Jair Bolsonaro is nothing if not consistent – though he may occasionally have wavered on economics, the Workers’ Party and various issues great and small, the Brazilian president has always been and always will be a paranoid authoritarian with no respect for institutional rules. Upon his election in 2018, there were some who thought his anti-democratic outbursts were just flavor rather than guiding principles: these were the so called “civilizers”, who thought Bolsonaro could be steered into being a normal right-wing politician. Looks can be deceptive: just because he is having such an obviously normal one does not mean he has ever been normal.
One by one, these men found themselves faced with the brutal sincerity of Bolsonarismo; their attempts at creating a democratic project on top of a violent conspiracy theorist went just as well as you might expect. The first one of this group to bite the dust this month was Henrique Mandetta, latterly Bolsonaro’s Health Minister, fired for trying to enforce social distancing and hard lockdown measures. Mandetta, a pro-privatization doctor, found that he could not wrap his conscience around aiding in thousands of deaths. His widely praised interventions led to the sack at the hands of his boss.
In most countries, firing your Health Minister in a pandemic would spell a deeply unwell government – or, at the very least, one with seriously mismatched priorities. However, Mandetta had been up to this point only a minor infection in the Bolsonarista blood stream; the departure of Sergio Moro, until today Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, could well prove itself to be a crushing blow.
It is impossible to underestimate Moro’s importance in the Bolsonarista imagination: perfectly dressed in his dark suits, Moro was supposed to be the impartial judge of the anti-corruption Operation Car Wash.He quickly became its protagonist by overseeing a string of arrests: starting with the notoriously corrupt and the widely hated, and culminating with the highly controversial apprehension of former president and mainstream leftist representative Lula. Moro’s role was to be one of the facilitators of the Bolsonaro government; to give gravitas to his boss’ outbursts: no, of course we would not *actually* bring back the death penalty; we’d simply make it easier for the institutionally murderous police force to kill at the slightest provocation. Though his own meaningful policy successes were few, Moro was often seen as the most popular minister, and was definitely a more palatable compromise for the upper classes who had pushed Bolsonaro to prominence. With Moro at Justice, alongside Finance superminister Paulo Guedes, the illusion of a civilized Bolsonarismo was maintained: a project which would harm only those who deserved it, and nobody else.
The frayed tensions and outright cataclysms that have characterised Brazil’s handling of the coronavirus crisis meant the former judge had little to gain by continuing to tolerate the constant humiliations directed at him by the president. The last straw, a disagreement about Bolsonaro’s firing of the head of the Federal Police, pushed Moro to appear on television, coiffed, prim and apparently deeply emotional, to announce his resignation.
It was no ordinary exit either. Moro, in his slow, methodical – dare we say it, forensic – style, detailed his numerous attempts at working alongside the president; he described the betrayal of the promise of a “carte blanche” to eliminate corruption, and his struggles in trying to run a technical team when Bolsonaro insisted in intervening politically in appointments. Moro even went so far as to praise former president Dilma Rousseff, whose government he was instrumental in destroying – no, he said, at least she would not have interfered in federal investigations. The revelations would be shocking in any other country: they expose to all the world the behaviors of a man with plenty to hide and the willingness to do so, and if anyone can shake the faith of the Bolsonarista vote, it’s Moro.
The real piece of politics, however, is the clever one-two step whereupon the sometime Justice Minister can deftly jump ship but still remain in play for 2022, positioning himself as the man to deliver the Bolsonarismo of which Brazilian elites still dream. Moro leaves the government just as strong as he came in; his media savvy means his intervention was near perfect in both timing and form – he has said just enough that the slowly rising heat on Bolsonaro is now nigh intolerable. As other sections of his support peel away, Bolsonaro’s project is being reduced to only the zealots at its very core – those with an unshakeable faith in the unstable, violent one-time regime goon whose delirious paranoia about “human rights”, “democracy” and yes, “the rule of law” justifies any action he might take.
Will it get worse before it gets better? Many are already writing the obituaries of the Bolsonaro government, and they might be right to do so; Congress has been all but anticipating a reason to impeach, although cautious operators still debate on how and when might be best to do so. However, anticipating the funeral is not necessarily the correct course of action: unlike his predecessors, Bolsonaro does not believe in playing by the rules, but rather in acting with force, and as his son said in 2018, it only takes a couple of men to shut down the country. Moro might yet find that his actions carry unintended consequences.