Corruption, fake news, and WhatsApp: how Bolsonaro won Brazil

Explaining the appeal of the far-right president-elect.

Brazil elected far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in its presidential runoff on Sunday, breaking a nearly two-decade-old tradition of almost exclusively electing leftist presidents.

Bolsonaro, a Congress member and ex-military officer, started off his campaign as a fringe candidate from a fringe party who was mostly known for his streak of racist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBT remarks and for his professed fondness for the country’s brutal military dictatorship.

But his promises to restore security amid endemic violent crime and to stamp out the country’s rampant political corruption won him support among voters looking for a change.

Many in Brazil have grown frustrated with the status quo due to a slew of political and economic crises that have gripped the country in recent years. The current center-right president, Michel Temer, is deeply unpopular in the wake of a struggling economy and a massive corruption scandal that has engulfed all levels of government.

Temer took over for former leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016. Her leftist predecessor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption charges. But while Lula himself is still very popular in Brazil, his handpicked successor Fernando Haddad was soundly defeated by Bolsonaro.

On the eve of the Brazilian elections, I called up Benjamin Junge to get a deeper understanding of voters in Brazil supported the far-right candidate. Junge is an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a Fulbright fellow at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil who studies working-class and middle-class families in Brazil.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.


Jen Kirby

Are the Brazilian voters you talk to mostly rejecting the leftist Workers’ Party — or are they actively choosing Bolsonaro?

Benjamin Junge

My observation is that actual ideological, hard-right voters within working class communities — which is to say people who are voting for Bolsonaro because they love him, and they’ve analyzed his plans, and they think they’re great — are a small minority.

I would say the same about the old-school Workers’ Party supporters, too. They’re still there. I see them marching around with T-shirts that have images of Lula from four years ago.

The issue is the mass of working-class voters in between those two poles. The question is why is it that so many of them seem to be open to a guy who has expressed a disregard for democracy and said such foul things.

People are definitely talking a lot about security and violence in their neighborhoods, and they’re genuinely fed up with that they perceive as a failure of the state to take care of security issues. And that’s a real thing.

Jen Kirby

But doesn’t Lula still have a lot of popular support?

Benjamin Junge

Let me give you a quick little anecdote: Right before Lula was found guilty and went to prison last January, the matriarch of a family that I’ve been following very closely, who is a widow and is 66 years old, she’s was watching TV. At one moment she said, “Oh my god, is there any way I can still love this man [Lula]?”

When he went to prison, she posted something on Facebook, saying she was indignada — fed up. She alternates between a deep love for Lula and a kind of hate for him because he seems to have screwed everything up. The guy who did a lot of good and could have done much more but didn’t.

Jen Kirby

So they love Lula the man, but don’t love the system around him.

Benjamin Junge

Yes, very strongly. This is what political scientists are all scratching their heads about, and anthropologists maybe not quite so much. Political scientists say, “Wait, that’s very irrational, if they love Lula so much, why don’t they just vote for the other guy whom Lula anointed, Fernando Haddad?” But that’s not happening.

Jen Kirby

Can you explain exactly why that disconnect is happening?

Benjamin Junge

This woman I mentioned is typical in another respect, which is she has never really taken politics seriously. So she came to love Lula. She would definitely be voting for him if he were on the ballot, but it wasn’t for what he represented — it was just for the kind of man he presented himself to be.

She’s in her mid-60s and she has five grown children who are all in their 30s and 40s, most of whom have children of their own. They all live in the same building in different households, and what is creating stress in this family — and it’s playing out in the family’s WhatsApp group, which is the way that it’s happening across Brazil.

This family’s WhatsApp group was set up for social events and to send memes. But the oldest son is a Bolsonaro supporter. He’s that rare, and somewhat uncommon variety of very ideological serious supporter. He posts stuff about Bolsonaro in the family WhatsApp group. There’s a grandson who’s 18 years old, in his first year of college, and he responds with, “What what are you talking about? That doesn’t make any sense.”

The matriarch has become infuriated — not because she agrees more with her oldest son versus her grandson or vice versa — but because politics has contaminated her family and that’s almost unendurable for her. She doesn’t lose sleep about corruption because she hasn’t had high expectations of the state in a long, long time.

She’s just upset that her family, which is the most important thing in her life, is now this base of disputes and intergenerational tensions. I think that sets her up for an inclination to vote for Bolsonaro. Because his weird discourse is that he will restore order to society.

Jen Kirby

How does Bolsonaro’s image as a strongman factor in here? He has praised the military, and expressed some nostalgia for the military dictatorship. Is that the kind of order people are yearning for, or is it more nuanced than that?

Benjamin Junge

Among people who study cultural memory in Latin America — so places like Brazil that had some kind of authoritarian regime in the 1970s and 1980s, like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay — there is a broad consensus that Brazil did not really do a very good job in the first 20 years after the dictatorship ended in 1985 in promoting cultural dialogue about what that meant, and how it could be avoided, in contrast with places like Chile and Argentina.

Brazil didn’t really get on that bandwagon until later. These days, public high schools typically have modules about the military dictatorship. So in this family that I was mentioning to you, the person who knows the most about the dictatorship is the grandson because he did a whole year-long module on remembering the dictatorship in school.

Whereas his father and his mother, they’re in their 40s, and they were alive during the very tail end of the dictatorship, but they don’t have any real living memories of it, they have a much more idealistic — and from my perspective, problematic — way of remembering that period.

Jen Kirby

When it comes to Bolsonaro, how strong is his support among working-class people?

Benjamin Junge

One of the hypotheses is that the Workers’ Party prioritized social assistance programs but failed to link those incredible welfare benefits to any kind of political position or policy position among the beneficiaries; that the Workers’ Party failed to bring into being a kind of new citizen consciousness — they just created this new middle class of consumers.

I hope that by the time we’ve analyzed all of our data, we’ll be able to chime in on that hypothesis and see if our data supports it or not.

It’s too early for me to do that, but I think there’s something there. That certainly bodes well for Bolsonaro. He’s trying to make his appeal to voters who, when they reflect on having risen above the poverty line during the years the Workers’ Party was in power, they don’t connect it to that policy paradigm, they connect it to their own individual discipline and efforts — it’s more of a meritocracy.

Or if they’re evangelicals, which is a whole another set of issues, they explain it in terms of their religious beliefs.

Jen Kirby

But what about the actual economic situation? Are the working-class and middle-class families you’re studying significantly worse off economically than they were even a few years ago, or it more a perception because of everything that’s happening around them?

Benjamin Junge

We know that around 2014, unemployment rates started to go up and household family income started to go down, after having gone up for several years. We know that the number of people who have private health insurance policies, which is considered a class marker of middle class, started going down. We know that experiences with crime started going up.

So there are certainly objective markers that people who had experienced some kind of upward socioeconomic mobility during the Workers’ Party years have seen those patterns either stall or actually reverse.

Jen Kirby

How does Bolsonaro’s controversial rhetoric fit in? I know race is a complicated issue in Brazil, but his racially charged comments, his sexism, his anti-LGBT statements — how do voters ignore or justify those? I hate to make the comparison, but is it similar to Trump where some of his supporters say, “I don’t love all the things he says, but I’m willing to give him a chance”?

Benjamin Junge

There is something similar to the US, but there’s also something distinctively Brazilian. Brazilians have a kind of cultural image of themselves as playful, lovable troublemakers. It’s a recognized kind of cultural trait that people reflect on and talk about, and sometimes they talk about it in a loving way: “We’re romantic but you can’t really count on us to show up on time, oh well, that’s Brazil.”

When Brazilians — the people that I’m hanging out with in this working-class neighborhood — when they see in Facebook clips or WhatsApp clips that are circulating or on the television news, when they see these of Bolsonaro saying just saying horribly nasty, problematic things about blacks, gays, Indians, and plenty of other groups down the list, one way of interpreting that is to say, “You know all Brazilians are like that, he’s just being honest.”

And that sounds a little bit like the way people were talking about Trump, but I don’t think in the US we have a sense of “Well, we’re all actually playful like Trump, he’s just being a little more extreme and more honest.” Whereas Brazilians have this idea that it’s all playful.

Having said this, I know some people who can’t get beyond it, who will not vote for Bolsonaro. I’m thinking of someone who has a gay father, specifically because of that one statement that Bolsonaro said about how if he had a gay son, he’d rather die in a car accident. That alone they cannot get beyond. There are Brazilians who are reacting to a specific statement that they view as irredeemably problematic, and that includes plenty of Afro-Brazilians.

And here enters the thorny topic of fake news. Because if you were a Bolsonaro supporter you might respond to me by saying, “Wait a minute, let me show you a clip of some black Brazilians telling us how much they like Bolsonaro,” which are circulating. I would immediately say it’s maybe not fake, but it sure is a minority because most Afro-Brazilians in the popular class — lower-middle class or working-class — I think are quite offended by the way he talks about race.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned fake news. It seems that’s played a huge role in the election. How have you seen that play out?

Benjamin Junge

Facebook and WhatsApp are [where we see] the fake news issue. A couple of weeks ago this matriarch who I’ve been talking about, we bumped into each other, and I’m always bugging them with questions about the election. This was before the first round of elections. She showed me a picture of this clip that was circulating of some woman in some public space who took her shirt off and bared her breasts.

She shows this to me and says, “I don’t want this kind of a society, is this what we want?” And I said, “Wait a minute, who is this person?” And she says, “This is what we would get if we support the [Workers’ Party], or at least this is what will be fixed if Bolsonaro gets elected.” And it was just some ridiculous fake news thing, who knows if it was actually the Bolsonaro people who put it into circulation, but it was circulated by Bolsonaro supporters.

Jen Kirby

You’ve mentioned WhatsApp a lot — as something used by the family to communicate, but also to get information about the election. How important is it in influencing the vote?

Benjamin Junge

I don’t even fully appreciate just how pervasive WhatsApp groups are — I think that every family in Brazil has a WhatsApp group that has more than one cellphone user in it. And I believe that that cuts across class in a big way. The way that it might be a little different is that working-class families tend to be bigger than elite families.

Every kind of like religious community, every evangelical church, every individual kind of Catholic church has a WhatsApp group. Uber drivers in different neighborhoods and cities have WhatsApp groups, taxi drivers, students, groups of friends, teachers use WhatsApp,

I’m teaching two classes — one graduate and one undergraduate — at the university here this semester, and I have a WhatsApp group for both classes. I can’t even really imagine what this election would look like without WhatsApp.

And secondarily, Facebook. Facebook is also hugely important, but my intuitive sense is that WhatsApp is where the real frictions and kind of circulation of content is happening. And possibly where opinion formation, the actual congealing of voter sensibility, is concentrated.