Brazil and the transnational New Right – An interview with Benjamin Cowan, by Victor Thives

Professor Benjamin Cowan, from UC San Diego, demonstrates how the New Right developed transnationally, with determinative participation from Brazilian activists, in his article A hemispheric moral majority: Brazil and the transnational construction of the New Right, published in RBPI (Vol. 61, n. 2 – 2018). His work shows that elite reactionaries were linked in Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere, which facilitated the rise of conservative Christianity as a populist groundswell, transforming these two countries into power centers of a Right that adheres to the now-familiar Brazilian moniker Bible, Bullets, and Beef.

In recent years, as many worry about the paths taken by democratically elected leaders around the globe, the power held by conservative Christianity, whether in Brazil, in the United States or elsewhere, is no novelty. One has come to take for granted the association of liberal economic principles with illiberal conservative moral positions, propelled by the so-called New Right. The New Right’s origins are often linked to a conservative reaction to the Civil Rights movement, in the United States. Yet Cowan’s article shows how the New Right actually developed transnationally with an important participation of elite reactionaries in Brazil.

Professor Cowan’s effort to trace these processes sheds light on how Brazil and the United States became power centers of a Right that seeks to establish a hemispheric “moral majority” (WILLIAMS, 2012, 174). Achieving to outlive the modifier, the New Right helped to promote the rise of a conservative Christianity wave, of which Brazil’s 2018 elections are the last example. Professor Cowan was interviewed by Victor Thives, member of the editorial team of RBPI, regarding his views on topics related to his research.

An important part of the Right’s discourse in this last election in Brazil was based on anticommunism – including that of president-elect Bolsonaro. His campaign claimed that the Left, the Workers’ Party (PT) in particular, was trying to implement communism in Brazil, and if the PT’s candidate were elected, Brazil would become a larger Venezuela. One would think that this “culture war” narrative is decades antiquated, dating back from the Cold War, but it has had an important space in shaping the political debate in Brazil’s 2018 elections. You indicate that historians must take into account the implications of “culture wars” for the Right of today, since it encompasses realignments of conservatism that exceed national parameters. In light of your research, how do you account for this type of “red scare” spread throughout the Brazilian society these days?

I would say that, as a historian and a citizen, I am deeply troubled by the kinds of demonizing imaginaries we are seeing implemented not only by Bolsonaro, but by his followers—but the truth is that I am downright alarmed. This is a script we have seen played out, historically, in episodes documented by myself as well as by other, truly excellent historians. Rodrigo Patto, Janaina Cordeiro, Maud Chirio, and others have demonstrated the ways in which the building blocks of constructing difference have long been the very pillars that Bolsonaro has now taken up to foment new hate and new violence based in old hate and old violence. My research traces the combination of moralism, anticommunism, right-wing religiosity, and establishmentarian capitalism decades back—to the transnational circuits who spread cold war ideas that linked cultural change with communism and racial and sexual democratization with the collapse of society and threats to public safety. In other words, Bolsonaro is truly alarming… but he is also the product of a long history, for which we can thank not only Brazil’s military dictators themselves, but the civil society and business groups who supported them, the most conservative sectors of Catholic and evangelical churches, and the non-Brazilian collaborators who helped popularize the notion that neoliberal and neoconservative ideas would, together, not only rescue a mythical past social order, but improve people’s lives. These are myths, and not very believable ones based on evidence—but the terrain for them has been prepared by decades of politicians, religious leaders, lobbyists, and think-tanks.

You point out the inherent contradictions of the marriage of social, religious, and cultural reaction with renovated and radical doctrines of deregulation, triumphalist self-reliance, and laissez-faire capitalism, proposed by the so-called New Right. Mr. Bolsonaro’s long career as congressman associated conservative moral positions to economic nationalistic ones. Only recently has he converted to economic liberalism: his main economic advisor is a well-known Brazilian liberal economist who was educated at the University of Chicago. After this last minute shift, Mr. Bolsonaro’s proposals perfectly match the New Right’s tenets, namely social conservatism and liberal economic principles. Do you believe this change should be seen as an isolated political move from the candidate or, to use your own words, could it be “far from coincidental”, being “the result, rather, of the strategizing, information-sharing, and politicking of a generation of canny right-wing activists”?

I am afraid I may have anticipated the answer to this question in my previous answer, but no, Bolsonaro’s shift to the right and his subsequent acceptance by the “boi” contingent of the so-called “BBB” cannot be seen as isolated. These are the political battle lines that were created by the groups and individuals I discuss in my work. We should, thus, be even less surprised that Bolsonaro has taken on the consulting advice of Steve Bannon, whose rhetoric about economic nationalism—vociferous as it may be—can only be seen in the light of his “revolution’s” alignment with a Republican party and a transnational Right that is less interested in economic nationalism than it is in deregulation and the rise of a new era in industrial lawlessness. Bannon, Trump, Bolsonaro and others, “new” as they are in certain ways, demonstrate the ways in which even those who claim to be jettisoning older forms of establishment conservatism end up hewing to the basic marriage of deregulatory neoliberalism and moralistic reaction.

During the campaign, some political scientists associated the candidate that best fitted the New Right in Brazil to Neofascism. They made that claim because of the candidate’s various statements on, among other things, how the minorities and the opposition would be treated in his administration, which would value traditional culture and ethnocentric “Christian, middle-class, nationalistic” normativities – this last aspect being very familiar to the vantage point of today’s Right, as you’ve shown in your article. Do you reckon that the New Right could be indeed somehow linked to Neofascism or making that connection is an exaggeration?

Personally I am not convinced that “fascism” is an intellectually useful term in this climate. Fascism has never been well-defined, and its contours remain the subject of constant academic debate. Calling Trump and Bolsonaro fascists has political utility, and in that sense I am not opposed to it; moreover, there are of course similarities in terms of the ethnocentrism-cum-traditionalism that you rightly identify. What I think we need to understand, however, is that the Right moved beyond fascism a long time ago. Hitler and Mussolini would be horrified by the kinds of economic propositions that are being put forth these days; not to mention that the Nazi regime could be, in its own way, extremely sex-positive, as the brilliant Dagmar Herzog long ago showed. Neofascism is only a useful term insofar as it identifies these new politics as dangerous and as linked to conservatisms past; and in that sense I think it is worth thinking of Bolsonaro, and Trump, as tending toward neofascism, especially insofar as they are endorsed by other fringe leaders (David Duke, for example) who more fully embrace that label.

Your article support the thesis that the New Right developed transnationally, with determinative participation from Brazilian activists, facilitating the rise of conservative Christianity as populist groundswell. In the first decade of this century, Latin America was taken over by a Left-wing wave, which was articulated by the connections among Left-wing parties in the region. Could we be about to see a Right-wing wave sweeping Latin America in the years to come? Could the New Right’s transnational connections facilitate that? If so, how?

I am inclined to say that the Left-wing wave (often referred to as “pink” at the time!) was in fact not as Left as it was purported to be, largely because of the political terrain into which it crashed, so to speak. What is now decried as “globalism” is of course the result of decades of championing free trade policies—a legacy of the very transnational Right I study. But the Left-wing wave, much like the Obama administration in the United States, or even the Clinton administration before it, had its hands tied by the significant shift rightward achieved by the strategizing of people like Paul Weyrich, Carl McIntire, Plínio Corrêa de Oliveira, and others—whose work over decades simply changed the terms of debate. Now we live in a world where it is easy to dismiss the welfare state as an evil, to celebrate “entrepreneurship” as a human value, and to demand that all politicians subscribe to a “centrist” approach that policy-makers of the midcentury period (from Kubitschek to Nixon) would have seen as unpalatably right-wing. From that vantage point, I cannot see us returning to anything even remotely centrist—much less left-wing—without a major disruptive series of evens, which would correct the rightist drift we have experienced across generations.

Read the article

Cowan, Benjamin Arthur. (2018). A hemispheric moral majority: Brazil and the transnational construction of the New Right. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(2), e004. Epub November 29, 2018.

References

Williams, Daniel K. God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2012.

About the authors

Ben Cowan received his B.A. from Harvard University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from UCLA. His interest in right-wing radicalism, morality, sexuality, and 20th-century imperialism has led him to research focused on Cold War Brazil, with a specialization in the cultural and gender history of the post-1964 era. – University of California, San Diego – History. San Diego, CA, United States (bacowan@ucsd.edu);

Victor Thives holds a B.A. from University of Brasilia (Institute of International Relations) and is a master’s candidate at the same institution. He is part of the editorial team of RBPI and junior researcher at the ​Center for ​Brazilian Foreign Policy Studies. Brasília, DF, Brazil (ts.victor@icloud.com).

How to cite this interview

Mundorama. "Brazil and the transnational New Right – An interview with Benjamin Cowan, by Victor Thives". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais,. [Acessado em 22/04/2019]. Disponível em: <https://www.mundorama.net/?p=25073>.

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