The word fascism is undoubtedly overused in today’s political lexicon. It is used by figures from across the political spectrum as a shorthand for anything that one’s opponent does that is deemed sinister or disagreeable. This phenomenon has obscured the real meaning of the word, creating confusion and misunderstanding within the general public. One of the unfortunate corollaries of this has been a tendency to dismiss comparisons between today’s right-wing populists and early 20th Century fascism as facile and overblown. But this should not stand in the way of drawing parallels that ought to be drawn – those that do not fall into the category of this kind of lazy thinking. Historical comparisons should be evaluated on their own merits and not on whether the terminology surrounding them has been debased through overuse.
In the case of Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the appropriateness of the word is now becoming self-evident through the emergence of one of fascism’s major distinguishing characteristics: the trampling over the judicial branch of the state. To be sure, Trump has already demonstrated plentiful fascistic inclinations. He has openly threatened the press, on one occasion even praising a fellow Republican for attacking a Guardian reporter. He has spoken of the possibility of serving as president for more than the maximum eight years that is allowed by the constitution, using the excuse that his base might “demand” that he “stay longer.” And he has also threatened to use executive orders to push his reactionary agenda, whether it be over his proposed wall along the Mexican border or his attempt to get a citizen question on the census. But all of this pales in comparison to what an aide let slip during a recent Fox News interview. Discussing the Supreme Court’s ruling against the administration on the citizen citizenship question during July 12 Fox broadcast, principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley made a startling admission. He said that Trump had said to advisors: “Listen, I’m not going to be beholden to courts anymore.” With this one sentence, he demonstrated an attitude that became of the hallmarks of 20th Century fascism: a complete lack of respect for judicial independence and the separation of powers.
In the case of Bolsonaro, this trend has a longer and more sinister history. During the 2018 presidential election, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was standing as a candidate for the Workers Party (PT in its Portuguese initials), which had dominated Brazilian politics until a constitutional coup against his successor, Dilma Rousseff, was orchestrated by right-wing elements in 2016. Having left office with approval ratings of over 80%, da Silva was in good stead to win the race. He was consistently topping polls and had a strong grassroots movement backing him from the country’s popular sectors. But in the midst of the campaign, he was charged with corruption as part of the region-wide “Operation Car Wash” corruption scandal (which, in a twisted irony, has also embroiled the man who replaced Rousseff after the coup, Michel Temer).
During the trial, the presiding judge, Sergio Moro, used a number of unethical and legally dubious tactics. For instance, he ordered the court to tap the phones of da Silva’s defense team and then leaked some of the resulting recordings to the prosecution and the press. These maneuvers were so outrageous that one UK-based human rights lawyer likened them to the Inquisition, stating “the grand inquisitor [Moro] organizes, supervises the searches and procedures and arrests, forms his or her own opinions and then judges.” The prosecution’s arguments were based in large part on the testimony of a convicted criminal whom they coaxed with the offer of a reduced sentence in exchange for giving evidence. Their case against da Silva revolved around a purportedly luxury property that da Silva was alleged to have accepted as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for favorable contract allocation from his government. In reality, the property in question was a modest apartment that da Silva had never even seen in person. Moreover, he would hardly have had any incentive to risk his reputation by accepting it since he could have easily afforded to buy it himself on his salary as president. Nonetheless, da Silva was convicted and sentenced by Moro to six and half years in prison, making him ineligible to continue running as a candidate in the presidential election. With the frontrunner out of the race, Bolsonaro went on to defeat da Silva’s replacement, Fernando Haddad, who was largely unknown outside his native Sao Paulo.
So, what does all of this have to do with judicial independence, you might ask? Well, given these shocking facts surrounding the trial it has long been suspected that the entire exercise was a politically motivated conspiracy between prosecutors and Moro in a bid to remove da Silva from the electoral contest and pave the way for the victory of Bolsonaro. On June 9, these suspicions were confirmed by the release of a series of leaks by The Intercept, showing that prosecutors had extensive communication with Moro in which they planned how to get da Silva behind bars and out of the race. And what makes this a clear case of breakdown in independence of the judiciary is the fact that shortly after winning the election, Bolsonaro appointed Moro to a powerful position within his cabinet that has been dubbed the “super minister of justice” due to the wide-ranging powers that the office has been delegated.
The significance of this cannot be understated. Essentially, Bolsonaro has (at best) no problem with the judicial system being completely debased for political ends – and, needless to say, ends that favor him. Just as the Trump administration spokesperson revealed that Trump says he doesn’t want to be “beholden to courts,” this represents a full-frontal assault on judicial independence and, by extension, the rule of law. This all the more ironic given that the Trump administration uses accusations of a break down in rule of law as one of things on which it predicates its interventionist stance toward Venezuela. Yet here we have flagrant examples of it taking place within one of the major Latin American governments participating in the US’s coup, and even within the US itself. The late director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Larry Birns, described this kind of double standard that Washington has for decades has taken across Latin America and the wider world in order to justify its foreign policy as “selective indignation.” Now that we are seeing a debasement of the rule of law even within US borders, it’s become a case of both selective indignation and the pot calling the kettle black. Hopefully, members of the US public that don’t belong to Trump’s base might start to realize the inherent hypocrisy of Washington’s posturing now that it has reached such dizzying heights of absurdity.