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Like peas in a pod: How Trump and Bolsonaro attack science and democracy

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow and Research Professor - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | December 9, 2021
Trump and Bolsonaro

Trump and Bolsonaro at G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan in 2019. Photo/U.S. Embassy in Brazil

Anti-science rhetoric and policies, and attacks on the scientific community, have been at the center of neo-nationalist movements and their cadre of leaders. Prominently, both Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing president often referred to as the South American Trump, follow a similar game plan, including denying the reality of climate change, aggressively reducing environmental regulations and enforcement, and initially calling the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax.

Like-minded twins, Trump and Bolsonaro were extremely slow to admit that the pandemic was real; then they both insisted it as a minor problem that could be fallaciously mitigated by drugs meant for livestock and another for malaria; and then not only failed to endorse vaccinations, but acted as an obstacle in their distribution with tragic results.

Bolsonaro is following Trump’s playbook to stay in power. He insists that if he loses in Brazil’s presidential election in a year, it will because of fraud, laying the groundwork for a constitutional crisis similar to the nearly successful January 6 coup here in the US only 11 months ago.

Bolsonaro continues to support Trump’s lie that his election was stolen.

And he also embraces a Trumpian cult of personality fueled by the use of conservative social media networks and disinformation. He openly fawns nostalgia for Brazil’s past dictators.

“From what I see in the streets, I won’t accept any result that is not my election,” he recently proclaimed. Another defiant statement: “Only God will remove me.”

There is a reason for these pronouncements.

He is facing growing criticism regarding his chaotic rule and handling of the COVID pandemic. This includes a charge that his denial of science and lack of effort to get Brazilians vaccinated led to the death of hundreds of thousands.

Shortly after the announcement that Brazil had over 600,000 deaths in early October due to COVID, a legislative inquiry charged the president and his health minister with purposefully spreading misinformation and blocking the accessibility to vaccines, directly leading to so many deaths. This has brought charges of “crimes against humanity.” (Note that a trend in Brazil is for current and past government officials to be charge with various crimes, leading for example to the removal of past president Dilma Rousseff.)

The next presidential election will be held in October of next year. Bolsonaro is likely to face former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva known as Lula (also jailed for a period for alleged corruption), his long-time nemesis.

Polls indicate that support for Bolsonaro is declining, and that Lula is well ahead. What path might Bolsonaro take if he loses? “We are certainly afraid that he could try a military coup if he looses the election, especially if Lula wins,” notes one observer.

But there is more to the science side of the story.

Academia as biased

Both Trump and Bolsonaro have portrayed science as hopelessly politically biased and public institutions, like universities and government operated laboratories, as untrustworthy. In essence, they attack not only scientists working in areas such as climate change and health; they besmirched the institutions where they work.

Universities are repeatedly condemned as hubs of their political opposition. Like past populist movements, there is also an anti-expert, anti-intellectual theme that insists that scientists and engineers, and academic in general, are part of the “deep state” – a conspiracy of technocrats and elites who are opposed to Trump and to Bolsonaro and the people that support them.

Trump has repeatedly charged universities as intolerant of conservative viewpoints and hotbeds of radical leftists; Bolsonaro goes a bit farther, saying that academia is full of socialists and, worse, communists. With Bolsonaro’s blessing and early in his presidency, police forced the cancellation of a talk entitled “Fighting Fascism” at the Federal University of Grande Dourados and undertook office raids of leftist academics.

Seeking cuts in science funding

This has led to a common tactic, as if they have traded tips; draconian proposals to cut funding for research and censoring scientists on government payrolls.

Trump’s first proposed federal budget called for deep cuts in funding to federal science agencies, in part to help justify plans for a massive tax cut.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) faced cuts of 11 and 18 percent, respectively. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was at that time the forefront of battling the Ebola epidemic, the Zika virus, and opioid use, faced a 17 percent cut.

The Trump administration set restrictions on federal agencies doing research on climate change and reduced clean air standards related to carbon emissions–policies in part linked to the US pullout from the Paris Agreement.

Trump also sought to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities–both small blips in the federal budget but a symbolic gesture for ultraconservatives.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that “the Trump administration has sidelined science in its handling of critical public health and environmental decision-making,” with serious consequences not only for the United States but for the world. Federal funding for basic research via these agencies is the lifeline of America’s science and technological innovation. It also forms a vital part of the funding model for the nation’s network of research universities.

Demagogic minds think alike.

Bolsonaro signed a bill in October of this year that reduces an August approved addition to the science budget by some 90 percent, diverting some 600 million reais ($106 million) from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to other government agencies. It has sent shock waves throughout the scientific community in Brazil.

While this cut is explained in part by the worsening condition of the Brazilian economy, it also relates to a persistence attack by Bolsonaro on the science and academic community and declining funding.

An earlier pronouncement of cuts to science resulted in large protests. In response, Bolsonaro called the protesters “useful idiots” and “imbeciles” who were being manipulated by a “smarthead minority” that controls federal universities.

“I spent some time to try and let the news sink in,” says Luisa Viegas regarding the latest round of funding cuts to science. Viegas is a biologist at the Federal University of Alagoas in Maceió studying the impact of climate change on amphibians and reptiles in Brazil. He fears his recent grant is lost. An estimated 8,000 federal grants may be nullified.

The opposition

Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the NSF and NIH during the first year of his presidency failed to gain support in Congress, in part because his own Republican party values most scientific research as a form of corporate welfare, supporting technological innovation and economic.

His administration proved inept in many areas of government management, failing repeatedly in its budget proposals, including repeated attempts to cut funding for science. His only successes came with large increases in defense spending and finally the passage of the 2017 tax cut bill that largely favored American corporations and its most wealthy citizens.

Bolsonaro’s gambit to eviscerate federal science may not come to full fruition. Opposition is growing and some cuts have been restored.

But as  Marcelo Knobel, a professor of physics and a former rector of the University of Campinas, states, “It is the lowest budget for Science and Technology ever. Now they are discussing next year budget, and again the situation seems to be disastrous. I am really pessimistic about everything.”

In Brazil there are members in the National Congress, as well as within the business community and the judiciary that have blocked or opposed some of Bolsonaro’s most radical proposals, many that violate Brazilian law.

Back in early 2019, for example, just months after taking office, Bolsonaro wanted to freeze all funding for the ministry of science and technology, a move that would have cut off scholarships for thousands of undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral researchers. The government ultimately released the money.

“Public opinion, many members of Congress, the media, and the Supreme Court successfully limited Bolsonaro’s aggressive efforts to control university governance and leadership,” as well as its scientific community, notes Elizabeth Balbachevsky and José Augusto Guilhon Albuquerque in a chapter in the new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities.

Reasons for worry

More vulnerable have been the federal scientists in research and regulatory agencies.

In the US, a 2019 study by the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, specifically formed to provide legal support for federal scientists, listed hundreds of “government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information.” This included censoring scientists, particularly on the issue of climate change; restricting participation and presentations at scientific conferences; ending or restricting access to federally collected scientific data; inappropriate interference in scientific grants; ignoring or halting science advisory committees; and simply not appointing individuals to key government positions.

Similarly, Bolsonaro has sought overt efforts to stop research related to climate change and the Brazilian environment. In 2019, for example, he accused the National Institute for Space Research of “lying” about satellite data showing increased deforestation in the Amazon and fired its director, physicist Ricardo Galvão.

Reasons for hope?

Trump lost to Joe Biden. The federal government is increasing funding for science and attempting to rebuild federal research agencies. Promoting vaccines to mitigate the health and economic impact of COVID is now a central theme of the current administration. Mitigating climate change is now a priority in Washington, at least among Democrats.

Trump’s most radical nationalist impulses had a significant yet not necessarily permanent effect on the nation’s scientific community.

What is less sure is the full impact of Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s demeaning of science and scholarship–that facts are a matter of debate and that climate change, for example, is a hoax–and more generally the precipitous decline in the trust in public institutions, and democracy itself.

Seemingly the best hope for science in Brazil? Marcelo Knobel says it simply: “it is the end of Bolsonaro’s presidency.”

But there remains the worry that Bolsonaro’s use of Trump’s “stop the steal” strategy may pose a serious danger to Brazil’s seemingly fragile democracy. Trump’s gambit almost worked.

Bolsonaro and Trump are two peas in a pod, not only supporting each other, but openly collaborating. Like autocrats of the past, the cult of personality built around Orwellian rhetoric is a powerful component in modern politics that should not be underestimated.

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This is a longer version of an article published in Times Higher Education, and reflects analysis found in my new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins University Press is an Open Access eBook  accessible for free via Project Muse.