His notoriety had until then been restrained to his electoral area (Rio de Janeiro) and to some extreme right-wing areas, but this episode gave Bolsonaro national visibility. To broaden his electoral base and to strengthen his position as candidate to the presidential elections, Bolsonaro then tried to temper his rhetorical impulses. He left it to his supporters to take over and work - in the streets and on social media - to "Bolsonarize" the public space.
While he does draw considerable media attention, the man is not a tribune. In fact, he is even downright austere, the very opposite of the great Latin American speakers, the traditional populists of the last century such as Vargas or Perón, or the charismatic leaders of the 21st century such as Lula or Chávez. He is particularly uncomfortable in debates. Aware of his limitations, he refused, for "medical and strategic" reasons, to participate in the six televised debates scheduled in between the two rounds. All you have to do is listen to his first speech as President-elect to appreciate his oratorical style: a monocord tone, a tense face, his eyes clinging to his notes. Minutes seem like hours. It is on social media that Bolsonaro truly excels and asserts himself. On platforms where it comes down to condensing and simplifying. Where he can freely distort facts and play with numbers to produce his "truths", without anyone there to contradict him. Both a man of his time and out of time, he mobilizes new technologies with a retro, if not old-fashioned, touch. At a time when some people are testing hologram meetings, he organizes duplex speeches on mobile phones. His speech, recited from the terrace of his residence, in a posh neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, and intended to reach thousands of supporters gathered on the main avenue of São Paulo, exemplifies a form of outdated modernization...
The Brazilians who voted for him in the second round of the presidential election did not hold his rhetorical excesses, his inefficiency during his 30 years in Congress, or even the emptiness of his program against him. But they won't be able to say that they didn’t know. Everything in Jair Bolsonaro is crystal clear: he affirms what he thinks and he thinks what he affirms. His words hold the value of truth. Yet a question remains, as he is due to take office on 1 January 2019: how far is he prepared to go to bring his project to fruition? The risk of democracy disintegrating and the government drifting towards a form of authoritarianism must not be taken lightly, given Bolsonaro's evident contempt for democratic institutions, human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Flávio Bolsonaro, Jair Messias Bolsonaro - Mito ou Verdade, Rio de Janeiro: Altadena Editora, 2017.
Illustration by David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne.