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The worrying ideology that helps Trump’s new friendship with Brazil

As the conflict develops in Venezuela between the US-backed Juan Guaidó and the incumbent government of Nicolás Maduro, one staunch supporter of the United States position is Brazil. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has also expressed support for Trump’s wall project, and for moving embassies to Jerusalem. This new friendship between the United States and Brazil is one of the few foreign-policy achievements of the Trump administration, which has generally seemed better at losing old friends than making new ones. How, then, do we explain the new US-Brazilian friendship that has arisen since the election of President Bolsonaro?

Some point to similarities in the electorates that helped both presidents into office. Famously, 81% of white US evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and it has also been argued that Jair Bolsonaro owes his presidency to Brazilian evangelical voters. Evangelicals are an ever more important group in Brazil, where the Catholic Church continues to hemorrhage members.

Some have pointed to other similarities between the Trump White House and the Bolsonaro Planalto (the presidential place in Brasilia). In both the Washington and Brasilia, for example, generals have been seen to be playing a stabilizing role in relation to sometimes unpredictable and outspoken presidents. Just as Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner play an unusual and outsize role in Washington, so Eduardo Bolsonaro and his bothers Flávio and Carlos play unusual and outsize roles in Brasilia.

Another reason for the excellent understanding between the two presidents was revealed in March when Bolsonaro visited Washington. At a dinner he held at the Brazilian embassy, he placed Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon on his left, and on his right “Brazil’s Bannon,” Olavo de Carvalho.

Bannon and Carvalho in fact play slightly different roles. Bannon helped get Trump into the White House, as Joshua Green showed, but then lost influence over the new president, and never had a good relationship with the presidential offspring. Bolsonaro, in contrast, came to power without help from Carvalho, while Carvalho has an excellent relationship with the Brazilian presidential offspring. His influence over the presidency seems to be growing rather than declining.

Although Bannon’s and Carvalho’s roles differ somewhat, it is not wrong to call Carvalho “Brazil’s Bannon.” As well as the new social and economic forces that are producing ever more voters inclined to vote for candidates like Trump and Bolsonaro, there are intellectuals helping to craft new messages and policies that respond to these new forces. Both Bannon and Carvalho inhabit the same intellectual world, a world trend that is of growing importance to politics everywhere.

One thing that Bannon and Carvalho have in common is an appreciation for an obscure French philosopher, René Guénon, who died in 1951. Bannon told Joshua Green that while he was a young naval officer, reading one of Guénon’s books had changed his life. Carvalho was one of the first translators of Guénon into Portuguese.

Guénon is known for his critique of modernity, which is not, he argued, a stage in the upwards march of human progress, but a stage in the downwards path of human decline. Most of modernity’s apparent achievements are actually only apparent. Science, for example, ignores all the questions that really matter. Individual reason cannot penetrate the transcendent. Western civilization is collapsing.

Guénon was not very interested in politics, and the remedy he proposed was a turn towards the transcendent. Bannon and Carvalho both seem to have accepted this, from what we can see of their traditionalist Catholicism. Some readers of Guénon, however, were interested in politics. One was an Italian, Julius Evola, who shared Guénon’s critique of modernity. Evola lived through Mussolini’s Italy without joining the Fascist Party—because he thought Mussolini was insufficiently radical. He died in 1974, and his works are now required reading for the radical right.

The time has come for those who do not share their objectives to pay attention to the ideas that are feeding recent political developments

Guénon and Evola are read alongside the rightist theorists of the following generation, of whom the most important were French: two journalists, Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye, who were central to the “New Right,” a movement started in May 1968 by French intellectuals dedicated to opposing the left that was then riding high on a wave of student protests and workers’ strikes. They launched a movement that adapted the methods of the left to support the aims and ideas of the right, including the ideas of Guénon and Evola. They also developed the idea that what mattered was not race, as the discredited theorists of the Third Reich had maintained, but culture and identity. This idea is central to the “Identitarian” movement that is strong in Europe, especially in France and Austria, and speaks effectively to European voters’ growing preoccupation with immigration.

Similar views can be found in Russia, where an enthusiast of the French New Right, Alexander Dugin, has been adapting Guénon and Evola for the post-Soviet world. And then there is the Alt Right, the American version of this world, led by men such as Richard B. Spencer, infamous for his “Hail Trump, Hail our people” speech, and his role in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Neither Bannon nor Carvalho has any interest in the crass Neo-Nazism that Spencer has come to symbolize. The intellectual world of the American Alt Right, however, connects with the intellectual world of the French New Right, and the intellectual world of the French New Right connects with that of Bannon and Carvalho. Evola’s readership has been growing steadily since the 1990s, as has that of the New Right thinkers. The time has come for those who do not share their objectives to pay attention to the ideas that are feeding recent political developments, including the new friendship between the United States and Brazil.

Featured image credit: Cidade Maravilhosa by Rafael Rabello de Barros. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

Recent Comments

  1. kahlile youssef abboud

    Good text! Thank you. I’m Brazilian, living a crazy moment here. Our president goes against higher education, against the environment, against life.

  2. Alvaro Rodriguez Akle

    La relación ideológica Trumps- Bolsonaro, se amplia con Duque en Colombia y detrás de éste Uribe, con la misma filosofia y los apoyo de los evangelistas o grupos protesrantes…

  3. Steven Engler

    As always, I admire the work on Traditionalism, but there are several distorted claims re Brazil here. Your springboard to talking about Olavo de Carvalho is weak. (1) Bolsonaro is allied with some evangelical leaders, as he is with the rural lobby, but his 11-million vote win depended on people wanting action on corruption and violence, not any tactical alliances. (2) B.’s sons are long-term professional politicians, not amateurs like Javanka. (B. himself is a 28-veteran of Congress, more than a little unlike Trump.) (3) Olavo is admired by one son, the one with least influence, Eduardo. He has never had much pull with Bolsonaro himself. The Brazilian mainstream media (strongly anti-Bolsonaro, not least because he cut billions of dollars in advertising that previous governments has shovelled their way) is selling a different distorted story: conflict between Olavo and B.’s military appointments. Better to ignore the largely false story that Olavo has influence over the government and look at his strong influence on part of the right-wing twittersphere and on right-media figures like Felipe Moura Brasil. The main thing missing from your piece is that OIavo was an esotericist before he became a political (self-styled) philosopher.

  4. Giorgio F.

    It benefits the author to know that over the decades fascism is the new norm in politics of the U.S. in the form of the Democrat Party and in Brazil of Partido Trabalhista ((PT) and PSOL.

  5. Olavo de Carvalho

    Dear Mr. Sedgwick: You don’t know my philosophical ideas. You know VERY LITTLE about me.

  6. […] Victor Bruno Professor, o senhor já falou bem do Mark Sedgwick, mas talvez o senhor queira ler este texto dele: https://blog.oup.com/…/worrying-ideology-that-helps…/ […]

  7. […] As the conflict develops in Venezuela between the US-backed Juan Guaidó and the incumbent government of Nicolás Maduro, one staunch supporter of the United States position is Brazil. — Read on https://blog.oup.com/2019/05/worrying-ideology-that-helps-trumps-new-friendship-brazil/ […]

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