GZERO Media logo

Bolsonaro is an incompetent populist, not planning a military coup

The Financial Times says Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a threat to his country's democracy. Not so fast. In this episode of The Red Pen — where we do our best to keep op-eds honest — Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group's Chris Garman and Filipe Carvalho poke holes in the FT's argument.


We're taking a look at Brazil and that nation's controversial president, by way of a recent editorial from the F.T. The Pinks, as they call them. It's titled, "Jair Bolsonaro sparks fears for Brazilian democracy." Now, Brazil has more than its share of troubles, and especially right now, as they are the epicenter of the global coronavirus epidemic. The shameful mishandling of coronavirus, I mean, truly, even worse than what we've seen in the United States, by the president, has led to an explosion of outbreak there. And Bolsonaro was actually even censored on social media. I don't mean just like, a fact check. I mean, absolutely shut down for promoting false information about the virus. And in general, he's been called the tropical Trump. He's lost two of his ministers of health within four weeks of each other because he's been promoting chloroquine as a miracle cure. He's involved in rallies and occasionally not wearing masks while he's with all sorts of mass public on the streets. I mean again, everything that's been driving people crazy in the United States, take that, multiply it by about 50, and you see what president Bolsonaro has been doing in Brazil.

But the premise of the F.T. editorial is not that Bolsonaro is incompetent or that he's doing a bad job. It's rather that he has the ultimate goal of dismantling Brazil's democracy. The democracy they've had since 1988 when a new constitution brought an end to military rule. And on that, I say not so fast.

First, the Financial Times argues the Bolsonaro is at war with the Supreme Court, with Congress and with the press, all in effort to undermine Brazil's democratic institutions. Now, actually, Bolsonaro is much weaker than any of this lets on. It's less that he's trying to destroy other parts of government and certainly not that he'd be successful. Rather, he's responding to pressure to shrink his already comparatively limited power.

Also, worth noting on that point, the F.T. cites the fact that Bolsonaro has attended rallies where protesters were calling for a shutdown of Congress and the Supreme Court, to return to military rule. But there happens to be record high disenchantment with Brazil's democratic institutions. So, it's no surprise that the president is fanning the flames for political gain. That makes him a populist. That's very different from a would-be dictator.

Which brings us to the military, F.T. writes "Mr. Bolsonaro's fondness for military rule goes beyond words and symbols; a former Army captain, he has packed his government with more than 100 serving and retired military officers, including several cabinet ministers and his vice president." That is meant to bolster the argument that the president of Brazil is looking for a military dictatorship. Now, to be clear, Bolsonaro has a military background. And he has stacked his cabinet with generals. That makes a lot of people queasy in a country that recently had military rule. But there is zero support in the military for actually breaking apart Brazil's democracy. The generals see the military as the protector and not the enemy of the Constitution.

Finally, the F.T. argues that Bolsonaro is trying to provoke a crisis of democracy to get reelected as his nation reels from the pandemic. Now has the third highest death toll in the world and a lot lower population than the United States. And his poll numbers continue to sink. The Red Pen is telling you that the drop in Bolsonaro's approval ratings has actually been pretty modest so far, and he isn't using polarizing language to justify military intervention, he's doing it because it mobilizes his base.

Does that sound like anybody we know? Absolutely. It's exactly what's happening with President Trump in the United States. And the effort of mobilizing the military in the US was, of course, massively constrained by Trump's own generals. The head of the Joint Chiefs writing a memo saying that the generals report to the Constitution. They are loyal to the Constitution, not the United States president. Hundreds of generals, former defense ministers, secretaries of defense and heads of Joint Chief, all saying they feel the president himself is acting in unconstitutional fashion. That doesn't mean the United States on the verge of becoming a dictatorship, but actually shows the United States has much stronger, independent, professionalized military than a lot of people previously believed.

In Brazil, that's the case, too. And so Bolsonaro may need to go. And if it happens, it's going to happen with a democratic election. It's not going to happen on the back of a failed coup attempt and the potential for the military to take over a thriving democracy in the world's largest economy in South America.

Carbon has a bad rep, but did you know it's a building block of life? As atoms evolved, carbon trapped in CO2 was freed, giving way to the creation of complex molecules that use photosynthesis to convert carbon to food. Soon after, plants, herbivores, and carnivores began populating the earth and the cycle of life began.

Learn more about how carbon created life on Earth in the second episode of Eni's Story of CO2 series.

As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

More Show less

On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

More Show less

Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

More Show less

In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

UNGA banner

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal

Panel: How will the world recover from COVID-19?

UNGA Livestream