Richard Lapper, Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro. Manchester University Press. 2021.
Price: USD $15.99 | 307 pages
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), one of France’s most notable statesmen, once stated: “One’s reputation is like a shadow, it is gigantic when it precedes you, and a pigmy in proportion when it follows.” This is perhaps how history will judge Jair Bolsonaro, who unexpectedly won Brazil’s presidency in 2018: he entered office casting a long shadow, but as he struggles to be re-elected in 2022, he may come off more of smaller stature than many initially perceived. That said, he has kept the byzantine game of Brazilian politics captivating as he has consistently questioned Brazil’s electronic voting system, raising concerns about his willingness to accept any results other than his victory. If he loses, will Bolsonaro risk putting Latin America’s largest economy and democracy into political turmoil like that which occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. election? Or will he gracefully acknowledge the results? Or, in the unlikely event that he wins, will he uphold Brazil’s democracy?
These questions necessitate an in-depth understanding of Bolsonaro. Fortunately, Richard Lapper, a veteran journalist for the Financial Times, produced Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro. Originally published in 2021 (and updated with a January 2022 epilogue), it is a must-read for anyone grappling with understanding how this former army captain and congressional backbencher became Brazil’s most powerful man.
In pulling together the strands of how Bolsonaro assumed the presidency in 2019, Lapper delves into the past two decades, providing a readable tale of how Brazil made a historic shift in 2003, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party (PT) came to office, ushering in a period of 13 years of center-left governance. Despite initial concerns among the military, business, and middle classes, the Lula years were a high point for Brazil in recent history. The country benefited from a commodities super-cycle, revenues from which helped the government to target social programs to lift some of the poorest Brazilians out of extreme poverty, expand the middle class, and give the economy a strong growth spurt. Lula served two terms and in 2011 handed over the presidency to his associate Dilma Rousseff, who served until she was impeached in 2016.
While the economy expanded through the Lula period, societal divides became more manifest, especially during the Rousseff years. Support for the PT frayed among a number of constituencies, with three groups emerging to form what would be the Bolsonaro base. The first was Brazil’s rapidly growing and influential evangelical churches, which became disenchanted with the PT due to its pursuit of identity politics; many church groups were alarmed by deepening social liberalism and remained opposed to abortion, gay marriage, LGBTQ rights and sex education in the schools. Bolsonaro’s defense of family values and often crude comments about the LGBTQ community found a ready echo chamber.
A second group was the so-called beef lobby (mainly agricultural groups but also small artisanal miners called garimpeiros), who favor economically developing the Amazon, which puts them at odds with indigenous groups, local environmentalists, NGOs, and international organizations. Bolsonaro’s questioning of climate change and willingness to let large swaths of the Amazon burn (as farmers clear the forest for fields) easily made this group a constituency.
The last part of the Bolsonaro base, bullets, came from a rise in violent crime. While increased drug-related crime eroded public support for the PT, Lapper does an excellent job of providing an understanding as to how the police (with links to militias) emerged as “an aggressive and noisy political lobby.” Indeed, one Brazilian researcher referred to the rise of right-wing policemen as “Bolsonaro’s shock troops.” The appointment of ex-police and military persons to his administration only reinforced the ties between the Brazilian leader and law and order forces.
What helped coalesce the three groups behind Bolsonaro and propel him to the presidency was the country’s recession during 2014-2016, which was the worst in modern history for Brazilians. What made this difficult for many Brazilians was that the sharp downturn in economic fortunes (caused in large part by the end of the commodity super-cycle and poor policy responses by the government) came on the heels of a period of increasing national wealth and personal incomes. People blamed the Rousseff government.
Equally important in helping Bolsonaro’s rise was that the country’s economic deterioration coincided with a highly public scandal (Operation Car Wash or Operação Lava Jato). The scandal exposed the corrupt relationship between state-owned companies, politicians, and private construction firms. The PT was revealed to be as equally corrupt as any other party. Indeed, Lula would eventually be convicted of corruption and serve time, while Rousseff was impeached. As Lapper notes: “For many, Rousseff was at the center of a corrupt and ineffective administration. As the economy contracted and unemployment increased, anger at the PT government’s involvement in the Lava Jato corruption scandal grew.”
The result of a brutal economic downturn and massive corruption scandal was the election of a social media-savvy political outsider, Bolsonaro. Although far right in his political rhetoric, he gained the support of enough Brazilians to give him a solid majority in the 2018 elections.
Who did Brazil elect? According to Lapper, “I label him a populist—rather than a fascist—because it seems to me, at least so far, that Bolsonaro has yet to develop the kind of political machine or introduce the institutional capacity that he would need to bring fascism into being.” While he embodies some fascistic elements, the Brazilian leader failed to create a viable political movement, has been unable to muzzle the press or incapacitate the judiciary, and lacks any national paramilitary force. Lapper boils Bolsonaro down to “a politician who seeks to reduce complex problems to simple choices.” He adds, “…I see Bolsonaro in this book as an extreme right-wing populist, as someone similar to leaders such as Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.”
Perhaps The Economist best summed up international concerns over the 2022 election, with its cover of the September 10-16, 2022 edition: “The Man Who Would Be Trump: Bolsonaro Prepares His Big Lie in Brazil.” In his epilogue, Lapper leans in the direction that Bolsonaro will not win in 2022. He believes that his base of support, beef, bible, and bullets groups, has fractured under the pressures of an eroded standard of living, a poor COVID-19 pandemic response, more corruption scandals, and stalled economic reforms. Significantly, in Brazil’s 1964 coup, the armed forces, business community, and much of the middle class were supportive of halting the country’s leftist tilt, but the same cannot be said today. Indeed, much of Brazilian civic society is braced for any potential upheaval along the lines of the U.S. in January 2021.
Lapper’s Beef, Bible and Bullets provides an excellent guide through Brazil’s current political complexities and the man who would be Trump. It is strongly recommended.
Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and Founding Member of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.