Jair Bolsonaro hears what they say about him: “the Donald Trump of Brazil,” he says with a wry smile. Asked if he thinks the label is fitting, he demurs. He’s not a populist, he goes on to say, and the country wouldn’t stand for another one right now anyway.
But in an hour-long interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York, Bolsonaro, the firebrand, former army captain who’s soaring in polls 12 months ahead of Brazil’s presidential election, reels off any number of policy positions and opinions that, if not populist, are certainly unorthodox. Like denying that the Brazilian military regime in the late 20th century was a dictatorship; or calling China “heartless” and suggesting restricting its access to key industries in Brazil; or claiming he will run his entire presidential campaign on a budget of just 1 million reais ($315,000).
Bolsonaro insists that, like Trump, he will lean on his strong social media following to get out his message to the millions of Brazilians fed up with spiraling violence, pervasive corruption and unwanted immigration.
“I’m a threat to oligarchies, I’m a threat to the stubbornly corrupt, I’m a threat to those who want to destroy family values,” he said. “That’s the threat I represent.”
Brazil’s middle classes have watched their status dwindle along with their income as the economy shrank almost 8 percent over the past two years, allowing Bolsonaro to tap a rich seam of anger and frustration. Budget cuts have weakened precarious public services and the country’s unfathomable levels of violence have continued to rise, strengthening the appeal of his hard-line security policies.
Amid the almost daily revelations of egregious corruption by the country’s political elite, Bolsonaro’s unblemished record on graft has only added to his appeal among a disenchanted electorate.
During his 26 years in Congress, two of the 171 bills he has put forward have been approved. But he has long punched above his weight in media coverage, often by exploiting controversial issues and stirring up the outrage of his opponents, much to the delight of his followers.
In his Bloomberg interview he stressed that there is more to him than his polarizing rhetoric, as he set out some of his tentative policy proposals while insisting that he had not yet finalized his plans for government. A willingness to consider privatizing some state companies, including state-run oil company Petrobras; slash public sector spending, and root out fraud in the benefits system are some of the ideas he has in mind.
As for the key legislative goal of President Michel Temer’s government – pension reform – Bolsonaro accepts that there is a need for action but favors a much more gradual approach than the one currently in Congress.
He freely acknowledged, however, that he has only a “superficial understanding” of economics. He expressed hope that the benchmark interest rate could be cut to just 2 percent, though it hasn’t fallen below 7.25 percent in the last two decades.
“The people with me say it would be very good if the economic team of the central bank – but not of the Finance Ministry – were the same, or similar,” he said, referring to the current bank’s board, led by Ilan Goldfajn.
Sitting alongside three of his sons, also politicians, Bolsonaro offered a staunch defense of Brazil’s two decades of military rule.
“There exists a feeling among an ever-smaller minority in Brazil that I’m that man who could be a dictator, even though I say that in Brazil there wasn’t a dictatorship,” he said. “Thirty percent of young people are with me, and I tell them to talk to their grandparents about how that period was and how it is today.”
He described his current relationship with the armed forces as “very good,” adding that he would like to appoint some military personnel to his cabinet, particularly to the Defense and Science ministries.
Greater militarization on the streets and in office may be off-putting to some, but more than half of Bolsonaro’s supporters are aged 16-34, meaning they were unborn or mere toddlers during the period of military rule that ended in 1985, according to Datafolha.
He takes an uncompromising approach to law-and-order issues. He believes liberalizing Brazil’s gun laws would help tackle the country’s staggering crime rate. He also wants to ensure police are rewarded for stopping criminals, no matter how they do it.
“The police officer is going to be able to shoot and if he defeats the enemy he is going to get a medal and not a trial,” he said.
Even before he announced his intention to run, well-wishers would flock to him in public, addressing him as “President.” At one point during the interview, he pulled out his phone to show a passionate group of fans greeting him at an airport, during one of his many trips across the country. Baptized in the River Jordan last year, his strongly pro-family rhetoric has boosted his support base among Brazil’s rapidly-expanding evangelical community.
At present, he’s polling behind only former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been convicted as part of the Carwash investigation and may be barred from running.
Bolsonaro does face significant obstacles.
If no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the contest goes to a run-off. Currently, in both second-round scenarios from pollster Datafolha, Bolsonaro loses. He also lacks the support of any of Brazil’s major political parties. This not only complicates his campaign, but could make governing difficult, since it traditionally relies on coalition rule.
Still, he remains bullish.
“I know that no one governs alone, and the alliances will certainly come,” he said. “But we will impose the rules.”
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