Populism in the Tropics: The Rise (and Fall?) of Jair Bolsonaro

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

At the time of his election in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was dismissed as just a Tropical Donald Trump. Since he became the leader of the largest nation of South America, he created his own brand of xenophobic, misogynistic, right-wing populism. What exactly makes him a populist and why did people vote for him? Do these reasons still stand in the midst of a global pandemic?

A basketball player in front of a crowd

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Source: https://www.ft.com/content/d7df60cc-b7c4-11e8-bbc3-ccd7de085ffe

Is Bolsonaro a Populist? What is Populism, anyway?

The word “populist” was often thrown around in the public sphere following elections of the likes of Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, which seems to have left many of us accustomed to the term, but never fully able to grasp its definition. We know that Bolsonaro is a populist, but what makes him one? Long debated as an ideology or political tactic, populism divides society into “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” (Mudde 2004, p.543). Especially in times of economic uncertainty, this rhetoric mobilises voters through channelling their dissatisfaction against the perceived (and arguably real) corruption of the political class that supposedly designs policies in its own or other group’s (usually minorities) advantage at the expense of the disadvantaged majority. In theory, populists give back power to the majority because they are part of the people, not the elite. For this reason, Bolsonaro poses as an outsider, although he has had a long career in politics as he was re-elected to the Lower Chambers of Congress 6 times since 1990.

Brazilian researchers Eduardo Tamaki and Mario Fuks conclude that “Bolsonaro’s campaign speech exhibits all three main dimensions constitutive of populism” (Tamaki and Fuks, 2020), namely the moral purity of the people seen as a homogenous group, the political opponents vilified as the corrupt elites and the antagonistic dichotomy of these 2 opposed political forces representative of good and evil. Firstly, that the people are a pure, homogenous group is often implied in Bolsonaro’s speeches through phrases like “Brazil is ours, good citizens, workers, conservatives, Christians that preserve family values.” (Bolsonaro, 2018). Here, Bolsonaro implies that the people’s will is the highest value and that Brazilians unanimously desire Bolsonaro’s conservative policies, a belief which can easily give way to authoritarianism if a leader sees himself as having the unanimous blessing of the almost saint-like entity of the people (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013, p.506). Anti-elite sentiment and vilification are clearly visible in his speeches, where he threatens his political opponents: “you will all go to the edge of the beach (reference to where political prisoners were taken during military dictatorship), you won’t have any more shots in our homeland, because I will cut off all of your luxuries. It will be a purge never seen in the history of Brazil!” (Tamaki and Fuks, 2020 about Bolsonaro, 2018). This speech not only proves his lack of recognition of his enemies as legitimate alternatives but also his will to employ non-democratic and illegal tactics to dispose of them, therefore adding the expected authoritarian tendencies to his rhetoric. Finally, the people and the elites are portrayed in an almost fairy-tale-like opposition of good versus bad, which adds the essential element of antagonism that we need to classify Bolsonaro as a populist: “it’s us and PT: it’s the Brazil green and yellow, and them, that represent Cuba, represent the Venezuelan government, with its flag that is red with a hammer and sickle on top of it. Let’s change Brazil!” (Bolsonaro, 2018).

Bolsonaro’s populism often overlaps with nationalism. Tamaki and Fuks argue that “his patriotic and nationalist traits compete with populism, leaving considerably less room for the “people” in his discourse.” (Tamaki and Fuks, 2020). However, one might find this argument unconvincing since, in Bolsonaro’s speeches, “the people” and “the nation” seem interchangeable: they are both presented as the same homogenous group whose will is sacred. Moreover, calling them Brazilians rather than a more general term such as “the people” can arguably be considered a populist technique because it caters to the identity-based kind of “xenophobic populism” (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013, p.497) we are used to seeing in Europe. This type of populism emphasises the primacy of the majority over minorities, other nations and international institutions in order to restore the majority’s perceived loss of control over their lives in favour of other entities such as supra-national institutions and ethnic minorities (Gest et al., p.1697). Rather than diminishing his populist rhetoric, Bolsonaro’s nationalism strengthens it by adding an identarian dimension. The people are the nation since “Brazil is ours” (Bolsonaro, 2018).

Why Did Brazilians Elect a Populist? 

With roughly 52% of the Brazilian electorate formed out of women, why would Brazilians elect a misogynistic, indigenous-hating populist with authoritarian tendencies in one of the booming economies of Latin America? Academic literature identifies 2 potential reasons for Bolsonaro’s success.

When people are anxious about their next pay-check, they jump into strongmen’s arms. 

Bolsonaro’s election can be closely traced to Brazil’s economic crisis which was triggered by the International Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. There seems to be a consensus among economists that “Argentina and Brazil were substantially affected by the IFC (International Financial Crisis) and GR (Great Recession).” (Haines et al., 2020), especially due to Brazil’s reliance on the export of “soybeans, iron ore and sugar, whose prices have been falling since 2011.” (Chu, 2018). Figure 1 shows how Brazil’s economic downturn following a long boom until 2008 presented long-term consequences up to 2020 in spite of its temporary resurgence in 2010-2011. Although the graph is not enough to demonstrate that the second 2011 downturn is a prolonged result of the 2008 crisis, some Brazilian economists link this phenomenon to the “slowdown of the world economy” and Brazil’s dependence on exports (Haines et al., 2020), thus making the dire economic situation an indirect consequence of economic globalisation. This downturn had disastrous effects on the population, with the unemployment rate doubling from 6% to 12% and the poverty rate jumping from 20% to 25% from 2013 to 2018, the years leading up to Bolsonaro’s election (Chu, 2018).

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Figure 1: Brazil’s GDP/capita in current prices from 2000 to 2020 (in U.S. dollars)

Because Bolsonaro swung from protectionism to free-market policies, it is not clear what attracted voters to trust his economic approach. Although academics disagree on whether economic downturns are the central trigger of populist demand or not, it’s safe to say that economic insecurity plays a role in the demand for populist rhetoric because the decrease in living conditions demands a scapegoat in the absence of an immediately viable solution to the situation. Whether this scapegoat translates into left-wing economic populism that demands income redistribution or xenophobic, minority-hating populism (Inglehart and Norris, 2017) determine whether globalisation and economics are central concepts in the specific case of populist rhetoric. Either way, economic issues provided the opportunity for Bolsonaro to manipulate people’s dissatisfaction and anger that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.

Why economics is not enough to explain Bolsonaro’s rise:

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Figure 2: Gini Index (World Bank Estimate): Inequality in Brazil Between 2000-2018

The economic crisis and the rising inequality preceding his election in 2018 (Figure 2) makes it intuitive to expect the typical Latin American left-wing, redistributive populism. Instead, Brazilians chose right-wing conservative policies. What is more, Bolsonaro’s choice of scapegoats firmly places him in the category of cultural populists. Recently, he exposed numerous misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-indigenous opinions, including that he wouldn’t pay a woman equal to a man because “women get pregnant” and those that are responsible for the 2020 Amazon fires are the Indigenous people (NBC, 2020) and even actor Leonardo DiCaprio (yes, really: https://apnews.com/article/917de041394f42939c33b9ad5f7623fe). Although economics is enough to explain populist demand, they certainly don’t explain this kind of minority-hating rhetoric. To understand it, we turn to cultural factors. 

The academic explanation of culture-based populism is a reverse of the phenomenon known as “The Silent Revolution”, a thesis arguing “that when people grow up taking survival for granted it makes them more open to new ideas and more tolerant of outgroups (with insecurity having the reverse effect)” (Inglehart and Norris, 2017). “Insecurity encourages an authoritarian xenophobic reaction in which people close ranks behind strong leaders, with strong ingroup solidarity, rejection of outsiders, and rigid conformity to group norms.” (ibid.) This theory seems to hold in Brazil. 

Barros and Silva theorise that economic anxiety is just the triggering factor of underlying machismo culture and gender norms in Brazil, on which Bolsonaro capitalised. Evidence shows that “in regions where men experience larger employment losses, there is an increase in the share of votes for Bolsonaro. In contrast, in regions where women experience larger losses, his vote share is relatively lower.” (Barros and Silva, 2020). Although this correlation is not enough to infer causation, their hypothesis is that “Bolsonaro’s authoritarian and sexist rhetoric may be appealing to men who, due to the economic shock, experience a relative loss in traditional masculine, breadwinner-type social identity. This ‘compensation mechanism’ is in line with the literature on the role of the loss of relative social status in the recent rise of populism.” (ibid.) If this thesis proves to be true, Brazilians’ immediate reason for electing a populist would be unhealthy cultural preconceptions rather than economic factors. Sometimes, perceptions have more palpable impact than empirical causes. 

Does Bolsonarism Pass the Test of the Pandemic?

Brazilians might have had their reasons for electing Bolsonaro, but can a raging pandemic make them change their minds? Figure 3 outlines Bolsonaro’s decrease in approval ratings by roughly 10%, making him the worst-performing out of the 8 leaders. “There is no doubt that Mr. Bolsonaro is in political trouble. His popularity ratings have tumbled and are now below 30 per cent; some 50 per cent of the population disapprove of his handling of the crisis.” (Rachman, 2020). 

Daily chart - Americans are not rallying around Donald Trump during the  pandemic | Graphic detail | The Economist
Figure 3: Change in leaders’ approval ratings during Covid-19 in percentage points

Populists gain power by capitalising on people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo and often promise a return to the traditional values and economic well-being that people associate with the past (Gest et al., 2017). When they fail to deliver on these promises, many keep blaming the same elites they were demonising in their campaigns, claiming that they are still in power despite the populists being the incumbents. When this narrative remains credible, populists are re-elected. When its credibility shakes, they lose. 

The attribution of the disastrous effects of Covid-19 in Brazil to Bolsonaro is not far-fetched. After advocating for keeping churches open during the pandemic and using the “miraculous” hydroxychloroquine to cure Covid-19 (Domingues, 2020), he fired his widely appreciated Health Minister for advocating for social distancing measures for masses (Mazui, 2020). Such visibly reckless actions combined with the suffering of the hard-hit Brazilians seem enough to dismantle the narrative that minorities, international organisations, or any other entity is to blame. When facts hit people hard, they matter more than perceptions.

With a history of demonising political opponents whom he sees opposed to the supposedly pure, ideologically homogenous people, Bolsonaro can be classified as a typical populist elected as a result of people suffering from a poor-performing economy whose dissatisfaction he successfully capitalised on by making use of pre-existing cultural factors. Now, the tides seem to be changing. Along with all the suffering it has caused, perhaps the pandemic offers the upside of the harsh, eye-opening experience Brazil needs to renounce populism. In the US, the pandemic was a strong enough reminder that reality does not care about perceptions. While we found out that the pandemic is stronger than Trumpism, it remains to be seen if it trumps Bolsonarism. 


Barros, L. and Silva, M.S. (2020). “Right-wing populism in the tropics: The rise of Jair Bolsonaro”. [online] VoxEU.org. Available at: https://voxeu.org/article/right-wing-populism-tropics-rise-jair-bolsonaro  [Accessed 12 Nov. 2020].

Bolsonaro, J. (2020). Av. Paulista. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUJszRXzNA0&t=30s. [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020]

Chu, B. (2018). “Brazil’s economy failed to live up to its promise – and that handed power to the far right.” [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-election-results-president-fascism-far-right-brazilian-economic-crisis-a8606841.html [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].

Domingues, F. (2020). “Open Churches and Miraculous Remedies: Bolsonaro’s Response to Covid-19 in Brazil”. [online] LSE Blogs. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2020/04/igrejas-abertas-e-remedios-milagrosos-a-resposta-ao-covid-19-no-brasil-de-bolsonaro/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2020].

Gest, J., Reny, T. and Mayer, J. (2017). Roots of the Radical Right: Nostalgic Deprivation in the United States and BritainComparative Political Studies, Volume 51(Issue 13), pp.1694–1719.

Haines, A.E.F., Ferrari-Filho, F. and Neyra, H. (2020). “The consequences of the international financial crisis and the great recession in Argentina and Brazil”Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, [online] 40(1), pp.68–85. Available at: https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0101-31572020000100068 [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020]. 

Inglehart, R. and Norris, P. (2017). Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse. [online] Available at: https://www-cambridge-org.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/FE06E514F88A13C8DBFD41984D12D88D/S1537592717000111a.pdf/trump_and_the_populist_authoritarian_parties_the_silent_revolution_in_reverse.pdf  [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].

Londono, E. (2019). Bolsonaro Pulls Brazil From U.N. Migration Accord. The New York Times. [online] 9 Jan. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/world/americas/bolsonaro-brazil-migration-accord.html  [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].

Mazui, G. (2020). Mandetta announces on social network that he was fired by Bolsonaro from the Ministry of Health. [online] G1. Available at: https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/04/16/mandetta-anuncia-em-rede-social-que-foi-demitido-do-ministerio-da-saude.ghtml [Accessed 14 Nov. 2020].

Mudde, C. (2004). The populist ZeitgeistGovernment & Opposition,  Volume 39 (Issue 4): 541–63. 

Mudde, M. and Kaltwasser, C.R. (2013). Populism. In: The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.494–511.

NBC News. (2020). Brazil’s Bolsonaro blames Indigenous people for Amazon fires in U.N. speech. [online] Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/brazil-s-bolsonaro-blames-indigenous-people-amazon-fires-u-n-n1240819 [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].

Rachman, G. (2020). Jair Bolsonaro’s Populism is Leading Brazil to Disaster. [online] http://www.ft.com. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/c39fadfe-9e60-11ea-b65d-489c67b0d85d  [Accessed 12 Nov. 2020].


Figure 1: Plecher, H. (2016). Brazil – Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita 2024 | Statista. [online] Statista. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/263774/gross-domestic-product-gdp-per-capita-in-brazil/ .

Figure 2: data.worldbank.org. Gini index (World Bank estimate) – Brazil | Data. [online] Available at: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI?end=2018&locations=BR&start=2000  [Accessed 13 Nov. 2020].

Figure 3: The Economist. (2020). Covid-19 has given most world leaders a temporary rise in popularity. [online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/05/09/covid-19-has-given-most-world-leaders-a-temporary-rise-in-popularity [Accessed 14 Nov. 2020].

by Nina Renata Pop

Nina is a first-year undergraduate studying Politics and International Relations. With a long-lasting passion for debating and political dysfunctionalities, she is serving as this year’s Deputy Editor and blog writer of the International Public Policy Review.