Brazil and Other Recent Hellscapes: Behind Populist Authoritarianism
Brazil is a country whose citizenry rarely enjoy good governance. They were doing well in recent years despite the fact their politicians seemed to be regularly impeached, locked up or otherwise disgraced, a fact which exasperated many Brazilians but in reality is proof of a system working. In the old days, and in other places (ahem) even now law breakers, narcissists and corrupt grifters are hardly called to account at all.
So it was to the disappointment of many a former army man Jair “Tropical Trump” Bolsonaro was elected last year, a strange chap we’ll get to in a moment.
Much has been written about the wave of populism over the last few years exemplified by our own Trumpocolypse as well as Brexit and various styles of dictatorship-lite in Central Europe, Russia, the Philippines, Turkey and Israel. Most of the dictators are narcissists in a clinical sense and a few are actual psychopaths pursuant to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (Hare, 1999). All have been able to sell those on the left side of the IQ bell curve a bunch of simple “solutions” to complex problems and most have empowered those whose habitats are areas of their countries that don’t seem to matter: the rural, the flyover, the de-industrialized “heartlands”. They’ve been sold a mix of “family values” and bigoted xenophobia. Denizens of that side of the curve lap up the scapegoat satisfaction, the aggrieved aggression against “those people” doing “us” wrong, particularly foreigners as they simultaneously steal jobs and sponge off welfare. And the “elites” – the rich and educated.
Another appeal of the populists is their authoritarian aggression. There’s a psychological theory that Trump supporters aren’t sticking with him because of his policies, many of which hurt them directly, and in fact his policies are largely irrelevant to them: his appeal comes from the fact that he is their weapon. A weapon doesn’t need to be clean, respectable, coherent or honest – it just needs to hurt the other side. Dishonesty actually helps because to publicly state one’s belief in 2+2=5 evinces a greater loyalty to the cult. The punitive joy of slamming the libtards, sticking it to the smart kids (science in general), and smacking those uppity bitches (gender equality) is instinctively appealing to the angry, the aggrieved, the aggressive. Never underestimate that appeal.
Bigotry does track with IQ, suggesting support for authoritarians and their tub thumping racism doesn’t trend towards our best and brightest. Authoritarianism a trait much more common in conservatives than liberals but the left is not immune and we see equally unsettling left wing authoritarianism expressed in the call-out/cancel culture, the fetid depths of Twitter, identity politics on campuses, the sharper end of the #metoo movement (with the mob justice it can represent) as well as in fanatical environmentalism or “greenism”. We see it because the appeal of authoritarianism is a psychological pathology not entirely an ideological one even though, as mentioned above, it fits the right wing better.
Further, while fans of authoritarians comprise a minority (about a third) of a given population that minority can be increased significantly by rapidly changing, challenging times, like now.
Within the authoritarian (ruler or ruled) personality’s brain, the pursuit of righteous punishment is a neurological “good” – actually visible on brain scans in the goal seeking part of our brains, the striatum, which positively lights up when provided schadenfreude and sadism. This is well documented in biology: pleasurable dopamine levels rise as stress hormones like glucocorticoids fall in a chemical cocktail of immense satisfaction, a nasty frothy lather in the human wet-wear. Pleasurable tribal bonding, in-group hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin are similarly charged by a common out-group enemy.
The commonality of all these populist monsters on the right is the prioritization of “family values”, a creepy catch-all for the oppression of women and the destruction of their reproductive rights, both of which are efforts to re-domesticate them, deny them choice in all aspects of sex and fight the promiscuity that seems to electrify the right with anger. This usually accompanies a disdain and victimization of the LGBTQ community, always a convenient punching bag for the populists as well as for the three toxic monotheistic faiths. Our views on gender occupy the core of our ideology and personality as moderated by culture and religion.
Predictive of (right wing) authoritarianism is religiosity. This is not a new thing. Religion, particularly the Catholic Church, has inhabited the extreme right on the political spectrum for over a century and history informs us that the mid-century fascist parties of Hitler and Mussolini were in tight with the Vatican at every level. Further, fascists like Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, the Croatian Ustashe as well as far right parties in Hungary and the rest of Europe were all with the Christian church. As writer Christopher Hitchens noted: political Islam being the most dangerous religion of our times is a relatively new phenomenon, for half of last century it was Catholicism via its fascist allies that was the greatest theocratic threat to freedom and humanity.
Religion and the right wing authoritarians in Brazil are in lockstep regarding the “evils” of anything queer, the empowerment of women, abortion, science education and in a bonkers move too extreme for almost all of the other authoritarians of this planet, Bolsonaro wants to teach Creationism in Brazilian schools.
Let’s remember to not lose our heads, though. To contextualize all this: the new authoritarian populism is an outlier, limited in social and geographic scope. Brexit sneaked through while the grownups thought it too insane to bother voting against and Trump lost the popular vote before being spanked in the mid-terms. The other countries mentioned above currently fevered with authoritarians and right wing blowhards are a small minority of the wider world while democratic, cosmopolitan and crucially secular values are progressing apace pretty much everywhere else. Let’s be thankful for that.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney and writer in New York City. He was educated at the University of Melbourne and Georgetown University in political science and psychology and writes for various publications.