The Symbols of Vertigo: Four Books and an Anti-intellectual Government

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

“The ballot boxes opened and we were declared winners of this election. What I want most is, from next year on, following God’s teachings, alongside the Brazilian Constitution and drawing inspiration from great world leaders who had good technical and professional advice by their side—exempt from the usual political indications—to start building a government that can really put Brazil in the spotlight.” These were the words Jair Messias Bolsonaro pronounced on October 28, 2018, half an hour after the counting of votes that ended a controversial electoral dispute.

The speech was broadcast live on his Facebook page. Unlike other democratic rituals, it was not issued from the headquarters of his political party, the Liberal Social Party (PSL), or from any other public space, but instead from a room at his own apartment. The unprecedented action suggested what would later only intensify: an intersecting of public arena and domestic space, individual history and national heritage—and the strategic use of emotion and mediocrity—all for the purpose of securing the government for his own family rather than for the nation (Brum 2019).

On screen we saw Jair Bolsonaro sitting behind a large table, with his wife, Michele, on his right and a sign language interpreter on his left. In front of him rested an open memo pad, and four books stood nearby on the white wood surface. The objects were not casually placed. These were the symbols of what was to guide, and be enforced by, the new ruler: the Bible, the book The Least You Need to Know Not to Be an Idiot (by Bolsonaro’s intellectual guru, the self-educated ideologue Olavo de Carvalho), the Brazilian Constitution, and Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War.

We know that the dispositions of books are not inherent attributes, nor are their limits clearly or rigorously drawn. Books are “always in a supportive and dependent relationship to others; a point in a network; it includes a system of indications that refer—explicitly or otherwise—to other books, other texts, or other phrases,” as Foucault (1971, 19) put it. It is in the relations created among those arranged objects that the content of Bolsonaro’s speech becomes intelligible in a broader discursive field. If the invention of print media was a decisive symbol for the development of the nation’s durable constitution as an “imagined political community” (Anderson 2008), electronic media has further expanded the production of imagined worlds and subjectivities that produce realities (Appadurai 1996).

Throughout the campaign, Bolsonaro’s communication with journalists and (possible) voters was carried out through digital communication media. This was a candidate who systematically refused to attend presidential debates held by TV stations. “This first contact of mine, live, is due to the respect, consideration, trust I have in the Brazilian people. I also came here only because you, cybernauts, Brazilian people, you really believed in me,” said the would-be president. Bolsonaro circumscribes a portion of the population that he considers to be his interlocutors: Internet users. All others, whether due to difficulties in accessing the Internet or to different generational positions (Mannheim 1993), were discarded.

Such a choice for political communication never had the goal of granting people access to his proposals, nor was it intended to make the candidate confront a range of questions (commonly debated during presidential campaigns). Social networks were not deployed because they were understood as more democratic; there is no sign, in Bolsonaro’s communication practices, of an attempt to construct horizontal relations between Brazilians and their president. However, by acting through social networks, the president induced in many people “the feeling of effectively participating in government” (Nobre 2019). This feeling of direct participation in politics through social networks does not seem to be shared with those who know institutional politics. In keeping with Marcos Nobre’s (2019) assertion, I would say that the Bolsonarian social base lives “a participatory ecstasy” without true access to political decision making.

Once elected, Jair Bolsonaro did not place a call to or even mention his opponent, Fernando Haddad (from the Workers’ Party), in the election’s second round. The gesture of doing so is commonly understood as protocol that declares the end of the dispute and the reintegration of all voters as constituents of the same nation. Bolsonaro’s refusal to follow political protocol here points to a political frame in which the adversary, made enemy, must be destroyed. This premise is further expressed in the rhetoric of warfare deployed by some of his most important political allies, namely evangelical pastors.

In fact, conservative evangelical support was fundamental to Bolsonaro’s election, and religious symbols appeared at various times and in different ways during his campaign. Once elected as president, he cried out: “[for] our flag, our slogan, I got what many call a ‘toolbox for fixing men and women,’ which is the Holy Bible. We went to John 8:32, ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” Although the advent of the Republic should have officially separated religion from the state (Giumbelli 2008), Brazilian political culture is traversed by the “mutual instrumentalization between religion and politics and to legitimize and stimulate party political activism and religious occupation in public sphere” (Mariano 2010).

In the scene described at the beginning of this essay, the imagery of a Bible and the Brazilian Constitution facing one another on Bolsonaro’s table exposed a clash between Christian and secular domains at a time when many Catholics and evangelicals “promote its traditional Christian morality and try to extend it to society as a whole through lobbying and participation in party politics” (Mariano 2011). The speech, it would seem, served to announce a transition from democracy to theocracy. Bolsonaro’s retention of power is shown by actively sustaining the collapse of the country’s secular political institutions, “the same state of collapse that led to his election” (Nobre 2018).

The spectacle of Bolsanaro’s first speech as elected President pointed to “symbolic dimensions of social life” (Pontes 2010) antagonistic to what many of us Brazilians considered appropriate to a democratic government. The presence of Olavo de Carvalho’s book in such an elevated position—despite Carvalho’s wholesale rejection by academic circles—generated fear in many. The Federal Constitution put into juxtaposition with Winston Churchill’s memoir of the Second World War—what link are we to find between these? Surely these are the guides of someone unprepared or uninterested to lead democratically.


For the comments and suggestions, I thank the anthropologists Bernardo Fonseca Machado, Christiano Key Tambascia, Renzo Taddei, Rodrigo Bulamah, and Salvador Schavelzon.


Anderson, Benedict. 2008. Comunidades Imaginadas: Reflexões sobre a origem e a difusão do nacionalismo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brum, Eliane. 2019. “O golpe de Bolsonaro é pela família, contra a nação: O antipresidente ataca o país para defender os interesses do seu próprio clã.” El Pais, May 22.

Foucault, Michel. 1971. “Sobre a arqueologia das ciências: Resposta ao círculo epistemológico.” In Estruturalismo e teoria da linguagem, 19–55. Rio de Janeiro: Petrópolis.

Giumbelli, Emerson. 2008. “A presença do religioso no espaço público: Modalidades no Brasil.” Religião e Sociedade 28, no. 2: 80–101.

Mannheim, Karl. 1993. “El problema de las generaciones.” Translated by Ignacio Sánchez de la Yncera. Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas no. 62: 193–244.

Mariano, Ricardo. 2010. “Pentecostais e política no Brasil: Do apolitismo ao ativismo corporativista.” In Debates pertinentes: Para entender a sociedade contemporânea, edited by Hermílio Santos, 112–38. Porto Alegre: Edipucrs.

———. 2011. “Laicidade à brasileira: Católicos, pentecostais e laicos em disputa na esfera pública.” Civitas11, no. 2.

Nobre, Marcos. 2018. “A revolta conservadora.” Piauí 147.

———. 2019. “O caos como método: Manter o colapso institucional é o modo de Bolsonaro garantir a fidelidade de seus eleitores.” Piauí, April.

Pontes, Heloisa. 2010. “Antropología e história social da cultura: Etnografía e fuentes.” Revista del Museo de Antropología 3, no. 1: 123–34.