13 February 2023

Right-wing extremism in Brazil will not disappear with Bolsonaro


The Brazilian right-wing turn that has grown strong under Bolsonaro is not new – and it shouldn’t feel so unexpected. A new doctoral dissertation shows that the turn is based on extremist religious ideas that have permeated Brazilian society for over 100 years.

Jair Bolsonaro, Shutterstock 1173987349
The Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro during a voter meeting in Juiz de Fora in September 2018. Foto: Shutterstock

‘The Latin American Trump’ is a nickname sometimes applied to Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president who just left office. New research from The University of Copenhagen shows that there is nothing to suggest that the new right-wing movement in Brazil neither started nor ended with Bolsonaro.

- The president has just been the figurehead of a political economic project that is based on a more than 100-year-old political philosophy called 'integrism' – an extreme traditionalism within Catholicism, which is practiced by a small but dominant elite in Brazilian society, says associate professor Georg Walter Wink from the University of Copenhagen. In his doctoral thesis 'Brazil, Land of the Past', which was written before the unrest in Brazil at the start of 2023, he provides new perspectives on the current political situation in Brazil.

- We have seen a number of political right-wing swings all over the world in recent years, e.g., in the Philippines and in Hungary. And, of course, in the US with Donald Trump. The change in Brazil, however, came as a surprise to many, because Brazil is not known for having these kinds of authoritarian tendencies. But the turn to the right in Brazil under Bolsonaro has been massive, says Georg Walter Wink.

And Bolsonaro is in a completely different league than, for example, a president like Hungary's Victor Orban, says Wink. Because Orban, to some degree, still plays by the same democratic rules as everyone else:

- Bolsonaro is trying to overthrow the political system, he regards the state as his enemy, and he puts himself outside all norms and political structures – but he still keeps insisting that he follows the rules of democracy. The reactions from his critics have been incomprehension. And perhaps because his actions have been so far from anything we associate with Brazil, we have had a tendency to make the reasons for his rise to power external – for instance by saying that Bolsonaro is just an imitation of Trump. But this evasion of responsibility does not hold, says Georg Walter Wink:

- My research shows that the phenomenon Bolsonaro has deep roots in Brazilian society. He has been the figurehead of a right-wing extremist group that has taken advantage of him because he was popular and able to mobilize the Brazilian people. The movement consists of an economic elite that makes up a very small part, perhaps only one percent, of the Brazilian population, and it consists primarily of businessmen, politicians, military personnel and a small white upper class. Their goal is to preserve the enormous privileges that Brazil's extreme social inequality – a legacy of the colonial era – has given them.

Reactionary right-wing extremists supporting the president

The religious right-wing extremism represented by Bolsonaro springs from a tradition of thought rooted in 'integrism', an ultra-conservative Catholic philosophy that was an anti-modernist reaction to the great changes that came with industrialization, urbanization, secularization and the increasing focus on human rights in the late 19th century. All that Max Weber described as a 'disenchantment of the world’; a modernization of the world.

The movement's supporters advocate for a state built on these strict Catholic dogmas. According to Dr. Wink, the ideology has influenced Brazilian society throughout the last century, and it is the basis for everything that happens in Brazil today, although nobody calls it integrism but 'liberal-conservatism'.

- Being aware of the religious traditionalism that pervades Bolsonaro's ideas and policies allows for a better understanding of the government and its seemingly erratic policies in relation to the pandemic, the environment, human rights and security issues. Bolsonaro has waged a battle against what he calls Brazil's 'internal enemy', i.e. the intellectuals, the media and the state administration, all of whom are perceived as corrupted by globalist 'cultural Marxists', explains Dr. Wink, adding that the church plays a major role in the movement's ideological basis.

- Traditionally, we consider the Catholic Church somewhat left-wing, but that only applies to part of the Catholic Church in Brazil – and not the most powerful part. If you look at the hierarchy in the church and at those in power, they are surprisingly reactionary. Some want to go back to the time before the Second Vatican Council, when the mass was performed in Latin, others believe that Pope Francis is controlled by Satan, he explains.

Medieval thoughts

Although both politicians and the media have criticized Bolsonaro in recent years, Georg Walter Wink does not think that we have fully understood what he stands for and where his ideas come from.

- Bolsonaro is not just a crazy loner; there is a great machinery behind him. He and his comrades represent an anti-modernism that is more reminiscent of the ideas of Putin and the ultra-nationalist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin than, for example, Donald Trump. Bolsonaro is against the modern nation-state, and his religious ideas are almost medieval. He is authoritarian and against homosexuality, abortion and anything 'modern' that relativizes the natural and divine order of things. His way of thinking is very radical and does not recognize man-made social regulations. Instead, his ideas are based on the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. Bolsonaro and his ‘machinery’ want to influence society through an idealistic war. A war that is not played out on the battlefield, but through culture and ideas and, for example, in the school system and at the universities, explains Georg Walter Wink.

This is going to cause big problems for Brazil's new president Lula, who took office on January 1, Georg Walter Wink believes:

- Lula is weaker, than when he was elected for the first time in 2002. During the past 20 years, the Brazilian congress has moved significantly to the right, and Lula is facing a very strong conservative opposition. An opposition that is infiltrated by the ideas of integrism. This means that he will not dare to talk about, for instance, the issue of abortion, says Georg Walter Wink and adds:

- It is important to understand that the phenomenon that Bolsonaro personifies will not just disappear with Bolsonaro. We think of Brazil as this colourful, exuberant and versatile country, but that is very far from the whole truth. Brazil is also a country filled with colonial structures, poverty, racism, virtually no social mobility and a deep skepticism towards state power, and it will be difficult for Lula to do anything about it in the current political climate.


Georg Walter Wink
Associate Professor of Brazilian and Portuguese studies
Phone: + 45 52 68 88 46
Email: georg.wink@hum.ku.dk 

Pernille Munch Toldam,
Press Officer, University of Copenhagen
Phone: + 45 29 92 41 69
Email: pmunch@hum.ku.dk