Possibly more significant than the Brazilian president’s diagnosis of Covid-19 was a guest at an Independence Day lunch in Brasilia three days before. According to the Guardian (7 July), three days before the diagnosis Bolsonaro had lunch at the home of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil. Also present at that Independence Day celebration were several top cabinet members and the president’s son, Eduardo, a politician who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America.
Nobody has been more influential than Steve Bannon in fermenting the ideas and policies of the global fascist Alt-Right. Boris Johnson borrowed ideas and phrases – such as the ‘EU deep state’ – used by Bannon when head of Breitbart News. The supposed US ‘deep state’ is now the object of a populist US insurgency apparently supported by the president. Bannon was Trump’s campaign manager for the 2016 election and vice president of Cambridge Analytica, which developed and tested the ‘build the wall’ theme on the US population. A similar meme in the UK, ‘take back control’, was developed by Dominic Cummings, who spent 90% of Vote Leave’s advertising on the Vancouver-based company AIQ that became the holding company for Cambridge Analytica. These memes have no purpose beyond building a sense of nationalist exclusivity and nativist aversion to foreigners – and loyalty to the strong man who will keep the foreigners out.
Observers of the current chaos in the US, UK, Brazil and elsewhere often ask why the populist leaders, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, behave so ineptly. Why do so many people follow leaders with no discernible plan or competence? The reason, as the journalist Jay Rosen has explained, is that the plan is to have no plan. Rather, the leaders promote massive confusion about who is responsible for Covid-19 and the economic and social situation, fixing blame on ‘leftists’, the press, China, or some other foreign element; imposing tariffs that will disadvantage their own populations; withdrawing from the World Health Organisation … and so on. The aim, in the words of Steve Bannon, is to ‘flood the zone with shit’, overwhelming the media and the population with disinformation, distraction, and denial. Out of this chaos will step the saviour strong man, as Trump stepped out of the clouds of tear gas released on his own people to hold up a bible in front of the White House church.
As Hari Kunzru has written, the deployment of the US military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest would confirm the transition to autocracy. So far, the US generals have refused Trump’s command to send troops into American cities. Ironically, the secret agent in the fight against the Alt-Right may turn out to be COVID-19. Neither Johnson and Bolsonaro, for all their posturing, has escaped infection. The coronavirus has presented a visible natural threat that puts all others into perspective – although a significant proportion of the US population continues to believe that it is a left-wing hoax. Nonetheless, it appears that Trump’s appeal is diminishing. Yet, when the intending autocrats leave the stage, the conditions that brought them power will remain.