It is said that Talleyrand once told Napoleon: “you can do everything with bayonets, Sire, except sit on them”. Recalling that illustrious piece of advice, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset complemented the adage: “To rule is to sit down. Power is not a matter of fists, but a matter of buttocks”. In other words, below the clear fields of policy and ideology lies a much more decisive and meaningful underground, made not of any material structure, but of that very many things we are used to deeming as culture. Politics, before anything else, is about culture. The recent re-emergence of so-called “right-wing populism”, therefore, must also be fundamentally understood from a cultural perspective. Its discourse, especially from the mouths of figures such as Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump, puts forth a set of cultural values and behaviours, some of them quite alien to what is generally understood to be a conservative worldview. In fact, one should ask: is populist discourse compatible with conservative ideals?
The Brazilian president serves as a good case study. Elected, similarly to his American counterpart, in a wave of anti-establishment furore, Bolsonaro soon encircled himself with conservative intelligentsia, vowing to espouse their ideals. For the first time, at least since the 80s, hard-line conservatives were given some voice in the media and government; some even became ministers of important roles concerning Education and Foreign Affairs. It has been the dawn of the Brazilian “alt-right”. Their competency and qualifications put aside, the growing influence of these right-wing intellectuals shows the government’s commitment to fostering a traditionalist cultural revival, or at the very least an effort to reconquer some “cultural spaces” lost to the left. In the short run, this may have been achieved; but as time passes on, it becomes likely that this strategy will dramatically backfire.
In order to explain why, I must first establish that “right” and “left” are, in their very essence, out-of-date and, therefore, ambiguous terms. Many of what are today considered right-wing policies may easily cross the political spectrum in the span of one generation. Consider the rising right-wing rhetoric against globalisation and against war in the Middle East. Policy is, almost by definition, a short or mid-term issue. We, as conservatives, must not keep our eyes fixed purely on policy. Instead, let us turn to culture, to the worldview, to belief. These are the true masters of any society, the things we must strenuously fight for.
Once we can agree upon this premise, it becomes easier to realise that modern right-wing populism suffers from a policy-discourse dichotomy, as we seen in the case of President Bolsonaro. Far from a well-educated, erudite man, the former congressman has promoted an image of himself as utterly – and unapologetically – ignorant. He combines a crude vocabulary with offensive slurs and childish behaviour. As such, he is viewed as “one of us” to most of the Brazilian middle and lower-middle-class (the lowest social strata, however, has remained to the left, partially a result of the Workers’ Party successful welfare policies).
One such example of his behavior occurred in 2017: When criticised by the journalist Gleen Greenwald, Bolsonaro responded with a tweet asking: “do you burn the donut?” (a Brazilian vulgar euphemism for anal sex). More recently, he has been quoted as saying: “school textbooks nowadays are a bunch of written things… we need to soften that”. His favourite book, naturally, is the autobiography of a former General and responsible for torture during the military regime.
A man with such manners and behaviour simply cannot be a conservative – for he simply does not know the Civilisation he supposedly intends to conserve. Civilisation, after all, relies on civility. It is the glue that keeps us all together: respect for your father, respect for your teacher, respect for your past, even respect for your enemy! These are the pillars of peace and cohesion in our society. For politicians, businessmen and journalists– civility is of upmost importance: to be above the ordinary standards, they should understand that there is are high expectations upon their own behaviour and should, as the Romans would say, display gravitas. Once our leaders forget that nobility entails this duty (Noblesse Oblige), everything is at risk of crumbling apart.
Written by João Paulo Carvalho
The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.