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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s Twitter militancy in the country’s culture wars took an unexpected turn this week as he faced a backlash for sharing a video of the salacious behavior he has sought to condemn.
The right-wing Bolsonaro was weighing in on what he has described as the decadence of Brazil’s street carnival — the annual festival known for its subversion of orthodox social norms.
On Tuesday, Bolsonaro tweeted a video of two male carnival-goers in São Paulo atop a taxi stand, engaged in sexual behavior explicit enough to earn a “sensitive material” flag by the social media site.
“This is what many Brazilian street carnival parades have become,” he tweeted, inviting readers to “comment and draw your own conclusions.” A day after, he tweeted, “what is a golden shower?” referring to the slang term for one of the videotaped acts.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain who assumed office in January, won election on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment and a mix of socially conservative rhetoric, authoritarian innuendo and promises akin to “drain the swamp.” But just weeks into his administration, Bolsonaro’s approval rating in polls is lower than several of his immediate predecessors, at just 39 percent in mid-February.
A further insult was this year’s carnival, which was laced with critiques of Bolsonaro, which included angry chants, cans tossed at a giant paper-maché effigy of the president, and costumes referencing political corruption scandals.
The irony that the president had shared a pornographic video in his critique quickly became a national talking point in this social media-loving country. #GoldenShowerPresident and #ImpeachmentBolsonaro began to trend on Twitter, while defenders of the president tweeted #BolsonaroTemRazão – “Bolsonaro Has a Point.” A lawyer who authored impeachment charges that unseated former President Dilma Rousseff told a local newspaper that Bolsonaro’s post could merit impeachment for “lack of decorum.”
Even Bolsonaro’s allies, such as fellow right-wing politician Kim Kataguiri, have criticized him over the tweet. “This is not the posture of a conservative,” Kataguiri said.
Meanwhile, many carnival-goers were offended that Bolsonaro “reduced carnival, which is a very rich and complex cultural phenomenon, to an isolated and decontextualized scene,” said Federal University of São Paulo political scientist Esther Solano.
By Wednesday, Bolsonaro had stepped back a bit, issuing a note saying that he “did not mean to criticize carnival in a generic way,” but that the acts in the video violated “family values and the cultural traditions of carnival.”
As perplexing as the incident was to some, Solano says it shows Bolsonaro is continuing with a campaign-era strategy of stoking controversy and strong emotions around culture war issues.
“It was a carnival that was intensely anti-Bolsonaro,” she said, “and moralistic attacks are a political strategy due to the potential that this kind of protest can have.”
Despite running on a clean politics platform, Bolsonaro has already fired one minister amidst scandal and seen his son and close political ally beset with accusations of illegal money moving. This inspired the popular carnival costume of an orange — slang, in Brazilian political parlance, for a person who is a front for an illegal scheme.
Bolsonaro now faces a tough battle in Congress to pass pension reform supported by only around 43 percent of the population.
“All of the people who voted for Bolsonaro are not going to mobilize in defense of pension reform,” said Federal University of the State of Rio historian Thiago Krause, “but they could be mobilized by moralistic issues.”
Indeed, many of the more than 60,000 replies to Bolsonaro’s post agreed with the president, with one person calling the bacchanal nature of the carnival a “sad reality.” Another said carnival should be “extinct” because it was only good for “depravity.”
The political controversies of the festival extended to Rio’s main carnival parade competition in the city’s samba stadium. There, the samba school Mangueira devoted its 2019 parade to a call to tell Brazilian history from the perspectives of black, indigenous, and working-class Brazilians. One of its floats read “The Dictatorship Assassinates” – a repudiation of the rosy view of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime held by Bolsonaro.
After Mangueira was announced the victor of Rio carnival on Wednesday night, its parade director Leandro Vieira told press, “this is a political message to the whole country” and “to the president too,” that “carnival isn’t what he thinks it is.”