MBOOK OVIMENTO BRASIL (MBL), or the Free Brazil Movement, is a group of angry young men who have a knack for using social media and the streets to achieve their political goals. Since its inception seven years ago, the right-wing group has helped bring down a president, leftist Dilma Rousseff, who was ousted in 2016, and played the role of kingmaker to another, populist Jair Bolsonaro. , elected in 2018. But MBL was nowhere to be found on September 7 when Mr Bolsonaro fans took to the streets to support his ailing government. Instead, he staged a counter-demonstration five days later that called for his impeachment.
“I voted for Bolsonaro and I regret it,” said Luís Alberto Silva, a 37-year-old salesman and one of the protesters. Although smaller than his two bolsonarist Forerunner and previous anti-Bolsonaro rallies called by leftist groups, the demonstration hints at a problem for the president. Its base is often described as “beef, bullets and bibles,” in reference to the interest groups that make up the largest congressional caucuses. But equally important to his victory were the groups that defend free markets and speak out against corruption. If they are lacking en masse, it could cost him a re-election next year, a result he is set to challenge, with unforeseeable consequences.
Ten years ago, most of these libertarian groups did not exist. After the military dictatorship ended in 1985, it was taboo to identify as right-wing. One of MBLThe founders of, Fábio Ostermann, recall that when he started reading Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in the early 2000s, “to be young and not leftist was considered strange”. The leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, predecessor of Ms Rousseff, also of the Workers’ Party (TP), was popular. Previous governments had been largely centrist.
Two factors have fueled the rise of a “new right,” says Camila Rocha of the University of São Paulo in a new book, “Menos Marx, Mais Mises” (“Less Marx, More Mises”). A vote-buying scandal in 2005 plagued the TP. The previous year’s launch of Orkut, a social network with 30 million users in Brazil, provided space for unconventional ideas. Free market think tanks, such as the Millennium Institute in Rio de Janeiro, have flourished. Many of them wanted a state of lightening, which became more salient when, in 2014, the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation revealed an even larger transplant pattern involving the TP. Next to MBL, another group, Vem Pra Rua (“Come to the streets”) led demonstrations against Ms. Rousseff. Partido Novo, a “new party” with a pro-market platform, presented its first candidates in 2016.
Although many of these groups proclaim themselves to be libertarian, several have aligned themselves with more socially conservative views. In 2017 MBL joined the protests to close an art exhibition on Lgbt culture and, later, to ban Judith Butler, a philosopher, from an event due to her supposedly immoral (though for most readers impenetrable) views on the genre. Rodrigo Constantino, expert and co-founder of the Millennium Institute, deplores both the TPspending and its “satanic” sex education program.
Mr Bolsonaro has succeeded in appealing to this wide range of conservative voters. He won “because he could read in crowds,” explains Sóstenes Cavalcante, federal deputy and evangelical pastor.
The Liberals were applauded for Mr Bolsonaro’s choice for Economy Minister Paulo Guedes, an economist who studied at the University of Chicago (and another co-founder of the Millennium Institute). But the honeymoon did not last long. MBL was appalled by Mr Bolsonaro during his first year in office, when he abandoned his anti-graft plans after federal prosecutors filed money laundering charges against one of his sons. They were even more disappointed in 2020, when Justice Minister Sergio Moro, former judge of Lava Jato, resigned and accused Mr Bolsonaro of obstructing justice. By this time, the president’s party had split into lavajatists loyal to Mr. Moro and ideologues married to the president, who have resigned from the party. Other supporters abandoned Mr Bolsonaro when he botched Brazil’s response to the pandemic.
Some of these “new right” groups attempt to distract from contentious social issues. “MBL is in a bit of an identity crisis, ”said Ostermann, who left in 2018 because he felt the group was focused on defeating the TP would cost him his place in “the vanguard of liberal activism” (he is now a state deputy for Partido Novo). With Lula leading the polls for next year’s presidential election, MBL and other groups are trying to stimulate the “third way” challengers. If it is Lula and Mr Bolsonaro, most say they will give blank ballots, even if that means Lula wins.
About 30% of Brazilians still support Mr. Bolsonaro. Some dedicated fans, such as Evangelicals, have always cared more about social policies, such as upholding illegal abortion, than economic freedom or fighting corruption. Many millennials who frequented Orkut have been influenced by Olavo de Carvalho, a reactionary guru whose online lectures on how “cultural Marxism” destroys Judeo-Christian values has 1 million subscribers, including the sons of Mr. Bolsonaro.
Mr Bolsonaro’s latest supporters increasingly espouse views similar to the global alt-right, says Michele Prado, researcher studying bolsonarist groups on WhatsApp. Once marginal ideas like the return of the monarchy or the military dictatorship have become political movements with elected officials. Mr Bolsonaro’s election sparked an increase in the number of people identifying themselves as right-wing.
The political identities of Brazilians are hardly coherent, underlines Pablo Ortellado of the University of São Paulo. They have above all “to do with the jersey of the team” who wins, he said. But even if a split among the Tories undermines Mr Bolsonaro’s candidacy for re-election next year, the new right will not disappear as a political force. He may well evolve or fall back on a hard core of social conservatives, authoritarians and conspiracy theorists. Less von Mises and more Stephen Miller. ■
This article appeared in the Americas section of the print edition under the title “A Conservative Crisis”