On the Rule of Crime and the Ongoing Brazilianization of America
A charismatic, populist, right-wing incumbent President, hated by the media and elite establishment but loved by his predominantly middle-class supporters, is narrowly defeated by a long-time career politician notorious for corruption who succeeds by running up extraordinary margins in parts of the country also notorious for corruption. The incumbent declines to concede and his supporters, convinced they’ve been cheated, turn out in mass protests.
This isn’t the 2020 election between Trump and Biden but last week’s bitterly contested election between Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called Trump of the Tropics, and the former President and convicted criminal Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”).
The closeness of the race (according to official statistics Lula’s margin of victory was less than 1.8%) surprised many observers since the depth of Bolsonaro’s support was consistently underestimated in media polls. Yet, of Brazil’s five official regions, Bolsonaro carried four of them, in most cases by large margins. But in the Northeast, Brazil’s poorest region (and Lula’s home base) where drug cartels and political graft are rampant (criminals were quick to celebrate Lula’s win), Lula won by an incredible 38 points.
The parallels between Brazil’s and the United States’ political systems are emblematic of a broader economic and social convergence between the countries. In recent years, a number of commentators have written about the Brazilianization of America — that is, the ways in which the United States is beginning to exhibit the same enormous and enduring domestic problems that plague its South American neighbor.
‘Brazilianization’ means different things to different people. To some, it refers to racial dynamics and electoral politics, to some our culture, and to others economic structures. The term has also a personal resonance for me. My wife’s parents grew up in Rio De Janeiro during its 1950s-1960s heyday as the children of American expatriates — one of her grandfathers was an executive at the Brazillian office of a major American corporation and the other was stationed there as a U.S. military officer.
The Rio my wife’s family has described as idyllic was an Americanized Brazil, not a Brazilianized America. As young people, they roamed the city without any special concerns for their safety. Even after the still hotly-contested 1964 military coup, engineered with U.S. support with the goal of forestalling a possible communist revolution in Brazil, the country enjoyed record economic growth, middle-class prosperity and cultural influence. It is an era fondly recalled by Brazil’s Bolsonaro-supporting middle class but deplored by the country’s internationalized elites.
Like the United States, Brazil is a highly multiracial democracy, but the conception of race in Brazil is different in important ways. According to official statistics, America at the moment is 58% white non-Hispanic with a number of large ethnic minority groups, the largest of which (Hispanics) comprises 17% of the population. By contrast, at its most recent census, 47% of Brazilians identified themselves as “White” while another 43% called themselves “Pardos,” a majority-white ancestry group with some African-American and Native Brazilian ancestry. Just 7.6% are black and 1.1.% Asian.
While the U.S. has historically viewed itself as a bi-racial society with a hard color-line, non-European mass immigration into the U.S. in the last half-century has recently led to an explosion of Pardo-like multi-racial self-identification. When the census bureau tweaked the definitions in 2020, 33.8 million Americans (10.2%) described themselves as multiracial, a number that is growing rapidly every year.
American intellectuals have taken a variety of views on America’s racial Brazilianization. Centrist thinker Michael Lind, writing before the dotcom boom in 1995, described America’s Brazilian future as “a high-tech feudal anarchy featuring an archipelago of privileged whites in an ocean of white, black, and brown poverty.”
Lind warned of an American “white overclass” whose ideal was not the “city on a hill” but a “mansion behind a wall,” a description that will immediately seem familiar to anyone who has spent much time in America’s affluent liberal enclaves. But in truth the new Brazillianized American overclass is more multiracial: disproportionately Asian-American relative to their population numbers and featuring significant numbers of black and brown elites.
Lind blamed the GOP establishment then in Congress for pushing high immigration and free trade policies to lower the wages of the working class, a prescient analysis prefiguring the Trumpist critique of the GOP, and the social and economic hollowing out of the American middle class. A far-left website called Racism Review confirms the same point by envisioning the racial aspect of Brazilianization in America manifesting itself as “continuing, substantial racial segregation, less-white inner suburbs or central city areas versus disproportionately white outer suburbs, exurbia, smaller cities.” Race is intertwined with economics with “growing fear of ordinary whites about increases in Americans of color,” rooted in a perception of loss of social status for whites.
In a 1990 article, English political philosopher John Gray used the term to define a “combination of unsustainable debt, declining educational standards, Third World conditions, and the breakdown of civilized life in the cities,” which he warned was emerging in the West in the aftermath of its cold war victory. Gray identified Brazilianziation as a “worst case scenario” for the West; it is now the default hypothesis. His concerns about America’s federal debt ($9.3 trillion in 1990 measured in current dollars vs. $31 Trillion today) and a global rise in interest rates have evidently proved well-founded.
As American and Brazilian demographics converge, their politics come to mirror each other. Bolsonaro’s coalition was backed by Brazil’s evangelical community, the military, men, agriculture, and residents of small cities, an almost identical twin of the Trump Coalition. Lula’s coalition on the other hand was composed of “everyone who is against Bolsonaro” as Brazillian political scientist Graziella Testa said in an interview with Vox, mirroring the Democratic Party strategy against Trump. Few were enthusiastic about Biden himself but every Biden voter was passionate about removing Trump.
According to São Paulo-based political analyst Alex Hochuli, Brazilianization is in America’s governance, not just its politics. In a 2021 article for American Affairs, Hochuli argued that Brazilianization primarily defines the loss of state capacity. Reviewing the U.S. and Europe’s response to COVID-19, he writes that “state failure in the heart of Western capitalism puts paid to any complacent notions about the End of History and the primacy of one model over another. We all seemingly live in ‘less-developed countries’ now.” Today in America, as in Hochuli’s Brazil, “the only people satisfied with their situation are financial elites and venal politicians. Everyone complains but everyone shrugs their shoulders.”
Hochuli contrasts the mentality of current “postmodern” elites with the attitude that characterized earlier generations. “Morality is no longer the keystone of paternal, social authority. The postmodern elite feels no responsibility. It has not internalized the law, and thus feels no guilt.” The current elite condescends to voters and calls anyone who opposes them racist, sexist, or some other delegitimizing term, censors critical opposition, and disseminates outlandish conspiracy theories such as “Russiagate” to explain why voters have not selected their preferred candidate.
A Brazilianized America is run by an oligarchy overlaid by the thinnest simulation of democracy: “information wants to be free,” Hochuli writes, but not if it violates “community standards” or doesn’t suit the “oligarchy’s interests.” Enter Trump and the textbook ‘Brazilianized’ tactics deployed against him: double impeachment, endless investigations, propaganda and censorship, and tight collaboration between corporations and the state to punish his supporters.
The point above leads to the question of the status of the rule of law, which is failing in America and has failed in Brazil, where probably the worst actor is ironically its Supreme Court. Controlled by overt partisans of the previous left-wing administrations, the court recently unilaterally overturned convictions of their political associates secured by “Operation Car Wash”, widely seen as the worst corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. The annulment allowed Lula, who has been convicted and imprisoned, to run for President again. The body has become so tainted that even the New York Times recently devoted an extensive piece to attacking its corruption and abuse of power. No wonder that Trump ally Steve Bannon, himself a victim of corruption in the American justice system, has urged Bolsonaro to directly challenge the results, arguing that the Supreme Court will never let Bolsonaro win.
The Court has recently granted itself powers of investigator, prosecutor and judge as well as the power to investigate “fake news” attacking the court. In the runup to the election, the court arrested eight prominent pro-Bolsonaro businessmen based on private chat room complaints, freezing their bank accounts, and cutting off their social media.
These same trends are evident in the legal persecution of January 6th defendants, tried in DC kangaroo courts by political juries, and the continued harassment of Trump’s political allies through lawfare, including the sentencing of Steve Bannon for refusing to appear before the January 6th Congressional show trial, and the harassment of my Claremont colleague John Eastman for providing legal advice to Trump.
In both Brazil and America, lawlessness flows from the elites to the streets. As political scientist and South American resident Costin Alamariu observed for Palladium in 2018, Brazil is a country in which “only the criminals have guns,” and as a result is a country with increasing crime and lawlessness. Bolsonaro’s emphasis on this point enabled the politician, who according to Alamariu was “arguably most hated by the international left” a ”perpetual maverick” and an “outsider” relentlessly focused on “law and order” to win the election. Once again, the parallels to Donald Trump are obvious.
Alamariu’s Brazil is a classic “anarcho-tyranny” to put it in the framing of the late Sam Francis: the law-abiding are punished and the lawless behave with impunity. Accordingly, Alamariu notes the increasing alliance of law and order conservatives and social conservatives in Brazil, which is now also a theme of the GOP’s 2022 campaign: “Beyond a certain point, which is yet unknown in American discourse, the problem of ‘social conservatism’ becomes inseparable from the problem of law and order. Beyond this point, private deviance from social and moral norms spills over to become a problem of public social order. Brazil has long passed this point.”
America increasingly looks like Brazil reflected in a funhouse mirror. The figures are immediately recognizable, if somewhat distorted. Racial and political strife, economic destruction of the middle class, and collapsing rule of law among elites and law and order in the streets. All of these features are hallmarks of Brazil and America as well. “When we look upon Brazil’s dualized society today — this monstrous platypus — we are driven to conclude that Brazil has the worst elite in the world,” remarks Hochuli. He may be correct, but America is right behind.