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Brazil in the age of Bolsonaro
Author: Richard Lapper

Backed by Brazil’s wealthy agribusiness groups, a growing evangelical movement, and an emboldened military and police force, Jair Bolsonaro took office as Brazil’s president in 2019. Driven by the former army captain’s brand of controversial, aggressive rhetoric, the divisive presidential campaign saw fake news and misinformation shared with Bolsonaro’s tens of millions of social media followers. Bolsonaro promised simple solutions to Brazil’s rising violent crime, falling living standards and widespread corruption, but what has emerged is Latin America's most right-wing president since the military dictatorships of the 1970s. Famous for his racist, homophobic and sexist beliefs and his disregard for human rights, the so-called ‘Trump of the Tropics’ has established a reputation based on his polemical, sensationalist statements. Written by a journalist with decades of experience in the field, Beef, Bible and bullets is a compelling account of the origins of Brazil's unique brand of right-wing populism. Lapper offers the first major assessment of the Bolsonaro government and the growing tensions between extremist and moderate conservatives.

Richard Lapper

Chapter 4 charts the economic difficulties that coincided with Dilma Rousseff succeeding Lula as president in 2011. As the world economy began to slow down, Brazil failed to capitalise on the promise of the first decade of the 2000s. Deteriorating economic performance led to a big increase in unemployment and put consumer spending under strain. Having borrowed heavily to finance their spending, many families became over-indebted. In many ways, the successes of the previous decade generated a crisis of expectations.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Abstract only
Richard Lapper

The introduction discusses the book’s main themes, introducing Bolsonaro as a populist leader and his movement’s similarities with other populist successes around the world. The political earthquake of the 2018 presidential election is described and the Brazilian municipality of Uberlândia is used as a case study to demonstrate the upheaval at a local scale. The author’s background is explained and the context of Latin American politics discussed. The powerful lobbies that backed Bolsonaro’s presidency and the combination of social forces that allowed his rise are introduced. Three factors are identified as underlying the support for his brand of populism: economic recession, corruption scandals that undermined the credibility of Brazil’s recent politics, and an increase in violent crime. The three lobbies that form the book’s title are presented as uniting those who were unhappy with the country’s move towards a socially liberal left. The introduction ends with a description of the structure of the book, chapter by chapter.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Abstract only
Richard Lapper

Chapter 3 looks at the impressive economic achievements of Brazil under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, particularly in the midst of the 2008–09 global financial crisis that Brazil weathered well. The decade to 2010 saw Lula surprise many with an openness to capital, and an export boom particularly to China meant economic stability as the reward. New approaches to social policy, a wave of job creation and the expansion of credit lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty, creating a new consumer class.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Richard Lapper

Chapter 2 describes the way in which the extraordinary growth of social media and the increasing competitive pressures faced by traditional newspapers, radio and TV helped Bolsonaro overcome the disadvantages that Brazil’s political establishment believed would keep him from office. Several factors helped propel his successful social media campaign. Bolsonaro’s second son, Carlos, designed an effective strategy. The popularity on the internet of Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian philosopher notable for his unconventional extreme right-wing views, was significant, while the knife attack that left Bolsonaro hospitalised for much of the electoral campaign also turned out to be to the candidate’s advantage. Above all, it was Bolsonaro’s anti-political style which proved attractive to more conservative Brazilians. Like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, Bolsonaro benefited by openly opposing political correctness.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Abstract only
Richard Lapper

Chapter 1 looks at the rise of Bolsonaro and explores the relationship between his military and political careers. While Brazil’s democratic politicians kept their distance from the military dictatorship that had run Brazil between 1964 and 1985, Bolsonaro had served as an army captain in the 1970s and 1980s and extolled the virtues of military life. The army, particularly his relationships with lower ranks, had shaped Bolsonaro’s personality, and as a politician he lobbied in favour of military interests. But whereas politicians and the media tended to dismiss Bolsonaro as an eccentric irrelevance, his pro-military views were not so unpopular among ordinary Brazilians who were overall less opposed to the armed forces than their elected representatives.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Richard Lapper

Chapter 5 explores the demonstrations of June 2013 and their aftermath. In the run-up to the Confederations Cup of 2013 – the football competition that serves as a dry run for the World Cup – frustrations combined with growing disquiet about levels of public spending, culminating in an explosion of discontent. The government misjudged the national mood and its popularity fell precipitously. With the Workers’ Party government on the ropes, the sensational Lava Jato corruption investigations delivered a knockout blow. Lava Jato represented a political earthquake in Brazil. It exposed the entire political and economic establishment to unprecedented scrutiny, although the Workers’ Party was worst hit, ironically. since the probe had been facilitated by reforms introduced by Rousseff herself.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Richard Lapper

Chapter 6 continues to chart the fall of the ruling Workers’ Party, with the Lava Jato corruption scandal meaning that many Brazilians now saw Rousseff at the centre of a corrupt administration. The president was impeached and Michel Temer installed as her replacement. Former president Lula was convicted and imprisoned in 2018 for his apparent role in the corruption. The political stage was now set for the entrance of the outsider, Jair Bolsonaro.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Richard Lapper

Chapter 9 examines the role of the rapidly growing neo-Pentecostal churches. An estimated 30 per cent of Brazilians were evangelical Protestants in 2020, up from only about 6 per cent in 1980. The socially conservative churches, particularly the large and financially powerful neo-Pentecostal churches, are increasingly influential at all levels of Brazilian society and have established close links with Bolsonaro and his family.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets
Richard Lapper

Chapter 14 examines the sudden and unexpected rise in Bolsonaro’s popularity during the second half of 2020 and assesses his prospects for the rest of his four-year term and beyond. The temporary emergency grant paid to 67 million Brazilians dramatically increased the spending power of the poorest Brazilians. At the end of 2020, opinion polls suggested that Bolsonaro’s popularity in the north, north-east and centre-west of the country had increased, even though his COVID-19 denialism and shoddy management of the pandemic alarmed many private-sector and middle-class supporters. A new political alliance with a group of conservative parties known as the big centre or the Centrão has helped shore up the president’s support in the legislature and headed off the risk of impeachment. These advances, however, were not based on solid ground. As this book went to press – in late March 2021 – the rapid rise in coronavirus cases and deaths brought the conflicts between Bolsonaro’s radical right-wing base and more mainstream conservatives out into the open. Bolsonaro came under fierce pressure from Brazil’s powerful business elite and his new congressional allies to change his stance on the country’s health crisis. Impeachment was yet again in the air. Bolsonaro’s political future seemed far from assured.

in Beef, Bible and Bullets