Less than a week after he had been tested for the novel coronavirus following a trip to the United States, during which 22 of his fellow travelers came down with the illness, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro appeared at a news conference wearing a surgical mask.
So did the rest of his Cabinet, who appeared dutifully alongside the president who had recently referred to COVID-19 as a “tiny flu” and decried the media’s coverage of it as little more than “hysteria.”
Midway through the charade, Bolsonaro removed the mask to whisper something into the ear of a minister next to him. As he attempted to put it back on, he failed to fasten it behind his left ear and sent it slingshotting back across his face. A second attempt left it strapped imperfectly across his eyes. Eventually the mask made it back to where it belonged and never should have left.
The video of the bumbling president went viral in Brazil: It seemed like a perfect metaphor for his unrivaled fumbling of this crisis, which has only gotten worse in the days since for both Brazil and Bolsonaro, who has faced nightly protests from angry Brazilians and rebukes even from his erstwhile allies.
When we begin to reassemble the pieces of society this virus will leave wrecked, the image will live on as a perfect symbol of how all of us — Brazilian and American, Indian and British, Russian and Chinese, citizens of the world over — arrived at this moment. This, we will tell our children as we point to the Brazilian president fumbling with his mask, is how we got here.
Bolsonaro is many things, including an ardent racist, sexist and homophobe. But there is one thing he is clearly not: smart enough to lead a country responsibly, especially in the midst of a global health crisis. Over the last two weeks, he has shown the world that he lacks the intelligence, intellectual curiosity or humility necessary to cobble together a proper response to the coronavirus outbreak. To Bolsonaro, whose posts been have removed from social media sites for spreading misinformation, this is just another conspiracy-driven culture war in which the goal is to troll his opponents to literal death.
This version of machismo-fueled madness will cause the deaths of thousands, and maybe millions, of Brazilians who did not need to die and should not be dead. Jair Bolsonaro, more than anyone else, will be responsible.
Other nationalistic leaders, including President Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, have proved similarly conspiratorial and incapable of meeting this moment. But none is further out of his depth than Bolsonaro.
Like so many men, and so many of the men currently leading the world’s major countries, Bolsonaro prefers to compensate for his lack of brainpower with his perceived reserve of brawn. This empty machismo explains so much about Bolsonaro, from his hatred of LGBTQ people to his iron-fisted view of criminal justice and his belief that women who question men like him are an inferior version of our species.
It has informed his response to the outbreak, too. Last week, Bolsonaro dismissed concerns over COVID-19 by saying that it couldn’t affect him because of his “history as an athlete,” as if he could simply kick the shit out of a silent and invisible killer because he is man enough to do so.
The virus, of course, doesn’t care what genitalia or gender God or anyone else assigned one at birth, much less whether one is particularly adept at sports, and so this version of machismo-fueled madness will have tremendous consequences. It will cause the deaths of thousands, and maybe millions, of Brazilians who did not need to die and should not be dead. Jair Bolsonaro, more than anyone else, will be responsible.
But it won’t stop there. As Bolsonaro should know after his virus-infused meeting with Trump in Florida, which included a Brazilian press aide who later tested positive for coronavirus, this pandemic knows no borders. The ramifications of the leader of a country of 200 million people choosing to show no regard for the well-being of his nation will spill over to other places. That other macho leaders in even larger and more interconnected nations have joined him in his quest to pretend the coronavirus is either a conspiracy or an opportunity will help push the global death toll millions of people higher than it should be. People will die because so many of our world’s most powerful leaders didn’t care that they did.
There are a variety of reasons Bolsonaro and his fellow travelers came to power. But their conscious wielding of macho politics in order to appeal to the deep anger of entitled men is a common thread.
White men in America saw in Trump an avatar of their anger that a Black president and a woman presidential candidate represented a threat to their previously unquestioned status atop the social, economic and political hierarchy of the nation. They were mad that they had lost something, simply because others gained a small fraction of the rights, humanity and benefits of basic citizenship they’d for so long been denied.
White male machismo and all the insecurity it entails have been constant features of Trump’s governing approach, from his bullying of opponents to his policies targeting women, people of color and other marginalized groups.
Putin and Xi have appealed to machismo and sexism to strengthen their grips on power in their countries. Modi has wielded macho politics throughout his tenure, which has included religious crackdowns on ethnic minority Muslims. Johnson, who has tested positive for coronavirus, infused his Brexit campaign, and later his ascent to prime minister, with gross displays of machismo subtle and obvious.
Bolsonaro supporters saw in him a rebuke of the presidents and movements that had delivered for the poor and the marginalized — the Black Brazilian and the indigenous, Brazilian women, LGBTQ Brazilians, and the poor. To them, he represented the taking back of society from those to whom it had never belonged.
For no one was this more true than men, of the sort who stood atop podiums and ripped up signs dedicated to an assassinated Black, queer, feminist politician, or mimicked Bolsonaro’s signature two-finger gun salute. Those men have cheered the loudest as Bolsonaro has cracked down on LGBTQ people, unleashed police to murder even more poor Black people than they already had been, implemented genocidal policies against the indigenous and attacked women. Like Trump supporters, they too are fond of art that makes Bolsonaro look more like the superhero, or at least the skilled athlete, he claims to be.
The people to whom this machismo particularly appealed, in reality, had little to fear relative to their more marginalized fellow citizens. Now that there is something to fear, their dear leaders have chosen to paint it as nothing more than a hoax, or to view it first and foremost as a political threat. They have covered it up, ignored it until they couldn’t or refused to show up at all. But for all their mistakes, none of them ― not even Trump ― has stubbornly and ignorantly clung to the idea that they can simply out-tough this virus the way Bolsonaro has.
There were plenty of warnings that this global embrace of blundering macho nationalism would end in disaster, and there have been plenty of signs from Brazil that Bolsonaro has indeed been worse and more extreme than most of the leaders from whom he draws inspiration. The alarmists had already been proved right — not just in Brazil, but also in the U.S., India and elsewhere — long before leaders like Bolsonaro turned a deadly virus into another tool to attack those they despise most.
But not enough people listened, or worse, too many people agreed. So for now, we are left only to hope that this won’t provide the sort of sudden spark Bolsonaro needed to turn the world’s fourth-largest democracy back toward the dark ages of dictatorship, that this band of fools doesn’t morph a pandemic into an even bigger crisis for which we’re ill-prepared or unwilling to combat, that the coronavirus spares at least a little mercy on a world dominated by leaders who have none to offer.
For now, we can hope only that one day, when we point at that picture of the bumbling Brazilian president, we’ll remember it as the moment a mask still dangling sloppily from one ear was ripped off completely, to expose how utterly small Bolsonaro and his ilk truly were. The alternative may be even scarier than the virus.