The Trump of the Tropics: How Brazil’s President Came to Power

Jair Bolsonaro spent most of his career on the political fringe, until his message started to resonate with a country reeling from economic hardship and a widespread corruption scandal.

President Trump welcomed Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to the White House on Tuesday. We look at the back story of Mr. Bolsonaro, whose campaign tactics, incendiary rhetoric and brash style have earned him the nickname “Trump of the tropics.”

Your Loyalties Are Your Life

In 1900, there were two great philosophers working side by side at Harvard, William James and Josiah Royce. James was from an eminent Boston family and had all the grace, brilliance and sophistication that his class aspired to. Royce, as the historian Allen Guelzo points out, was the first major American philosopher born west of the Mississippi. His parents were Forty-Niners who moved to California but failed to find gold. He grew up in squalor, was stocky, lonely and probably knew more about despair and the brooding shadows that can come in life.

James and Royce admired and learned from each other, but their philosophies were different, too. James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.

They differed on the individual’s role in society. As David Lamberth of Harvard notes, James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.

James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.

Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.

So for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”

A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain.

You’re never going to find a cause if you are working in a bland office; you have to go out to where the problems are. Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action.

“The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty.”

In such a community, people submit themselves to their institution, say to a university. They discover how good it is by serving it, and they allow themselves to be formed by it. According to Royce, communities find their voice when they own their own betrayals; evil exists so we can struggle to overcome it.

Royce took his philosophy one more crucial step: Though we have our different communities, underneath there is an absolute unity to life. He believed that all separate individuals and all separate loyalties are mere fragments of a spiritual unity — an Absolute Knower, a moral truth.

That sense of an ultimate unity at the end things, shines back on us, because it means all our diverse loyalties are actually parts of the same loyalty. We all, he wrote, “seek a city out of sight.” This sense of ultimate unity, of human brotherhood and sisterhood, is what is missing in a lot of the current pessimism and divisiveness.

Royce’s philosophy is helpful with the problem we have today. How does the individual fit into the community and how does each community fit into the whole? He offered a shift in perspective. When evaluating your life, don’t ask, “How happy am I?” Ask, “How loyal am I, and to what?

Book Review: The Prophetic Imagination at 40

Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is perhaps the best-known of the seemingly countless books of a writing and publishing career that has seen him established as one of the most prolific of contemporary Old Testament theologians. In its second edition, The Prophetic Imagination has sold more than 1 million copies, but this year marks the 40th anniversary of its initial publication—which seems as good a reason as any to revisit this remarkable work. However, it is also a book that still speaks powerfully to the role of faith and imagination in responding to the cultural and political powers that so dominate our consciousness and actions.

.. The Prophetic Imagination is a survey of the deeper role of the prophetic voice found in the leadership, action, and teaching of the key protagonists in the biblical stories of Moses, Jeremiah, and Jesus. As Brueggemann describes it in his original preface, this small book is “an attempt to understand what the prophets were up to, if we can be freed from our usual stereotypes of foretellers or social protestors”

.. Brueggemann thus dismisses the two most common approaches to the prophetic voice among Bible readers, instead seeking a deeper reading than that often adopted in conversations about biblical justice. But this is not to ignore the practical implications of the message of the Bible’s prophets, rather it prompts a more profound response—and in that sense, more practical response—to the powers that perpetuate injustice and destroy imagination

Beginning with the story of Moses and his call to lead his people out of slavery and oppression in the land of Egypt, Brueggemann establishes a sketch of the powers that oppress all people and work to entrench and perpetuate that power. He describes this as a “royal consciousness” but one that is not only held by the ruling class but also presented to and insisted upon even among those it oppresses. As well as seeking to be all pervading, part of its mythology is the assumption of its inevitability, by which it seeks to preclude any alternative imagination or possibility. Thus, Moses’ call to the enslaved people was not merely to escape from Egypt and slavery but to begin to think that such freedom might even be possible. While this might seem less dramatic than a slaves’ revolt, this is actually the larger work: Moses’ “work is nothing less than an assault on the consciousness of the empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions” (page 9).

.. Brueggemann also uses the narrative of Moses’ confrontation with the oppressive powers of Egypt to emphasize the necessary link between faith and social justice. He does this by critiquing both extremes:

  1. first, that social radicalism by itself is a “cut flower without nourishment, without any sanctions deeper than human courage and good intentions” (page 8); but,
  2. second, that an unprophetic conservative faith offers a “God of well-being and good order” that too easily becomes “precisely the source of social oppression” (page 8).

.. Despite the seeming success of Moses’ project and the significant detail to which the biblical text goes to establish an alternative society among the newly freed Hebrew slaves in preparation for the establishment of a new nation, the perennial temptations of the royal consciousness is demonstrated by its re-emergence in the nation under the reign of Solomon. The lavishness of Solomon’s household, lifestyle, and building projects—including the Temple—contrast starkly with the oppression, forced labor, and poverty of the people. Although primarily enjoyed by only a privileged few, the growing affluence is built upon but also reinforces political oppression, and the “static religion” Moses confronted is employed to give a theological justification for the political and economic status quo. The king—and those who constitute the ruling class—comes to be regarded as having a unique access to and favor from the divine, and many religious leaders are willing to endorse this political theology as a way of incorporating themselves into the power structure.

.. This loop of power, oppression, and theological self-justification leads to a failure of imagination among both the powerful and the powerless. Focused so much on maintaining their power and privilege, the powerful are unable to conceive of the end of their power, as inevitable as that might be. But what had been unimaginable was becoming reality, which renders a double loss to those who have been comfortable in the collapsing order. As a way of surviving seemingly unalterable circumstances, the powerless were reduced to numbness, unable to feel the ongoing insults, injuries, and even death. Amid this numbness—and partially in answer to this status quo—comes the cry of the prophet Jeremiah, calling the people to grieve both the end of their empire and the losses that have been experienced by so many of its people.

.. While the temptation is to avoid the pain of grief, Jeremiah insists it is the only real and faithful response. As such, it is the prophets’ role to call people to the genuine experience of grief as a first step in the prophetic act of imagining other ways of being and living in the world. However, such grief brings the risk of despair. While grief is necessary, Brueggemann contrasts the lament of Jeremiah with the hope proclaimed by Second Isaiah “as a prophet of hope to kings in despair” (page 68). In the scriptural narrative, the prophetic role is responsive to the national circumstances. Amid attack, exile and ongoing subjugation—in the context of grief—hope becomes the primary task of prophetic imagination.

.. In the Christian reading of the Hebrew prophets, this hopeful imagination always points forward to Jesus as the coming Messiah. But when Brueggemann’s attention turns to Jesus, he also argues that the ministry of Jesus can also be read and understood in the context of the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He identifies the same progression of

  1. numbness and
  2. grief,
  3. despair and
  4. hope

played out in the ministry and ultimately in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ life and ministry unmask and critique the oppressive powers of his day. From His birth, His healing miracles, His teaching, and His acts of resurrection, there are many examples of Jesus working to undermine the sense of assumption and inevitability that must be overcome before the status quo can be challenged. While Jesus focused primarily on the oppressed with whom He identified in so many aspects of His life and experience, “there are never oppressed without oppressors” (page 84). In turn, He challenged each of the powers that maintained the political, economic, and religious oppression of the people. In place of numbness, Jesus practiced a compassion that was all-encompassing and “a radical form of criticism, for it announces that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (page 88).

But Jesus was not merely a social or political critic. He demonstrated the prophetic imagination to which the previous Hebrew prophets had pointed. Despite the context in which He and most of His hearers lived and suffered, He insisted on a new and different kind of kingdom that was, even then, growing among them. While Jesus’ ultimate critique—even judgment—of the oppressors came in the context and process of His death by crucifixion, He re-energized the possibilities of transformative hope by His resurrection. In Brueggemann’s language, “the resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God, whose province is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair” (page 112). While this is radically new, for Brueggemann, it is best understood in the context of the promises and hopes of the prophets who came before, as “the ultimate act of prophetic energizing” (page 113) that made space for life and newness, wonder and possibility.

.. “It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing future alternatives to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one” (page 40). Using the biblical narratives and Hebrew prophets as models and mentors, as well as sources of teaching and inspiration, leaders in these communities are called to speak and act with prophetic imagination.

.. Prompted by one of his students, Brueggemann’s focus is sharpened in “A Postscript on Practice” in the second edition, bringing together specific examples of what prophetic imagination looks like in contemporary culture. Key to faithfully living out the call to prophetic imagination is resistance to the dominant culture, its assumptions, and its supposed inevitability. Prophetic imagination will insist on

  1. seeing,
  2. feeling, and
  3. responding differently

to people and society around us. And leaders with prophetic imagination will seek to build communities in which this imagination is shared, fostered, and lived out in ways that change society and culture.

 

How can we be present to what’s happening in the world without giving in to despair and hopelessness?

 Journalism, the way it came down to us from the 20th century, is absolutely focused, utterly and completely, on what is catastrophic, corrupt, and failing. And then, at the same time, there are good people. There are healing initiatives. There is a narrative of healing and of hope and of goodness, and we also just, as a discipline, have to take that in, as well — not instead of, but the both/and of humanity and of our world.

.. the attention I pay to language and I see how we have lapsed into calling the people on ships that are floating perilously around oceans, or children and parents in detention on our border, how we call them migrants. And what difference it would be, both for the journalists reporting this and the politicians legislating it and for us, consuming it and figuring out what to do, as fellow citizens. I think we have to call ourselves, always, to call them people. So that’s something I pay attention to that’s in my mind. How can I insert my understanding of the power of language in the places I’m working? And I don’t think that’s enough, but I think that’s what I can do today.

.. There’s a sensibility behind that stance that says that joy is a privilege. And I don’t think joy is a privilege. I think freedom can be a privilege; I think luxury and comfort can be a privilege. But joy is a piece of basic human resilience. It’s a human birthright. And in fact, one of the paradoxical and amazing things about our species is how people are able to get through the worst, also, with their joy muscle intact.

Donald Trump’s Crisis of Legitimacy

morning papers were full of stories demonstrating that his political legitimacy, or what small reserves he had left of it, was steadily draining away. After days of prevaricating, America’s business leaders were finally abandoning him en masse.

  • Top generals from all five military branches were issuing statements implicitly rebuking him.
  • Many White House staffers were despairing of him.
  • And even some members of the Society for the Protection of Spineless Conservative Politicians, otherwise known as the leadership of the Republican Party, were starting to distance themselves from him, albeit hesitantly and anonymously, via leaks to journalists and statements from well-connected intermediaries

.. “I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them,” Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, said in a statement.

.. It is now clear that when Trump announced on Wednesday that he was disbanding two White House advisory councils made up of C.E.O.s and other business bigwigs, he was telling another one of his tall tales. One of the groups, a council on manufacturing, had already agreed to disband itself, because its members could no longer justify (to their employees, stockholders, and customers) coöperating with the cretin who said there were some “very fine people” among the torch-wielding protesters who marched through Charlottesville on Friday night, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews won’t replace us.”

.. As of this writing, none of Trump’s aides has resigned in protest at the President’s statements. But a number of them have been busy getting the story out that they are mad as hell.

  • Three different sources told the Times that Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, who is Jewish, was incensed by the President’s remarks. The Washington Post reported that
  • John Kelly, the former Marine general who took over as the White House chief of staff a couple of weeks ago, with a mandate to impose some order on all the chaos, had been left “deeply frustrated and dismayed;
  •  Bloomberg reported that Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, who was standing next to Trump at Tuesday’s Trump Tower press conference, had gathered his staff together and assured them that he had no idea that the President was going to say what he did.

.. Before composing his ode to the statues of Confederate leaders, he tore into two Republican senators who had dared to criticize him by name for what he said about Charlottesville: Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake, of Arizona. In one tweet, he described Graham as a “publicity seeker.”

In another, he endorsed a little-known Republican politician who is challenging Flake in a primary race: “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is weak on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!”

.. Bannon described the Unite the Right marchers as “a fringe element” and “a collection of clowns.” But that seemed like an effort to have it both ways, which is a familiar Bannon tactic. As the head of Breitbart News, he gave an influential platform to elements of the alt-right but vehemently denied that the site was racist.

.. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats,” Bannon told Kuttner.

..“Trump is using the precious capital of the bully pulpit to talk about confederate monuments in between savage attacks on fellow Republicans,” Holmes, the former aide to McConnell, told Politico Playbook. “Just think about that.

  • Not tax reform.
  • Not repeal and replace.
  • Not North Korean nuclear capabilities.
  • No focused critiques on extremely vulnerable Democrats who have opposed him at every possible turn.”

.. While McConnell and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, have both put out statements saying that racism and white supremacism have no place in the G.O.P., neither of them has explicitly criticized Trump. Even now, most Republicans are too intent on pursuing their regressive policy agenda, and too frightened of incurring the wrath of the Trump-supporting hordes going into the 2018 midterms, to do what almost all of them must know, deep down, is the right thing.

.. Outside the arena of national security, the Presidency is a weak office; to get anything substantial done, the person in the Oval Office has to put together coalitions, bringing along powerful people and interest groups. As the health-care fiascodemonstrated, Trump wasn’t very good at that stuff to begin with—forgive the understatement—and he has just greatly compounded his difficulties.

.. By dint of his pigheadedness, or prejudice, or both, he has moved onto political ground that makes it virtually impossible for other people in influential positions ..  to stand with him, or even to be seen to coöperate with him. That is what happens when a President throws away his own legitimacy.

.. Trump may have convinced himself that he doesn’t need political allies, or corporate advisers, or anybody else—that he can bully his opponents into submission and succeed through simple force of will. Maybe he thinks that invoking the memories of Lee and Jackson, the Southern battlefield commanders, will help his cause. It won’t: the fate of the Confederacy was settled more than a hundred and fifty years ago, and right now, Trump’s Presidency seems headed to a similarly ignominious ending.