A few months ago I was commissioned to write a thing about Bolsonaro, the thing. Or more specifically, about “the concept of Zombie Bolsonaro” for an Italian zine, Iconografie. My piece would accompany various images of Bolsonaro ill and in hospital – you can download the pdf here below.
The English language original is republished below the pdf.
If you come at the Thing, you best not miss.
Death surrounds Bolsonaro. His glorification of violence and casual attitude towards death and suffering have been hallmarks of his public persona since his early days. He also nearly died 2018 after a random lunatic stabbed him on the campaign trail. Death of others, and his own physical—and, perhaps, impending political—death, are thus woven into Bolsonaro’s story.
He laments the passing of a dictatorship (1964-85) that, in his view, merely tortured, but did not kill. Not enough, anyway—”30,000” would have been the right toll. When deaths from the pandemic hit over 5 times that number last year, Bolsonaro was questioned over his inaction. “We have to stop being a country of sissies,” was his response.
Being strong, and not a “sissy”, is something Bolsonaro demonstrates through sanguinity in the face of death and suffering. But does this mean Bolsonaro is a strongman, that epithet that gets casually attached to any leader that flouts liberal norms? Does he exude control and vitality?
Well, he certainly is not a strong man. Bolsonaro repeatedly attempts to display his strength by doing sets of push-ups when he does photo-ops with army and police recruits. And they’re the worst push-ups you have ever seen: hands positioned like a bunny about to hop; hips swinging, as if he were an undulating eel; neck jerking, reaching downwards—a pigeon desperate for a worm.
This poor form predates the 2018 stabbing that threatened his life, it must be noted. The knife attack, though, did give him a colostomy bag… and the presidency. Until then, he had been a spectral projection, an avatar of the people’s rejection of the political class, barely known as a real, physical politician. After the stabbing he became an object of sympathy, even pity. The stabbing made him flesh.
Since then we have been treated to innumerable images of Bolsonaro in a hospital bed: alternately pallid and sallow, sagging skin revealing massive post-operative scars, tubes and wires attached to monitors and life-sustaining machinery, his shlock of Rio de Janeiro playboy hair no longer disguising his 66 years. Each time Bolsonaro has had to return to hospital for complications related to the stabbing, his people have granted the press access, evidently eager that this figure be displayed and consumed by the Brazilian public. And so it has, after each of Bolsonaro’s five ensuing surgeries throughout his presidency.
The latest moment was prompted by a torturous, 10-day bout of hiccups the president suffered, after which he went under the knife to remove a bowel obstruction. Post-op, he was photographed with what seemed to be a priest by his side bearing a golden crucifix. Is this really meant to be an image of resilience, of indestructibility? Or maybe a desperate attempt to leverage, once again, a bit more public sympathy, to remind the public of another, different Bolsonaro to the one Brazilians have come to know: Bolsonaro the assassination target, the victim of complots (rather than the agent of them)? What do images of a near-death Bolsonaro actually communicate?
It is hard to avoid the impression of a strange embrace of death—here he is, frail and weakened, but also on a merry dance with the reaper, relishing his own flirtations with the grave, as well as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians’ permanent engagement to it.
Bolsonaro’s self-generated iconography has been built on a specific gesture: the finger-guns. Bolsonaro’s supporters, those that call him mito—legend—revel in and endless reproduce it: parallel finger-guns up to the side, suggestive of a rifle or machine gun, rather than pistols, accompanied by the president’s big Cheshire grin. This isn’t a portrayal of a vicious avenger, cleaning up the scum. It’s not a dark knight but a joker—death not as instrument for social hygiene, but death as play.
One of the few images of Bolsonaro in hospital that is less immediately pathetic features him seated in a reclined position, pointing finger-guns and weakly smiling. The pointed tube feeding up his nostril makes him look like a mosquito. To internet wags, this was Bolsonaro as Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads yellow fever, chikungunya, dengue and Zika—the tropical diseases that greatly preoccupied Brazilians until around February 2020, and in response to which Brazil has had some success in mounting public health campaigns.
So, before the pandemic hit, Bolsonaro appeared as a morbid mosquito. Now, amidst the death of so many fellow citizens, he repeatedly appears in hospital, in a strange show of strongman vulnerability. But to encourage sympathy for himself can only be perverse in the midst of the country’s worse sanitary crisis in its history. This is a country, it is worth recalling, that has an impressive vaccination infrastructure. But one that only works if you have actual vaccines to administer—vaccines the president not only neglected to buy, but which he also refused when offers were put to him by the leading manufacturers (this is now a matter of public record, not speculation).
As numerous commentators have attested, Bolsonaro’s pandemic performance feels like the president cashing in on his earlier dallies with death and murder. Those promises are seen not just in his lament over the dictatorship’s failure to kill more than it did, but his attitude to criminality. After all, he was elected to be tough on crime, in a country that sees over 60,000 murders a year. “A good bandit is a dead bandit,” as Bolsonaro and his allies repeatedly parrot. His policy initiatives have repeatedly focused on relaxing gun ownership and increasing impunity for police that kill.
Moreover, Bolsonaro and his confreres have been linked to the assassination of left-wing Rio councillor Marielle Franco in 2018. His allies have publicly celebrated her assassination. The president is deeply imbricated with the milícias of his Rio base, paramilitary gangs involved in everything from extortion to death squads. His social base is the military police, the most murderous in the world; some battalions even have skull and crossbones as their corporate emblem.
And yet, the unprecedented slaughter Bolsonaro seemed to promise never really arrived. What has happened instead is a continual deterioration of an already bloody situation. More license was given to those who were already carrying extra-judicial killings, whether in the city or the countryside. A very violent society became violenter; a ratcheting-up rather than a step-change.
Instead, the overload mortuaries have come a consequence of his criminal negligence in the pandemic, for which the opposition chants genocida! But death was coming one way or another.
How should we understand this lethal politics? The old category of fascism is inadequate; he is not there at the behest of capitalist elites to exterminate communism and communists, to lead national rejuvenation. The old enemies are in the grave, too. Instead, his modus operandi is to wear down institutions, as a project of (dis-)government; create disorder and disillusionment with democracy; stimulate demand for dictatorship.
In this, he is merely the brutal, logical consequence of the neoliberalism that is the backdrop to his rule, of the undoing of the state and its capacity to guide social development. This is a liberalism that has nothing to say about freedom, beyond the freedom to arm oneself against society. It is not so much laissez faire as ne rien faire—do nothing. In the face of a pandemic, an event that more than any demands collective action, Bolsonaro has shrugged: So what? What do you want me to do? (his actual words).
Perhaps, then, he is not a neoliberal, but a necroliberal—an avatar of the developmental state’s death spiral. “I am not a gravedigger, alright?” he dismissively retorted when held to account for Covid deaths. But he surely he is. In the face of the pandemic, his response has been to naturalize it, absolve any self-conscious human endeavour from responsibility for life. “We’re all going to die one day,” Bolsonaro shrugged.
The president has consequently been depicted by cartoonists in military fatigues, saluting the grim reaper; or as a skull-faced demon; and, perhaps most accurately, as a zombie.
For this is what he has become. His government is flagging in opinion polls, his support reduced to his hard core of around a fifth of the population. He would lose an election to former president Lula in the first round, if an election were held today. Over a hundred impeachment requests have been filed and there are piles of hard evidence to convict him of any number of “crimes of responsibility” necessary for impeachment to go ahead. It only has not because he is in bed with the zombie parties of Brazilian democracy known as the Big Center—rent-seeking groups that persist in Congress for the sole purpose of extracting funds from the state; undead parasites. He has given what they want, and so they protect him.
The zombie tag seems to follow him around. Already last year, when his Justice Minister resigned over Bolsonaro’s interference in the Federal Police’s investigation of his son, Bolsonaro’s military allies called him a “zombie”, the walking dead, for having lost all legitimacy. Since then, things have only worsened for the president.
And yet, no one wants to kill him off. No one wants the responsibility of running the country. Even the zombie left, represented by the demoralised Workers Party, don’t truly want impeachment. Having provided no opposition or political leadership for the first two years of his presidency, they now find themselves leading the presidential polls. Lula, until recently imprisoned and ineligible, is back from the dead. Their strategy is to let Bolsonaro rot, to allow the zombie to stagger on till judgement day in October 2022.
And so a zombie Brazil continues its death spiral, its lifeblood drained by neoliberal governments, and then accelerated by the necroliberal Bolsonaro—or ‘the Thing’, as he’s called by those who don’t wish to utter his name. It is a deep irony that it was his near-death that gave him political life, and thus condemned so many to death.
In words that Bolsonaro would no doubt appreciate (were they not applied to him), we can only conclude that dead may be preferable to undead; if you stab, make sure to twist the knife; if you kill, make sure they stay dead; if you come at the Thing, you best not miss.