Here’s a story—a true story. A huge company sought to bribe the congressional delegation of an important political party. Eventually, the company paid off every member except for two. But not because the company’s executives considered the two men incorruptible. Instead, they were considered so irrelevant, the company didn’t even bother.
Odebrecht is the Brazilian construction firm that paid out bribes in this story. One of the congressmen is Paulo Maluf, the former governor of São Paulo state. He’s been on Interpol’s Most Wanted list and has spent time in jail; today, he’s an old guy with limited access to the corridors of power. But the other congressperson was an obscure fellow who, during a campaign to become speaker of the lower chamber, managed to win 11 out of 513 votes. Odebrecht’s accountants and lawyers considered it a waste of time to include this man, Jair Bolsonaro, in their scheme.
Being seen as irrelevant would, paradoxically, give Bolsonaro his greatest advantage in the eyes of an electorate sick and tired of corruption. During the 2018 presidential campaign campaign, media outlets reported a few corrupt actions undertaken by the president-elect (including a scheme where businessmen close to Bolsonaro were paying to disseminate fake news on WhatsApp). But to the voting public, this was nothing compared to the billion-dollar embezzlement machinery brought to light during the wide-ranging Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption investigation that began in 2014. The electorate was so fed up—saco cheio, as we say—that they conceded a few missteps in order to stop the traditional parties. Especially the Workers’ Party.
Mamata is slang term for corruption. The word comes from the verb mamar: to suckle. In Brazil, we say that corrupt politicians, flatterers of every stripe and inefficient public functionaries mamam na teta do governo: they suckle on the government’s teat. On January 1, Bolsonaro will take over as president. On that day, his supporters crow, the mamata will finally come to an end.
Performing mamata is the opposite of a participating in a “meritocracy,” a much-loved concept for Bolsonaro’s supporters. In Bolsonarista circles, “meritocracy” means that under equal conditions, those with the most “merit” always achieve their objectives, be it getting into a top university or landing a good job. According to this rationale, public policies like affirmative action in university admissions or direct cash transfers like the Bolsa Familia program—whose targeted beneficiaries are the poorest 40 percent of Brazilians, with monthly household income less than $247—are subversions of “merit.” The individuals who are recipients of these policies are corrupting the purity of competition in equal conditions, or, in cruder terms, suckling at the government’s tit.
Public policies like Bolsa Familia and affirmative action are based on the idea that the government owes a debt to historically marginalized groups in the country. Brazil abolished slavery only in 1888 and for a long time afterward blacks were prohibited from joining key institutions. (President Epitácio Pessoa, for example, banned blacks from joining the Brazilian national futebol team between 1919 and 1922.) Black Brazilians remain underrepresented in universities and public institutions. In the previous decade, more black Brazilians matriculated in universities than in the entire previous history of the country. The top of the social pyramid remains defiantly white, however. For many of Bolsonaro’s supporters, the concept of historical responsibility is not valid. In the vocabulary of the tropical alt-right, that’s bullshit, or “mimimi.”
Tougher penal sanctions for hate crimes against LGBTQI Brazilians? “Not necessary—heteros are killed every day and nobody wants to talk about them.” Indigenous reserves demarcated by the federal government with the aim of preserving indigenous cultures and ecosystems threatened by extinction? “A mamata of those lazy indigenous exploited by international NGOs who want to take the Amazon away from Brazilian control.”
(We can observe, in this last point, the Bolsonarista rhetoric of paranoia around a foreign invasion and its affinity for conspiracy theories. The president-elect’s sons have rejected the “theory” of climate change on the basis that Cleveland, Ohio, continues to receive snow every year.)
In the Bolsonarista universe, everyone who isn’t with them is a leftist who wants nothing more than to continue suckling; they, on the other hand, are the redeemers who will wipe corruption off the map. Bolsonaristas love to mention the Lei Rouanet, a law meant to encourage companies to invest in culture projects in exchange for lowering their tax burden. The legislation dates to the end of the 1980s, under the presidency of José Sarney, a conservative caudilho from the impoverished state of Maranhão. Nevertheless, Bolsonarismo believes Rouanet is simply a way for leftist artists to divert public funds in order to promote their anti-Christian values at the expense of other peoples’ taxes.
After Fernanda Lima, a host of the show Amor e Sexo, performed a post-election monologue criticizing Brazil’s patriarchal culture—without once mentioning Bolsonaro’s name—country singer and ardent Bolsonarista Eduardo Costa wrote a post to his six-and-a-half million followers on Instagram criticizing Lima. “More than 60 million Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro and now here’s this idiot with this leftist speech! She can be sure of one thing, the mamata is coming to an end.”
The funny thing is, in Brazil, the mamata has long been considered something cool, sexy—something to celebrate.
The mamata’s chief practitioner, the malandro, is the opposite of the caxias, who does everything by the book. The caxias has his shirt tucked in and buttoned all the way up. He always arrives on time. He doesn’t duck professional or personal obligations, and most certainly doesn’t tolerate his coworkers from indulging in a little day-to-day corner-cutting.
The caxias never speeds through a red light. He’s never even gotten a ticket. He doesn’t lie. A caxias is, above all, an honest man. Obedient, one who follows the rules of the hierarchy. On Brazilian television, he is exemplified by Lineu, from the series “A Grande Familia,” which aired for decades. An American example might be Michael Stuhlberg’s character in A Serious Man. To be clear: the caxias, in Brazilian popular culture, is predictably and deeply lame.
But it’s not only that—the term has darker implications, too. The term caxias comes from the Brazilian general Luís Alves de Lima e Silva, who earned the title Duke of Caxias under the tropical monarchy of Pedro II. Caxias beat back secessionist rebellions and led the Brazilian forces during the War of the Triple Alliance, which saw Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay devastate Paraguay over the course of five years.
After Brazil’s success in the war, the army—led, in part, by Caxias—began to cultivate its image as a pure institution that stood above squabbling political disputes and concerned itself solely with the best interests of the nation. It was with this mindset that the Armed Forces interrupted a handful of civil governments over the course of Brazilian history. The last time was in 1964, when the military took over the government for 21 years. Bolsonaro is an enthusiast of that dictatorship and constantly cites Caxias in his speeches.
The malandro, on the other hand, does not follow the rules and always manages to find a way to accomplish his objective with the least possible effort. Oftentimes, he is rewarded by strokes of luck. The malandro is a boor—he can’t be trusted. He’s always late and comes up with elaborate excuses to—yet again—get out of paying back that money you lent him god knows how long ago. The malandro puts his hand on the ball and the referee doesn’t see it.
The thing is, the malandro is so friendly, so charismatic, that you end up forgiving him in the end. The malandro is filled with lightness; he lets life lead him where it may. He’s allergic to planning and finds any excuse he can to celebrate, preferably with a beer in hand. In Brazil, we’ve all got a malandro we love. An adorable good-for-nothing.
Malandragem–the way of life of the malandro–has always depended on samba. Bolsonaro has never danced samba in public. This doesn’t mean that those who dance samba didn’t vote for Bolsonaro: things in Brazil are never so simple. But Bolsonaro’s message, and the public displays of affection for him, has always revolved around the national hymn and the flag, not the genial getting-along implied by samba. In Rio de Janeiro, birthplace of the dance form, Bolsonaro won more than 66 percent of the vote. In Rio de Janeiro, the former governor is sitting in prison, serving 12 consecutive terms.
Bolsonaro’s campaign draws on an appeal to order, to hierarchy, to the traditional values that lay in a supposed idyllic past, when everything was better. Bolsonaro’s utopia lies in the past. He himself claims that the best Brazil is the Brazil of “fifty years ago.” In Bolsonaro’s worldview, corruption was “invented” by the New Republic that emerged out of Brazil’s most recent dictatorship. Thus while the rampant theft that has taken place since then among Brazil’s political and business elite unveiled by the wide-ranging Car Wash corruption investigation is, of course, mamata, for Bolsonaro the mamata goes one step further, to anything that doesn’t represent order or hierarchy.
Feminism, in the eyes of a Bolsonarista, is mamata. Studies of social media profiles and groups of the Brazilian extreme right show that anti-feminism—alongside anti-leftism and anti-Workers’ Party—are the most common themes within the bolsonarista online universe. It makes sense if we consider that Bolsonaro’s utopia takes place half a century ago—he’s marking the date just before the sexual and cultural revolutions of 1968. In the Bolsonarista mindset, feminism is simply a vehicle for suspicious foreign NGOs and Rouanet-funded groups to promote their ideological interests. Thus: perversion of public funds. Thus: corruption. That’s how the link is made between corruption, on the one hand, and customs and mores, on the other.
Brazilians are well within their rights to be fed up with corruption. A majority of the population believes that the recession—the longest-running recession in Brazilian history— the lack of jobs, and terrible public services are all attributable to ethical sidestepping. It’s a simplistic vision, obviously, but one need only glance at some of the headlines over the past two years to understand the electorate’s rage.
In 2017, President Michel Temer’s closest advisor was stopped by Federal Police officers with a suitcase full of cash. One of Temer’s cabinet members was found with $10 million in an apartment in Brasília. The Workers’ Party’s 2010 and 2014 presidential campaigns cost over $350 million—much of which was skimmed from public contracts with state-owned oil company Petrobras.
The Brazilian judiciary is little better. Judges are guaranteed a housing subsidy of 4,300 reais per month—an amount higher than the monthly household income of 90 percent of Brazilians. Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court judge, was jeered at on a flight for having granted bail to a banker involved in the wide-ranging Car Wash corruption scandal.
For Bolsonaristas, Ségio Moro—a former federal judge who led Car Wash, and who has been named by Bolsonaro as Justice Minister—leads a group of heroic judges and prosecutors who are cleaning up Brazil. They believe that Moro and Bolsonaro together are ending the mamata in Brazil.
It’s hard to know if the crusade against mamata is going to continue once Bolsonaro takes office. Still, as a political analyst, I think it’s likely that it will: the “culture war” is key to understanding Bolsonaro’s rise.
Plus, he’s got company. Donald Trump didn’t moderate his tone after becoming president of the U.S. The Kirchners of Argentina (2003-2015) and the Chavismo of Venezuela (from 1999 on) has maintained a constant communications battle with the opposition, real and imagined. This style of politics requires that your troops remain permanently alienated. Specialists refer to this tactic as the “permanent campaign,” and in a climate of rancor and hatred, it’s hard to imagine peace between Bolsonaro and his opponents.
This culture war divides families, ends friendships, and promotes boycotts of singers and artists who aren’t “on the right side.” As the playwright Nelson Rodrigues has said, “when friends stop seeing each other due to political disagreements, society is ripe for a bloodbath.” I don’t want to sound alarmist—I have no desire to become a prophet of the apocalypse—but the limits of what is possible have been pushed in the years leading up to the election. A former president’s convoy was shot at in Paraná. A city councilwoman was killed 100 meters from Rio’s city hall. Bolsonaro himself was stabbed at a rally. A capoeira master was killed in Salvador. Even a dog became a target for gunmen during a pro-Bolsonaro rally.
Brazil is flirting with tragedy and the next few years will be a difficult test for the institutions of our young democracy. According to the Latinobarómetro of 2018, only 56 percent of Brazilians say that democracy is the best system of governance—down from 81 percent in 2011. I don’t know if the mamata will come to an end or not, but political hatred is giving clear signs of staying for a while.
Many observers—from Mark Manson’s viral blog to Roberto da Matta’s landmark ethnography—blame the mamata and all its variants for Brazil’s inability to “succeed,” to never progress beyond its clichéd title as “country of the future.” For these observers and others, a society cannot function if laughing at the system is accepted as a fundamental part of the system. Could it be, then, that Bolsonaro’s election serves as a break with the past? My tentative answer is yes. Bolsonaro does represent a sharp divergence from the ideological underpinning of the New Republic and its non-aggression pact among the political elite. But what comes out of that break is concerning. Bolsonaro has been clear about his disdain for the constitution and the rights it affords Brazilians, his willingness to use the idea of mamata as a bludgeon against his ideological enemies. And while the public does seem to be less tolerant of corruption, only time will tell to what extent the Bolsonaristas are willing to allow a bit of mamata for themselves.
Translated by Lucas Iberico Lozada