We are the majority. We are the real Brazil. Together, we will build a new nation…These red [leftist] criminals will be banished from our homeland. Either they go overseas, or they go to jail. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history. Jair Bolsonaro, 21 October 2018
Unbelievable: A presidential candidate asks the people to conform to what he thinks or pay the price: Jail or exile. Reminiscent of other [past] times. Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, 23 October 2018
By the time it ended in 1985, Brazil’s military dictatorship was a last remnant of an once-rampant political ideology rife with fascist influences. The recent success of Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, predicted to win the second and final round on 28 October, indicates that South America's biggest country is on the cusp of joining a global backslide towards those ugly decades.
It is also a sign of the return of a repressive and nationalistic understanding of the state and its foreign policies that came to a head in pre-war Nazi Germany, spread west to the United States, and was pushed by successive U.S. administrations as a strategic necessity for South America.
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First gaining prominence as a staunch defender of the legacy of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which gained power in a 1964 coup, Bolsonaro’s anti-LGBQT, racist, and misogynistic platform is part of his general disdain for democracy. He has advocated sterilization for the poor to stave off "chaos."
Less than 15 years after the end of the U.S.-supported dictatorship that tortured and killed thousands of leftists, the then-Congressman declared in a public interview that, if ever elected president, he would "begin the coup" on his first day in office.
In 2015, Bolsonaro ran afoul of more controversy after posing for a photo with a Nazi sympathizer dressed as Hitler who had been invited to speak at a Rio de Janeiro City Council session by his son, Carlos.
When another of Bolsonaro's sons, Eduardo, tweeted out a photo of himself posing with the ubiquitous Steve Bannon this August, declaring that the two share the same "worldview," people started asking questions about how far the interconnected revivals of the international far right would go.
Bannon, Bolsonaro’s son said, is "an enthusiast of Bolsonaro's campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural marxism." Strangely, weakly, Bolsonaro Sr later denied Bannon’s connection to the campaign.
But Bolsonaro’s implacable opposition to the political left is not the only critical fuel for his worldview. One other key strand, for which Bannon is a key evangelizer, is the role of geopolitics and its use by far-right movements throughout the twentieth century.
While most people do not give a second thought to the term "geopolitics," perhaps no idea has greater explanatory value, nor had a greater historical impact, on the region’s political climate. To fully grasp how the culture wars are playing out today in Brazil, it helps to gain perspective on geopolitics itself.
The term "geopolitics" was coined by the Swedish geographer Rudolf Kjellén in 1899. It was intended to reflect the understanding of political geography developed by his German peer, Friedrich Ratzel, who embraced the conservative nationalism of his day. A veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, Ratzel understood the state as an organic collective of national culture and civilization, spreading naturally - as an empire and as an expression of inner greatness - into larger territories, usually on their border regions and beyond.
Ratzel’s understanding of those "Grosßraum" (large spaces) influenced Karl Haushofer, a friend's son, who joined the military and took an observational post in Japan. After serving as an officer during WWI, Haushofer came to identify with the populist far right, took Nazi Rudolf Hess under his wing, and tutored Hess and Adolf Hitler, himself, in geopolitics during the time they were incarcerated at Landsberg after the failed 1923 Beerhall Putsch.
Haushofer introduced Hitler to Ratzel’s books, and to geopolitics in general, influencing the Nazis’ turn toward the desire to conquer "Lebensraum" ("Living space") in the East. He further helped develop the Nazis’ pact with Japan and smooth over the Munich Agreement that facilitated Germany’s expansion into the Sudetenland. He was delighted when the Nazis ironed out the infamous non-belligerence pact with Russia, producing the Eurasian space that he believed could defeat North Atlantic hegemony.
Intoxicated by his own success, Haushofer flamboyantly signed his name, "L’inventeur du ‘Lebensraum’!" anointing Hitler and Hess the heirs of Valhalla, and calling for the resettling of Baltic Germans. Yet his plans fell apart when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. At the end of the war, his legacy in ruins, Haushofer and his wife committed suicide together.
Opposed as a pseudoscience by prominent geographers in academia like Richard Hartshorne and Isaiah Bowman, geopolitics was all but abandoned after the war - but it did not die out completely.
While escaped Nazi war criminals found shelter in Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina, the South American military establishment openly embraced the ideas of Ratzel and Haushofer and relied on them for some of their most oppressive policies.
Golbery de Couto e Silva, the strategist behind the 1964 military coup in Brazil, outlined the ideas put into effect through the feared National Security Doctrine in his 1966 book, "Geopolítica do Brasil." Then-Professor of Geopolitics at the Chilean War Academy, Augusto Pinochet, studied Golbery’s text closely and applied its teachings to his own government after leading the U.S.-supported Chilean coup of 1973.
Geopolitics had gained some currency in the U.S. during the 1960s through the Cold War strategizing of Saul Cohen, but it was Henry Kissinger who brought the term back into vogue with his 1979 tome, "The White House Years."
It should come as no surprise, then, that the same U.S. state department wonks who adamantly supported the Latin American dictatorships, as part of a continent-wide strategy of anti-leftist counter-insurgency known as Operation Condor, would help bring about the return of geopolitics.
The next year, the leading U.S. scholar on Latin American geopolitics, Lewis Tambs, helped draft the Santa Fe Document, a 1980s Latin America strategy for the Reagan administration that explicitly advocated geopolitical positions.
The "War on Drugs" and involvement in bloody civil wars - from Guatemala to El Salvador to Nicaragua - would follow, with the full support of Evangelicals like Pat Robertson, whose American Center for Law and Justice helped spread the far-right gospel in Brazil after the dictatorship.
Later, Tambs would pen the forward for one of the only Haushofer texts translated into English - a 1939 edition of a book on the Asia-Pacific region that extolls the Nazi Party.
Soon, the International Institute of Geopolitics would open in France, boasting an English-language journal supported by the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski, William F. Buckley, Jr, and Samuel Huntington. Geopolitics was back, and while its advocates converged around debates between "Realists" and "Idealists," amid the growth of the neoconservative movement, the advocacy of geopolitical thought provided valuable oxygen for the rehabilitation of Haushofer and Ratzel by more radical forces.
The return of geopolitics in the 1980's and ’90s accompanying the dissolution of the Soviet Union, became part of the triumphal narrative of North Atlantic supremacy, but its advocates rarely examined its roots in radical conservatism.
While the renascent geopolitics accommodated geo-strategy and more liberal understandings of international relations, those who proclaimed geopolitics in its original form largely came from the so-called Nouvelle Droite, a network of far-right ideologues committed to reproducing the conditions for the re-emergence of fascism in Europe.
It was in these circles that the Russian fascist, Alexander Dugin, learned about geopolitics while residing in Western Europe, injecting its fundamental precepts into Russia’s chaotic political environment through his 1997 text, "Foundations of Geopolitics." In his strange book that advances occult myths of an Aryan super-race, Dugin concluded that geopolitics tended toward his own brand of fascism.
Happy to turn a blind eye to its fascist core, Dugin’s ideology was spread with the aid of his numerous connections, from the General Staff of the Russian Armed Services to "Orthodox oligarch" Konstantin Malofeev, one of the major backers of the international far-right Christian network, the World Congress of Families.
While Steve Bannon’s notorious 2014 speech to far-right zealots held in the Vatican associated with the World Congress of Families did not name Dugin, it outlined his fascist worldview - a fixation on geopolitics that Bannon claims to have studied "intensively." Last year, a magazine supported by the Vatican presciently accused Bannon of "apocalyptic geopolitics."
Brazil's Bolsonaro, who is Catholic but attends Baptist services, has made a populist effort to span denominations, and receives broad support from Brazil’s growing, urban evangelical movement, including boosters associated with the World Congress of Families.
Bolsonaro was baptized in the Jordan River into the Assemblies of God, which has been pouring money into far-right politics in Brazil and around the world. The Assemblies of God are deep drivers of the U.S. Evangelical movement, including some of the most important partners of the World Congress of Families.
Bolsonaro’s richest Evangelical supporters, like the Assembly of God’s head and Pentecostal televangelist Silas Malafaia, have partnered up with WCF allies at the Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice, and at the Brazilian Center for Law and Justice, which promotes – as does WCF - a transnational movement against LGBT rights.
Adjusting traditional far-right politics to the characteristics of Brazil’s middle-class, Bolsonaro has become a fighter in the global culture wars, seeking to deliver on a patriarchal mandate that has gained the support of conservative U.S. publications like the Wall Street Journal (for being a "Brazilian Swamp Drainer"), in a country that has, ironically, for the last 15 years, has helped anchor a region-wide leftist movement with its own strong ties to Russia.
Bolsonaro’s candidacy and likely ascendance to the presidency is a sign of a growing geopolitical union of far-right forces forming the backlash against liberalism and the left, and the rehabilitation and glamorizing of military power and authoritarianism. It's a symptom of a greater crisis of democracy that is both producing - and the product of - a system-wide transformation of international relations.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross