To normalize their own dangerous politics, they must first neutralize the dangerous politics of the past.
It’s no longer just American conservatives like Dinesh D’Souza and Jonah Goldberg who are promoting the false idea that the Nazi Party was a left-wing movement. Now, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is getting in on the act. Along with arguing that Nazis were actually leftists he also claimed that people can forgive them for what they did. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin immediately condemned the remark, then added: “Political leaders are responsible for shaping the future. Historians describe the past and research what happened. Neither one should stray into the territory of the other.”
Yet for decades, populist leaders have been eagerly decimating the historical record, and playing with the memory and experiences of the victims, for political purposes. In fact, the distortion of Nazi history in particular has been a key feature of the populist brand. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now allied to racist and xenophobic parties in Israel and abroad, had also distorted Holocaust history to fit his political interests, by presenting a pro-Nazi Palestinian leader from the interwar period as a key actor in the extermination of European Jews.
According to Netanyahu, Adolf Hitler asked the mufti’s advice in 1941: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.” There is no evidence that this sort of dialogue ever took place.
Why do populist leaders want to forgive or displace the actual history of Nazism? Because as these leaders draw from the well of fascist ideology, rhetoric and tactics, they have to neuter the history of fascism to normalize their politics. Revising the history of fascism then renders it mythical rather than historical, presenting the fascism of the past as not that bad — or not even fascism at all.
Rewriting history is central to the populist project. Bolsonaro is doing it not just with the Nazi past, but with his own country’s history as well. He wants to officially celebrate the 1964 coup that led to the most murderous military dictatorship in its history. Moreover, he falsely presents this dictatorship as the one that established democracy in Brazil, and even argues that it was no dictatorship at all. For those worried about Bolsanaro’s defense of political violence and desire to accrue more and more power, his push to whitewash the country’s dictatorial past is troubling.
Last year, Bolsonaro talked with Viktor Orban, the increasingly autocratic and racist populist leader of Hungary, and said that the Brazilian people do not know what a dictatorship is, suggesting that the military junta that ran the country from 1964 to 1985 was not one. But all historians of Brazil who have studied the authoritarian regime have shown the opposite. And according to the Brazilian Truth Commission, the Brazilian dictatorship that Bolsonaro wants to commemorate was responsible for 434 deaths and disappearances of its opponents, as well as the massacre of more than 8,000 native peoples.
Normalizing, even celebrating, such deadly regimes is not just limited to his take on Brazilian history. Bolsonaro has heaped praise on a number of dictators, including the Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, who was ultimately arrested for numerous human rights violations, and the Paraguayan president Alfredo Stroessner, who kept the nation under martial law for almost all of his 35 years in power.
By presenting these dictators as saviors of their countries, Bolsonaro is replacing history with myth. The past has become a key part of what Hannah Arendt called “organized lying.” In this context, politicians use “deliberate falsehood as a weapon against the truth.” In this revisionist world the most irrational, messianic and paranoid views are falsely presented as history.
Bolsonaro’s style and substance, steeped in political violence, national chauvinism and personal glorification present key hallmarks of fascism. But it is his manipulation of history that truly reveals how the Bolsonaro regime might be turning from populism to fascism. His decision to celebrate the 1964 coup, which ended democracy in Brazil, is an action reminiscent of classic fascists like Hitler and Benito Mussolini who, after being elected and appointed to lead coalition governments, destroyed democracy from within.
As rulers, Hitler and Mussolini invented a mythical past that identified emperors and heroic warriors as mere predecessors of their rule. Perhaps with less grandiosity than the Duce and the Führer, Bolsonaro aims to link his rule with that of the Latin American dictators of the past. If the fascist leaders created a myth of fascism that established them as living incarnations of an invented golden past, Bolsonaro invents and personifies a mythical age of Latin American dictatorships.
What’s more is that Bolsonaro’s followers understand this, calling him “myth.” He has unabashedly used history as a mere tool of propaganda.
It is yet unclear how far down this path from populism to fascism Bolsonaro will go. Beyond celebrating the memories of fascism and dictatorships, right-wing populists like Bolsonaro do not automatically translate their radical rhetoric into fascist or dictatorial practice. Of course, populists like Bolsonaro, Orban, Donald Trump and Italy’s Matteo Salvini execute policies of discrimination, violence and increasing inequality. But they have done it, so far, without breaking democracy as a whole.
Their most anti-democratic moves are symbolic. Attacks on political enemies do not generally move beyond words. And herein lies a difference between fascism and populism. Unlike fascist leaders, the populist leader favor violent rhetoric without backing them up with violent action. As General Juan Domingo Peron, the first populist to come to power after the fall of fascism in 1945, stated, he was an “herbivorous lion.”
Is Bolsonaro also this kind of peaceful lion, willing to roar but not to devour? Bolsonaro stands on the border between fascism (a dictatorship) and the democratic form of populism. When he wants to celebrate dictatorship and whitewash the Nazi past, he looks very little like classic populists like Peron and much more like Hitler and Mussolini.
Will Brazil create a 21st-century fascism? It is not yet clear, but Bolsonaro’s troubling embrace of increasingly extreme fascist rhetoric should be a signal to those who believe in democracy that they must resist rising illiberalism not only with votes and demonstrations, but also with a defense of history.