Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: Marcelo Chello / Shutterstock.com
There is nothing like a pandemic to bring out fascist ideology in countries under far-right rule. In the world’s three largest democracies, national leaders are using the COVID-19 crisis to wage war on immigrants and minorities, while testing the limits of common sense.
NEW YORK / NEW HAVEN – In stark contrast to the effective leadership shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of South Korea Moon jae-in, and Singapore’s autocratic technocracy, the world’s far-right nationalists have encountered the COVID-19 crisis with something that has not been seen in decades: the fascist policy of disease. And no one characterizes this form of politics better than Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Certainly, a few other world leaders – including Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the dictators of Belarus, Turkmenistan, and North Korea – still deny that the coronavirus poses a threat. But, among coronavirus deniers, Bolsonaro is in a league of its own.
Among other things, Bolsonaro recently fired Brazilian Health Minister Luiz Mandetta simply for advocating mild social distancing measures. Bolsonaro appears to be imitating his American counterpart, Donald Trump, who recently ousted a senior health official for resisting his efforts to defend unproven treatment for COVID-19.
Throughout the crisis, Trump has been out of its depth, oscillating inconsistently between denial and calls for decisive action, and more recently speculating that the coronavirus could be treated by injecting household disinfectants. And yet he and Bolsonaro channel the same political impetus to place themselves above science and expertise, exalting their own instincts and justifying their decisions with faith and myth. Although their “strategies” are superficially distinct, the two share a historical fascist background, which centers on the cult of a leader and the myth of national greatness – a greatness that would have been compromised by internationalism and the liberalism (which the fascists equate to communism).
Around the world, the responses of far-right leaders to the pandemic include key elements of fascist ideology. After members of Spain’s right-wing nationalist party Vox were infected during their own political rallies, they suggested their antibodies represented the nation’s struggle against a foreign invader. As Vox leader Javier Ortega Smith, Put the, “My Spanish antibodies are fighting the pesky Chinese viruses.”
Likewise, Bolsonaro, in his first major speech on COVID-19 (March 24), claimed that Brazil was not particularly vulnerable to the virus. Unlike weak Italy, with its “large number of old people”, contemporary Brazil, he argued, “has everything, yes, everything to be a great nation”. Bolsonaro went on to tout his own “athletic story,” thus indulging in another standard fascist motive: the leader as the epitome of the health and vigor of the nation. According to “Bolsonarism”, Bolsonaro is simply Brazil.
There are good reasons why some media have double Bolsonaro, elected at the end of 2018, “the asset of the tropics”. Bolsonaro’s affinity for Trump has never been clearer than in his response to the pandemic. When Trump called in late March to reopen America before EasterBolsonaro quickly followed suit.
But, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro is actually following. While Trump has often hinted at an absolute desire for power, he invariably pulls out. In contrast, Bolsonaro joined public events in support of the intervention of the Brazilian army to dissolve Congress and the courts. He is essentially Trump’s identity, playing out what Trump can only fantasize about. And, given that fascism is, at its root, a fantasy of total domination by a leader, Bolsonaro has now surpassed his teacher in approaching it.
Moreover, in fascist politics, reality is only an instrument by which to propagate ideology and assert domination. As Hitler said Mein Kampf, “[t]The national state will see science as a way to increase national pride. “
Beyond Brazil and the United States, another great democracy – the largest in the world – has fallen under the yoke of the far right: India. There, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, used the pandemic to advance an ongoing campaign of demonization directed against the Muslim population of India.
To this end, the Modi government was publicly attribute the spread of the coronavirus at an annual meeting of the Muslim missionary group Tablighi Jamaat, while ignoring similar meetings held by Hindu groups. No wonder journalist Rana Ayyub observed, that “the hashtags #CoronaJihad and #BioJihad have flooded Twitter” in recent weeks.
The Modi government’s message is based on a disgusting lie, but it has far reaching consequences for Indian Muslims. Long before the arrival of COVID-19, Muslims were targeted by a campaign of state discrimination. In addition to an official government effort to strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship, there has been an upsurge in extrajudicial violence against Muslims, including a pogrom which coincided with Trump’s lavish official visit in India earlier this year.
In fascist politics, members of the hated outgroup are almost always portrayed as carriers of disease. This is how the Nazis described the Jews, and this is how far-right governments today justify policies targeting immigrants and minorities. In Italy, seat of the first fascist regime, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing party of the League argued in February that “[a]Allowing migrants to arrive from Africa, where the virus has been confirmed to be present, is irresponsible. At the time, there were already 229 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Italy, and just one across Africa.
Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has also used the COVID-19 crisis to bolster its anti-immigrant stance. Beyond its obsessive attacks on undocumented migrants, the administration has also imposed a radical moratorium on legal immigration.
Political leaders will always be tempted to blame problems on familiar ideological enemies, as this ensures narrative consistency. But like Hannah Arendt recalled us, “[t]The main handicap of totalitarian propaganda is that it cannot satisfy this desire of the masses for a completely coherent, understandable and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense.
Now that the United States has passed 92,000 confirmed (and almost certainly much more in total) COVID-19 dead, reality asserts itself against propaganda. But, as we know from the history of fascism, there is no guarantee that common sense will prevail.
Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York. He is the author of From fascism to populism in history, Transatlantic fascism, and The ideological origins of the dirty war.
Jason Stanley is Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University and the author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.
This article was first published at Project union May 4, 2020.