In times of crisis, societies frequently rally around their leaders to seek reassurance, guidance and leadership. Over the last few weeks, approval ratings of democratically elected governments, such as France, Germany and Italy, have all surged. Even the approval ratings of the US president and the UK prime minister are up despite their blasé reactions to the epidemic and their underwhelming leadership during the crisis. At least for the moment, that is … Trump’s and Johnson’s amateurish and arrogant behaviour over the last few weeks will come back to haunt them in the coming months.
The Brazilian government is one notable exception. The Brazilian president represents one of the very few democratically elected leaders, whose approval ratings are down in the dumps; one of the very few democratic leaders who has not benefitted from this crisis at all.
Brazilians are not rallying around their president anymore. On the contrary, the president’s actions (or inactions) are alienating more and more Brazilians. According to the latest surveys, an overwhelming majority of Brazilians have more confidence in public health experts and the Minister of Health than their president. The president’s approval ratings have been in sharp decline since the pandemic arrived in Brazil.
While Bolsonaro and his die-hard supporters despise intellectuals, scientists and experts, the vast majority of the Brazilian public think otherwise. Now, as it is abundantly clear that Brazil is in the midst of a severe health crisis, the overwhelming majority of Brazilians put their trust into public health experts and the Minister of Health. And not only the public is turning away from their president. Almost all state governors are ignoring the president’s orders to end Brazil’s lockdown. Even his own ministers are turning against Bolsonaro. And the president’s delirious behaviour does not seem to know any limits.
Crises can be a blessing for struggling governments and leaders. They can renew trust in the government without so much of an effort. The governments of the UK and the US are a case in point. Brazil has now more than 10,000 confirmed cases, and the virus is spreading like the wildfires in the Amazon Rainforest last year. Middle-class Brazilians were not particularly moved by Bolsonaro’s notorious climate change denying actions, such as recklessly pushing for further opening up the Amazon Rainforest, casting aside indigenous rights and environmental regulations. Only last year, Brazil was all over international news channels because of thousands of illegal wildfires in the Amazon Rainforest, sparked by loggers and companies to radically accelerate the clearing of the largest remaining rainforest on the planet. Bolsonaro has repeatedly prided himself for encouraging these reckless and irresponsible actions.
These actions did not particularly move large parts of Brazil’s society nor did Bolsonaro’s approval ratings particularly suffer. Nor did state governors and cabinet ministers openly turn against their president. Now, a very different wildfire is raging in Brazil. A wildfire that is imminently threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Brazilians. In the affluent neighbourhoods of Brazil’s major cities, those parts of Brazil’s society whose votes overwhelmingly put Bolsonaro into power two years ago are now passionately potbanging (in Portuguese: panelaços) every time the president appears on national television. These panelaços are a legacy of the Dilma years when during the economic crisis Brazilians started potbanging during Dilma Rousseff’s public announcements. Those panelaços started in the affluent neighbourhoods of Brazil’s major cities. Within days, they rapidly turned into a nation-wide movement of protest and outrage against the president, which ultimately led to her controversial impeachment in 2016. Now, the nation-wide potbanging protest is back, this time directed against a delirious president who in the midst of a generational crisis has still not realised what is at stake.
Crises can be revealing events. They can reveal the true qualities of a leader. The COVID-19 pandemic is glaringly revealing to all Brazilians that their president has no qualities at all. Bolsonaro could have used this crisis to cement his authority for years to come and substantially undermine the principal pillars of Brazil’s democracy (after all, this was his zealous ambition from the very beginning of his presidency, and he had a sizeable movement in his favour). While some highly skilled authoritarian leaders in other countries (for instance, China and Hungary) are taking advantage of this crisis to reinforce authoritarian rule, Bolsonaro has completely lost it.
Now, the race is on. For the last two years, Bolsonaro and his thugs have hunted down scholars, journalists, environmentalists, social activists, indigenous leaders and other critical minds. The virus SARS-CoV-2 has changed the game, turning the hunters into the hunted.