the hospital two minutes earlier, he would have been dead—created a huge amount of sympathy for him. It humanized him as a victim. And it also made it impossible to attack him for almost a full month, because it’s very hard to attack somebody who is in a hospital bed with tubes connected to them. And so it created a vacuum where he was kind of just seen as this humanized victim who you felt sorry for and who also seemed to be a victim of the violent crime that he had spent his whole campaign denouncing. It gave him the excuse to avoid all political debates. And so he was never really forced to defend the types of things that he has been advocating or the things that he said. And obviously, we’ll never know what would have happened, had he not been stabbed, but there’s no question that ended up being a huge help to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see his victory as part of what’s happening in Latin America—you have the right-wing electoral victories in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru—and then, you know, globally, as well, including places like Hungary with Orbán?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. I mean, look, politics is really no longer domestic. Politics is regional, and politics is global. It’s in part because we live in a globalized world, and it’s in part because the internet is so pervasive in places where, until very recently, it didn’t exist. And so, ideologies that thrive in the most powerful and richest countries in the world—in the U.S., in Canada and in Western Europe—now infiltrate much more easily into places that had previously been immune to them. So, I absolutely see what’s happening in Brazil, in one sense, as being the byproduct of unique Brazilian dynamics, the convergence of these multiple scandals, in a way that really doesn’t exist elsewhere. But I see it more so as part of a regional and global trend that has a lot of the dynamics that we already discussed.

But I want to add to that the fact that I do think that the left needs to ask itself why it is increasingly failing to be able to communicate to and provide answers for the fears and the anxieties and the resentments that huge portions of the population, who are not really ideologically entrenched on the right, are harboring. And I think that is a major question that the Brazilian left needs to ask itself, but also the Western left, which is: Why is it that the people who live in the interior, who are economically repressed, who feel unrepresented by the power structure—why are they turning away from the left, which sees itself as representing those kind of people, who are marginalized and economically repressed, and turning instead to this kind of nationalistic, populist right? The instinct is just to call those people names, to accuse them of xenophobia and racism and misogyny. A lot of that may be true in a lot of cases. But there’s a lot more to it than that. And I think that that kind of soul searching needs to be done on the left, if any of these dynamics, that are obviously disturbing, are to be stemmed and then reversed.

AMY GOODMAN: I mentioned all these countries. And, of course, here in the United States—and elections are coming up in just a week, and we’ll see what effect these attacks of the last—just of the last week, of just hours, will have, from the killing of African Americans in Louisville to the bomb threats sent to Trump opponents all over the country, a kind of Trump hit list, attack list, and of course the Pittsburgh massacre.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. And, you know, I think that one of the things that’s likely to happen, unfortunately, in the U.S.—I mean, fortunately and unfortunately—is that, in general, parties that are out of power do very well in the midterm elections. And there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base because of the anti-Trump sentiment that has been building up over the course of more than two years. So I think Democrats are likely to do very well in the midterms, probably will take over the House.

And while that’s very good in one way, because that will serve as a much-needed limit and check on what Trump’s able to do, on the other hand, I think that’s going to end up masking the fundamental problems of the Democratic Party—who it’s funded by, whose interests it serves, its messaging. It never really engaged in much of a self-critique after 2016, even though it collapsed as a national political force. And I think that its likely victory in 2018, at least in the House, is probably going to give it the excuse needed to justify continuing to push off this kind of reckoning that’s needed if the Democrats are going to start to recapture so many of their old voters who have turned away from them.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, we’re speaking to you in this aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre, what the ADL has described as the worst anti-Semitic attack in the United States in U.S. history. If you could comment, as you look north—but this is your country, the United States—what happened this weekend, and share your thoughts?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, if you look at the social media history of the murderer who entered the synagogue in Pittsburgh, you see something much different than the social media history of the individual accused of sending pipe bombs to various Democratic politicians and media newsrooms. That person, the pipe bomber, seems to clearly have been directly inspired by and formed by Trump and the Trump movement, whereas the killer who slaughtered Jews in the Pittsburgh synagogue is much more of this kind of traditional, neo-Nazi, hardcore KKK white supremacist who sees Donald Trump not as an ally, but as a tool of the Jews and of Zionism. I think he’s much more kind of out on the fringes of American political life. So I think the attempt to try and blame Trump’s or Trump’s rhetoric for this attack is a much harder case to make than for the pipe bomber, who clearly was motivated by Trump’s enemy list.

Nonetheless, once you start creating this atmosphere in a country where scapegoating becomes the norm and where you start encouraging people to look at marginalized and vulnerable minorities as the source of their woes, history teaches that violence against those groups are the inevitable outcome. And so, while I think it would be a mistake, I would be personally cautious, to draw too many lessons about the synagogue shooter—he seems to me to be a very familiar kind of outlier in American history—I nonetheless do think that the climate, not just in the U.S., but throughout the West and democracies generally, has become one where these kinds of—this kind of rage against marginalized groups is becoming increasingly pervasive.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you can’t say Bowers “tweeted” out a message, you know, attacking Jews and refugees right before he went in and killed Jewish worshipers, because he used Gab. If you could explain what Gab is?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, as we, I think, mostly, most of us know, for a long time Silicon Valley has not wanted to regulate or censor political content. It wanted to view itself as kind of like the AT&T of the internet. Obviously, AT&T doesn’t censor people. If you want to use—if you’re a white supremacist and you want to use the telephone, it lets you. But Silicon Valley has begun, because the public has been demanding it, censoring political content, putting extremists, that they perceive to be extremists, barred from using Facebook and Twitter. And so, as was predictable, other social media companies, making a promise to people not to censor them, began to emerge.

And Gab was designed to essentially allow the far right, censored from Twitter, to migrate there and use social media there. And that’s where this killer, among others, like Milo Yiannopoulos and other neo-Nazis who were banned from Facebook and Twitter, have migrated to, and it’s kind of become a hub of that. And in the wake of this Pittsburgh shooting, they’ve now been censored, in a sense, by private financial firms, that won’t process their payments, and private internet companies, that won’t host their site any longer. It’s an attempt to suppress these views, which never really works, rather than trying to address them or contain them or defeat them.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump’s response to what took place, and the progressive Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh saying, “Do not—you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you renounce white nationalism”?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I mean, President Trump posted a tweet this morning that I thought was so far over the line of—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

GLENN GREENWALD: —what is responsible. I’ve been somebody who’s been—yeah, so, I mean, the thing about CNN being the enemy of the people in the wake of this pipe bombing, like I said, I’m more cautious about blaming Trump for what happened in Pittsburgh [inaudible]—

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