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The metaphor of the “just war” in the Bolsonarist insurrectionary universe

Written by By Gabriel Bayarri Toscano (CLACS) |

It was Tuesday, 1 November 2022. Only two days earlier, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from the Partido dos Trabalhadores- PT (Workers’ Party) had won the presidency of the Republic of Brazil by a slender margin of 1.8% against the ultra-conservative Jair Messias Bolsonaro. During the preceding month, I had been conducting fieldwork in the Brazilian subcontinent, studying the political behaviour of the voters of far-right populism and the campaign rhetoric of the Bolsonaro movement.  

On that Tuesday 1 November, several demonstrations took place in Brazil, organised by Bolsonaro supporters. They were denouncing alleged electoral fraud and calling for military intervention in parliament, which they called a “federal intervention”. Truck drivers blocked the country’s main highways, disrupting the circulation of people and goods. At the same time, thousands of people gathered on Presidente Vargas Avenue in Rio de Janeiro. They wore the bright yellow football shirt of the Brazilian national team, a symbol which had been adopted by Bolsonarist nationalism. An ocean of flags flooded the avenue. Attendees raised their arms, praising God and praying, performing military gestures, singing the national anthem, and carrying various creative elements such as cardboard ballot boxes asking for printed votes, or a Batman car supporting Bolsonaro.  

Protesters call for army intervention. Credit: Gabriel Bayarri Toscano
Protesters call for army intervention. Credit: Gabriel Bayarri Toscano
A ballot box with Lula imprisoned. Credit: Gabriel Bayarri Toscano
A ballot box with Lula imprisoned. Credit: Gabriel Bayarri Toscano

The climate was more aggressive than in 2018, people were angry, they felt the loss more keenly. “We demand army intervention in parliament!” shouted one woman. “Corrupt PT out! We don’t want to have a thief!”, exclaimed two men. “There has been fraud, it’s all a conspiracy of communism! We don’t want to eat dogs like in Venezuela!”, said a man wearing a flag as a cape. “We will not allow them to indoctrinate our children! Intervention now!”, cried a woman hugging her daughter. In the background, the slogan of Bolsonarismo could be heard over the microphone: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone!”. 

From that day onwards, thousands of Bolsonarist supporters camped out in front of dozens of military headquarters, calling for military intervention. These protests reached their apogee on Sunday 8 January in Brasilia, the Brazilian capital, when protesters, with the complicity of the Military Police, assaulted the headquarters of the executive, legislative and judicial powers. The president swiftly decreed the intervention of public security in Brasilia, regaining national control, but the attempted coup left shocking images that evoked those of the invasion of the US Capitol the year before. The event served as a material demonstration of the violent rhetoric that had been consolidated during the recent electoral campaigns. 

The  Bolsonarist campaign of 2021 had been dominated, as in 2018, by innumerable memes, images, and short, targeted TikTok videos that went viral on social media during this period. Campaign messages appeared to express a process of cognitive dissonance, distorting any evidence of reality. Some of the main messages and situations that marked the campaign agenda were unimaginable several years ago: pro-military intervention demonstrations; ideas of electoral fraud or communist conspiracies; science and climate change denial; alleged corruption with bologna sandwiches; MPs throwing grenades against the Federal Police, or chasing armed opponents after street discussions. As in previous elections, we also witnessed the circulation of fake news such as alleged baby bottles with penis-shaped teats given at public schools, “gay kits” to indoctrinate children, and visions conjured up of an imagined future Lula government in which everyone would eat dogs. We saw Batman and Captain America walking down the street, Hitler as a left-wing figure, mass prayers, baptismal trips to Jordan, alleged freemasonry, SOS requests to aliens, or Roman flag salutes. Most of these messages were aimed at constructing a dehumanising, immoral and scatological image of Bolsonaro’s political rival, Lula da Silva. 

During the elections, alongside the wholesale discrediting of the democratic process, these productions of parallel reality took shape in the public space, through demonstrations in front of military headquarters, and ultimately with the attempted coup d’état. The event on 8 January was a crucial one, demonstrating that Bolsonaro’s electoral failure would not be interpreted by his supporters as having occurred within the parameters of liberal democracy, but rather, as shaped by historical authoritarianism. In other words, that “good citizens”—or people with rights as opposed to individuals supposedly lacking them—, saw themselves as having the superior right to demand armed intervention. This event normalized an aggressive discourse in which democracy could be openly attacked, a discourse that has been reproduced with varying intensities throughout the country. It was an event that demonstrated the power of information bubbles, segmented algorithms, and how the very business model of digital capitalism was a source of political radicalization—an articulated radicalization that was implanted in the minds of people other than those within Bolsonaro’s own leadership. 

Similar visual signifiers of insurrectionary performance in the invasion of the Capitol and the three branches of government in Brazil. Credit: El Informante.
Similar visual signifiers of insurrectionary performance in the invasion of the US Capitol and the three branches of government in Brazil.
Credit: El Informante

To understand why this aggressiveness was justified in the political arena, it is important to turn to an element that is often understudied: metaphorical thinking. Linguist George Lakoff explains that “frames” are mental structures that shape the way we see the world and our justifications. These frames shape and order our knowledge, belief systems, values, and actions through language. In the current Brazilian political context, the use of language in the Bolsonarist project offers an experience of abstraction and internalisation of the world. The construction of the frames of this new world of the violent universe of the Bolsonarist coup d’état can be explained through the structural metaphor of a “Just War”. 

The implication that politics involved war also validated the idea of a Just War as a foundational metaphor, so much so that both sides of the political battle employed the concept. The suggestion that Brazil was in a state of war annulled the cooperation and compromise that regular parliamentary activities, such as agreements and legislation, require. It also legitimised the use of the various forms of violence that the construction of a polarisation between “Us” and “Them” facilitates. Bolsonarismo did not have to resort to dialogue, as its electoral adversary had already been classified as the enemy, and Lula’s opinions could be annulled through attack and dehumanisation.  

The metaphor builds an antagonism: on one side, the hero, the representative of “God” and the restoration of order; and on the other, the “Evil”, the villain, the image of the devil, immoral and vicious. This is the foundation of the Just War metaphor used in Bolsonaro’s campaign, although different names were used to mobilize different plots: the police and the army as heroes and traffickers (as villains); Bolsonaro (hero) and Lula-PT (villain); conservative morality (hero) and depraved left-wing immorality (villain); privatisation (hero) and the state (villain); Social Networks (hero) and traditional press (villain); the people (hero) and the corrupt / Supreme Court/ left (villain); the Truth carried by Bolsonaro (hero) and the spurious lies of Lula (villain). 

A protester dressed as Batman whose costume represents Bolsonarismo’s punitive project
A protester dressed as Batman whose costume represents Bolsonarismo’s punitive project.
Credit: Gabriel Bayarri Toscano

The strong dichotomy that is articulated through this metaphorical thinking allows Bolsonaro’s supporters to delegate their own beliefs to the news on social networks, through which they receive information with no critical mediation and reinforcing their preconceived ideas. Thus, the different processes of decontextualisation, fake news or the spreading of news fragments are justified without the need for empirical verification of the facts, as they will be framed in something greater, in a Just War whose Christian message is the salvation of Brazil from evil. Moreover, framing the political dispute as a war justifies and normalises the use of bellicose language and political violence.  

Human thought processes are largely metaphorical, and human conceptual systems are structured and defined metaphorically. This happens without conscious thought most of the time. However, sometimes elaborate systems of metaphorical thinking are developed for strategic purposes, as occurs with Bolsonarismo and the Just War. Faced with this comprehensive metaphorical worldview, the PT and the rest of the coalition led by Lula tried to articulate the counter metaphor of a Just War between dictatorship and democracy, in which representations of progressive values were linked to freedom, as opposed to the repression and violence linked to Bolsonarismo, which is synonymous with dictatorship in the metaphor.  

Despite Lula’s tight victory—tighter than expected—, the coming years present a situation of unprecedented parliamentary and social polarisation. The coup attempt may be just another case of the political radicalization process that has been ongoing for years. From the progressive camp, there is an urgent need for coherent conceptual frameworks to define disputed values and feelings through language, as well as to regulate the informational echo chambers which cause and perpetuate political polarisation. 


Gabriel Bayarri Toscano (@GabrielBayarri) is Newton International Fellow at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, which is part of the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of CLACS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.