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The Far Right in Brazil Long Precedes Trump and Bolsonaro

InterviewIn this interview, Odilon Caldeira Neto discussed the origins of fascism in Brazil and the possible influences that the Integralism movement has had on the advancement of the Brazilian far right

Odilon Caldeira Neto is a historian who specializes in right-wing extremism, political violence, and the history of neo-fascism. He is adjunct professor of contemporary history in the Graduate Program in History at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, and coordinator of the Far-Right Observatory. In an interview for the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC), he discussed the origins of fascism in Brazil and the possible influences that the Integralism movement has had on the advancement of the Brazilian far right.

According to Odilon, it would be a profound mistake to think that Jair Bolsonaro's 2022 electoral defeat marks the end of both a recent and a long history of right-wing extremism in Brazil.

What was Integralism? What was its relationship to fascism in Brazil?

Integralism emerged in 1932 in São Paulo as a political movement and party, swiftly establishing itself as the first mass political organization in Brazilian history. It also stands as the most prominent example of a distinctly fascist influence in Brazilian national politics and the largest non-European fascist-inspired movement.

Integralism found its earliest and most consolidated expression through the Brazilian Integralist Action, a political party founded by the Brazilian journalist and politician Plínio Salgado. However, it is important to note that Integralism is not limited to the Brazilian Integralist Action that existed between 1932 and 1937. As the Integralists themselves like to emphasize, Integralism is, to a certain extent, an ideological movement that has given rise to various groups and organizations in Brazil, continuing to the present day. That being said, the main reference point remains the Brazilian Integralist Action.

The Integralists sought to establish an "integral state" based on the ideology of corporatism – particularly fascist corporatism. Its structure was characterized by paramilitary features, much like other fascist-inspired movements. In terms of its ideology, rhetoric, aesthetics, and organizational style, there was a degree of replication of existing fascist paradigms, but these paradigms were adapted and reformulated to align with the Latin American context, with a particular focus on Brazil. Integralism, in short, represents the apex of fascism in the country. It has inspired numerous organizations and movements, shaping the political principles and practices of right-wing extremism in Brazil from the early twentieth century and enduring into the twenty-first century.

Who was Plínio Salgado, and what did he represent for the Integralist movement? What is his significance for the Neo-Integralist movement?

Plínio Salgado was a journalist, writer, and politician who was active in political, conservative, as well as literary circles at the beginning of the twentieth century. Salgado visited fascist Italy and sought to adapt the fascist model for the Brazilian context. In 1932, Plínio Salgado set up the Society of Political Studies and later founded the Brazilian Integralist Action, where he emerged as the central figure in Brazilian fascism. He embodied the quintessential characteristics of a fascist leader, in that he was undisputed and very charismatic.

When he died in 1975, the Integralists lost this figure. It was at this point that the question of Neo-Integralism as a form of neo-fascism came to the fore: how could Integralism be reorganized without its leading figure, who had dictated the organization's direction, pace, and form? Today, neo-Integralists seek to restructure Integralism, and although they may have differing views among themselves, they do share a common adoration for Plínio Salgado.

To what extent is there a connection between Integralism and the far-right movement of today? Can we accurately classify today's Brazilian far right as either fascist or neo-fascist?

When we talk about Integralism and Brazilian fascism, we must take into account that we are talking from a political and above all formal point of view. It is important to acknowledge that this is a history marked by significant setbacks. Although some Integralist figures were involved in dictatorial processes, both during the Brazilian Estado Novo and the civil-military dictatorship, the Integralism movement, as an organized political entity or party, never actually effectively assumed power. This means that Integralism's impact on Brazilian political history and right-wing extremism lies primarily in the realm of discourses, representations, and political ideologies.

A crucial point to highlight here is that Integralism was a movement of ideas, championed by individuals who believed unwaveringly in those ideas. Integralism's contribution went beyond the institutional level itself; it became a component in the dissemination and circulation of conservative ideals. The motto "God, Fatherland, and Family", adopted by Brazilian Integralism, has found its way into other moments in history, in particular the politics of right-wing extremism in Brazil. For example, there are records of the slogan "God, Fatherland, and Family" being used in the marches that took place before the military coup in 1964 and, notably, during the cultural and political formation of contemporary right-wing extremism in Brazil and what we now refer to as Bolsonarism. Therefore, rather than there being a revival of Integralism, we are currently witnessing a trend wherein new right-wing extremist movements are appropriating Integralist ideas.

There is a process of appropriation, collaboration, and dialogue unfolding in Brazil, alongside a simultaneous evolution of right-wing extremism within a broader historical context. Brazilian right-wing extremism should be thought of in two major dimensions, the first one being the relationship between the old and the new. I firmly reject the notion that right-wing extremism in Brazil is simply an imported model that mimics Trump's approach. This reading overlooks the country's long history of right-wing extremism, which extends beyond a single major fascist organization (Integralism), and includes the era of the civil-military dictatorship.

This interplay between the old and the new can be seen in the numerous revisions of Integralist concepts. These revisions encompass the evolving definition of freedom based on the new dynamics of uberization, new market policies, and the principles of neoliberal self-management. This is evident in the incorporation of the motto "God, Fatherland, Family, and Freedom", as well as in discussions about the freedom to access weapons and the politics of weaponry. These issues are indeed linked to a global phenomenon, but they seamlessly integrate into Brazil's rich political history. This integration underscores the resilience and adaptability of these ideas, which continue to resonate with entire generations engaged in Brazilian right-wing extremism. We must therefore recognize this intricate relationship between the old and the new within the Brazilian political landscape.

The second dimension pertains to the dynamic between the local and the global. After all, there are global dynamics of right-wing extremism and radicalism, but there are also significant local and regional nuances to consider. These nuances are important not only in terms of the history of right-wing extremism in Brazil, but also in terms of present-day local agendas, including security agendas and relationships with religious groups. So, in this sense, when it comes to the local and the global or the old and the new, it would be a mistake to classify the current state of right-wing extremism in Brazil exclusively as fascist or neo-fascist.

I believe that it is important to consider how these new facets are incorporated into a broader cultural and political context and how they establish space for the articulation of what are effectively neo-fascist groups, bearing in mind that there are limitations. We must analyze historical fascism as a product of its time, recognizing that its impact extends beyond that specific period. In the same way, we must analyze contemporary right-wing extremism as a reflection its time, shaped by both global and local crises and tensions. Thus, these dynamics and the interplay between the old and the new, as well as the local and the global, provide a framework for understanding the complexity of the phenomenon. It prevents us from reducing the present to either a mere reformulation of foreign models, or nothing more than a return to a past that is, to a certain extent, almost a century old.

In the case of Integralism, the presence of a central leader, in this case Plínio Salgado, was fundamental, and we see the same dynamic at play in the emergence of Bolsonarism. Next Sunday 19 November Argentina will go to the second round and the far-right candidate Milei (who has Bolsonaro's public support), got almost 30% of the votes in the first round. Can we draw parallels and say that Argentina is experiencing something similar to Bolsonarism in Brazil?

There are similarities and differences. Unlike Brazil, Argentina has found ways to circumvent the presence of the military in politics, like for example establishing responsibility for the illegal actions and crimes committed during the dictatorship and a transnational justice On the other hand, Milei's platform places significant emphasis on ultraliberal and libertarian ideologies, whereas Bolsonaro's leadership required a balancing act to accommodate the demands of various groups that joined Bolsonarism and the government.

Nevertheless, there are common threads that connect the new dynamics of Bolsonaro and Milei. Milei is waging a "culture war" against progressive discourse and social movements, using language and expressions common to contemporary right-wing extremism, including opposition to "political correctness" and "cultural Marxism". Employing a discourse with rebellious undertones gives a new guise to conservative values, such as anti-feminism.

Both leaders are skilful in shaping public debate and harnessing social media. In both cases, they manage to bridge historical ideas with fresh agendas, modern communication methods, and new ways of doing politics, even normalizing potentially anti-democratic proposals within the media. Milei, like Bolsonaro, presents a new framework, language, and political platform for both old and new groups that readily adapt to the new tactics implemented by the global far right.

In the English edition of your book, which you co-authored with Leandro Pereira, you draw a parallel between Integralism and Bolsonarism. What is the relationship between these two movements?

Our aim in translating the book was to make it possible for foreign audiences to better understand the history of right-wing extremism in Brazil. We noticed that part of international public opinion saw Bolsonarism as an entirely new phenomenon, emerging in a country with a supposedly consolidated democratic norm. However, anyone familiar with the history of Brazilian politics knows that democratic stability has been a sporadic occurrence in our reality. That is why our goal was not only to translate the book into English, but also to update it so that foreign readers could understand that Bolsonarism represents a continuum. Right-wing extremism has been absorbed, appropriated, and modernized, but it is a phenomenon that is part of a long history.

This history gives a little insight into the particularities and distinct local characteristics of Bolsonarism and Brazilian right-wing extremism. The influence and presence of the military, for example, connects historical themes to new narratives, such as the false notion of military intervention and a supposedly constitutional coup. Hence, it is important to emphasize that just as earlier generations were shaped by Integralist, fascist, and authoritarian ideals in more informal ways, a similar process is occurring in Brazil today, where entire generations are being solidified in their association with right-wing extremism. These generations have been shaped by ideologies centred on exclusion and the need for a hierarchical and authoritarian societal structure. Their political formation revolves around conspiracy theories and, above all, policies that challenge things like human rights, positive discrimination (políticas de cotas), feminism, Black  rights, and other social movements. These generations share a solid educational foundation, forming a real community. It would be a profound mistake to think that Jair Bolsonaro's electoral defeat marks the end of both a recent and a long history of right-wing extremism in Brazil.

There is even discussion about Bolsonarism beyond Bolsonaro himself, highlighting the consolidation of right-wing extremism in the country. So how should we address this issue? It seems to me that there is a dynamic here that goes beyond formal or exclusively electoral mechanisms in Brazilian politics. Defeating Bolsonarism politically also means contemplating defeating this very complex phenomenon in a broader way that transcends formal politics. 

A very interesting characteristic of Bolsonarism is its lack of a well-established party structure. Bolsonarism has navigated between various political groups and parties, seeking to establish networks and adapt to different political environments, circumstances, and contexts. It is the broader Bolsonarism that transcends any formal or institutional political framework, addressing emotional connections within politics and shaping the foundation of individuals' beliefs and actions in society. So how should we approach this issue? It seems that educating about right-wing extremism is imperative, but this education should extend beyond just understanding fascism and extremism. In order to comprehend the history of right-wing extremism in Brazil, it is necessary to think about broader strategies that also deal with the sources of support for this type of discourse.

Once again, I want to emphasize that situating the issue solely within the context of fascism would be a profound mistake. Analyzing Brazil's current situation solely through the lens of historical fascism fails to consider the new networks, dynamics, symbologies, figures, and languages. Thus, I think it is an important point to scrutinize. Moreover, I believe that engaging in political and legal discussion is profoundly necessary. After all, right-wing extremism is also a law-enforcement concern in Brazil today, encompassing incidents like attacks on schools and the rise of Bolsonaro-affiliated factions that have armed themselves in recent years.

Understanding this multifaceted phenomenon, which undoubtedly transcends mere party politics and is deeply rooted in Brazilian society, is not only necessary but also incredibly urgent. It has influenced older generations as well as new ones, and its scope goes well beyond the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro. This underscores the urgency of the challenge we face.

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