The contemporary global situation, plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic—a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2—simultaneously evokes anguishing uncertainties and unsettling feelings of déjà vu. This is particularly true when we consider some images related to the disease that seem to emulate works of art depicting the End of Days. For example, in the early stages of the pandemic, corpses and coffins were littering the streets of the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador, left there due to the collapse of the local funerary system,1 and images of these scenarios could be compared to details taken from Pieter Bruegel’s horrific The Triumph of Death (1562-63).2 The checkerboards of open graves in cemeteries in São Paulo or New York evoke the central section of a famous depiction of the Last Judgment (c. 1431) painted by Fra Angelico.3 The pandemic also brought to mind the numerous movies that portray deserted towns with missing or confined inhabitants, from The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959),4 directed by Ranald MacDougall, to I am Legend (2007),5 directed by Francis Lawrence.
Moreover, amid the vast and gloomy iconography related to COVID-19, sometimes a specific public figure prominently appears.6 In Brazil, this is the case regarding the current President, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a far-right politician and retired military officer. According to data from the World Health Organization,7 at the beginning of November 2021 the toll of fatalities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil surpassed 600,000, being lower only than the number of deaths registered in the USA. Bolsonaro’s erratic policy regarding the pandemic—a toxic mixture of negationism, disrespect for practices of social distancing, promotion of inefficient treatment methods (such as hydroxychloroquine), and incompetence in the purchase of vaccines—is widely credited by his opponents as the main factor that led to such a deadly situation. As a result, a ‘Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito’ (parliamentary committee of inquiry) 8 was set up in April 2021 to investigate alleged omissions and irregularities in the actions of the Brazilian Federal Government regarding the pandemic.
A cartoon by the São Paulo based artist Luiz Gê published on his Facebook account on 31 May 2020, illustrates well the connection between Bolsonaro and the Brazilian COVID-19 catastrophe. Entitled Apocalipse Brasileiro (Brazilian Apocalypse) (Fig. 1),9 the cartoon shows four fiercely galloping horsemen. With his cartoon Gê thus reinterpreted the famous imagery from the sixth chapter of John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. The cartoon recalls traditional compositions that appear in works by several European artists, such as Albrecht Dürer10 or Arnold Böcklin.11 However, Gê’s interpretation of this iconography includes significant particularities, which update the imagery to reflect on the contemporary Brazilian context. In the background, on a skeletal horse, we see ‘Crise’ (crisis), represented by a black hooded figure carrying a scythe. The figure references the classic iconography of Death, which Gê seems to relate to the current state of economic crisis that has spread over Brazil since the mid-2010s. Beside ‘Crise’, we see ‘Golpe’ (military coup), depicted as the ghostly image of a soldier with a sword in his hand, mounted on a hybrid being, a mixture of horse and war tank. Here, Gê seems to emphasize the recurrent disruptive role that military forces present to the Brazilian democratic order.12 Next, we see ‘Peste’ (pestilence), personified as a monster that, with their characteristic fringes of bulbous projections recalling the solar corona, is explicitly based on microscopic images of the coronavirus. Finally, the last horseman is a caricature of Bolsonaro who sits on a pink, inflatable toy horse. The cartoon’s caption qualifies this last horseman as a ‘Besta Quadrada’. While this title translates into complete imbecile, the literal meaning of the Portuguese word ‘Besta’ as beast also connects this caricature of Bolsonaro to the Biblical Apocalypse.
Although represented on a smaller scale than his frightening companions, Bolsonaro is nevertheless the protagonist in Gê’s cartoon. Shown in the foreground, without being hidden by any visual element, the Brazilian President can be understood as the true leader of the destructive forces that were already galloping over Brazil in May 2020. As I will show in the following analysis, the topos of Bolsonaro as a ‘Horseman of the Apocalypse’ is a widely used trope. However, images connecting him to Doomsday are more varied and began to appear much earlier than the devastating spread of COVID-19.
Indeed, even before Bolsonaro was elected President in late 2018, the impressive growth of his popularity was understood—both by his supporters and his opponents—as an omen of the end of the period of political stability and economic growth that Brazil had experienced in the 2000s and early 2010s. Since then, the country’s future has increasingly become uncertain. As if responding to the longings and fears that Bolsonaros’s political ascension aroused, his climb to the political zenith was accompanied by the emergence of images across diverse media, such as internet memes, cartoons, video games, animations and comics that linked him to the End of Days’ myth. This should not be a surprise. As Robert Hamerton-Kelly stresses, ‘from the Bible we learn that apocalypse and politics are intimately connected from the start; indeed, in most cases, apocalypse is an interpretation of politics in the form of a coded narrative’.13
In this chapter, I strive to unpack some aspects of the apocalyptic imagery connected to Bolsonaro. I thereby aim to identify the deeper meanings lurking under its surface. As it is well known, before referring to destruction, ‘the root meaning of the Greek term apokalypsis is “unveiling” or “disclosure”’.14 If something about the current Brazilian situation is being ‘unveiled’ by the images that constitute my object of study, what exactly would this be? I try to answer this question by pointing out how these images simultaneously testify to threats to the Brazilian democratic order, while they also actively contribute to its present instability. Before diving into the analysis, however, it is important to briefly introduce the protagonist of this chapter for those who might not be familiar with his persona.
Bolsonaro, his ideas and their reception
Jair Messias Bolsonaro was born in the state of São Paulo, in 1955. In 1974, he enrolled at the Agulhas Negras Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1977. Bolsonaro’s period of training at the Military Academy coincides exactly with the pivotal years of the dictatorship imposed on Brazil in 1964. Although led by members of the Brazilian Armed Forces, this dictatorship can be better understood, according to René Armand Dreifuss, as a project proposed, advanced, and supported by the Brazilian ‘organic elite’,15 made up of parcels of the local hegemonic classes. Bolsonaro moved to the reserve acquiring the rank of captain in 1988, the same year that a new Brazilian Constitution was promulgated, marking the end of the military dictatorship
A few years later, in 1991, Bolsonaro began to serve in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies representing the state of Rio de Janeiro. Until 2018, his parliamentary career consisted largely of speeches advocating controversial policies such as the death penalty, lower age of criminal responsibility, and easier access to guns. In his speeches, Bolsonaro also attacked left-wing parties, and LGBT+, Black and Indigenous activisms. In line with a revisionist interpretation of the aforementioned military dictatorship—an outlook that has come to spread in recent years16—, he further extolled it as a legitim movement. In 2018, Bolsonaro was elected the 38th president of Brazil and has been in office since 01 January 2019. Although elected as a member of the right-wing Partido Social Liberal (Social Liberal Party), Bolsonaro broke with it in November 2019, and after a failed attempt to found his own party Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil), at the time of writing this chapter has no official party affiliation.
With an almost 30-year-long political carrier, Bolsonaro was already famous for his polemic pronouncements even before applying for the Presidency. In a paper that was aimed at English-speaking readers and presented the context of Bolsonaro’s ascension to power, Perry Anderson listed some of his most controversial statements:
… the president-elect of Brazil has extolled his country’s most notorious torturer [the army officer Carlos Brilhante Ustra]; declared that its military dictatorship should have shot thirty thousand opponents; told a congresswoman she was too ugly to merit raping; announced he would rather a son killed in a car accident than gay; declared open season on the Amazon rainforest; not least, on the day after his election, promised followers to rid the land of red riff-raff [i.e., left-wing politicians].17
In Brazilian society, the reception of Bolsonaro and his statements such as the ones cited above is largely characterized by a strong polarization. To a certain extent, this mirrors a broader political polarization that has fractured Brazilian politics since at least 2013.18
On the one hand, we have Bolsonaro’s supporters. Tacitly or openly, powerful members of the Brazilian elite—made up of the business community, extractive industry, military forces, and Christian fundamentalist—support him in order to advance their agendas by reducing obstacles posed by laws that guarantee civil, labour or environmental rights. More relevant to my discussion is, however, the mentality of ordinary people who support Bolsonaro. In May 2018, Esther Solano conducted a survey in which she tried to identify this group’s reasoning for the support of Bolsonaro.19 For his followers, Bolsonaro is opposed to the ‘corrupt political class’ and personifies the honest politician, a sort of rebel who fights against the entire Brazilian political system. Identifying with the model of the ‘self-made man’, Bolsonaro’s supporters disapprove of public policies that help the poorest or determine the introduction of university racial quotas, because in their eyes such policies would encourage passivity, laziness, and clientelism. Despite recognizing that ethnic or gender minorities suffer from racism and prejudice, Bolsonaro’s supporters believe that these same groups use victimization to obtain state benefits and to shake the moral convictions of those who do not belong to them.
On the other hand, we have Bolsonaro’s opposers. On the eve of the 2018 election, they feared that Bolsonaro would carry out his bravados, such as implementing a Neoliberal agenda of austerity, attacking Venezuela, and abandoning the Paris Agreement, a famous international treaty on climate change. They anticipated that Bolsonaro would thus contribute to the Brazilian people’s precariousness, a war in Latin America, and global climate collapse. As the cartoon by Luis Gê and other images demonstrate, these fears remained in force after the 2018 election and were accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s controversial pronouncements and actions also led his opponents to qualify him as ‘fascist’. Although this denomination may be considered anachronistic, even scholars such as Mike Godwin or Federico Finchelstein seem to agree that Bolsonaro and his political agenda deserves to be connected to, for example, Hitler and Nazi policies.20 Furthermore, it is possible to associate Bolsonaro’s political performance with what Umberto Eco dubbed ‘”Ur-Fascism,” or “eternal Fascism”’.21 As I will demonstrate, drawing on fascist ideologies helps us to understand some apocalyptic images discussed in this chapter, especially the ones produced and spread by Bolsonaro’s supporters. Keeping the characterisations of Bolsonaro, his supporters and opponents in mind, I will now turn to further analyse these images in the next sections.
Fears of the opposition
The apocalyptic images produced and/or spread by Bolsonaro’s opponents have relatively straightforward implications, usually depicting him and his allies as End of Days’ heralds. Many of these images are variations on the topos of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Besides Gê’s cartoon, another example is a digital montage that juxtaposes Bolsonaro and three of his sons (Carlos, Flávio and Eduardo) to the four Horsemen (Fig. 2).22 This image was created by the amateur cartoonist Bessinha and published in the left-wing web portal Conversa Fiada on 09 December 2018, just a few weeks after Bolsonaro’s election as President. The presence of Bolsonaro’s sons in this image has largely to do with their political performances as they were championing far-right rhetoric akin to that of their father. Moreover, all three are currently under investigation by the Brazilian Federal Justice: Carlos and Flávio are accused of corruption and Eduardo of spreading fake news and financing anti-democratic acts.23
A second image closely follows the main concept of Bessinha’s montage. However, its composition differs from Bessinha’s and is visually closer to the one of Gê’s cartoon (Fig. 3).24 This image was produced by Renato Aroeira, a well-known cartoonist based in Rio de Janeiro. Aroeira posted the image to his Facebook account on 12 May 2019. Here, Bolsonaro and his sons are depicted as the Horsemen themselves: against a cloudy and gloomy sky, the four politicians appear riding on skeletal horses, wearing dark clothes and carrying sickles. They are arranged along a diagonal descending line, creating the impression of a dynamic and fast downfall towards an unidentified target (Brazil itself?) located outside of the image plane, and underscoring the cartoon’s menacing message. On the one hand, the responsibility for the ‘Apocalypse’ is here distributed between Bolsonaro and his sons; on the other, through the evocation of traditional iconography, the connotations of all four members of the sinister cavalcade are reduced to represent Death.
A more complex formulation of the Four Horsemen’s topos appears in an anonymous meme that started circulating at the beginning of 2021 when the pandemic of COVID-19 was already devastating Brazil (Fig. 4).25 Divulged by left-wing politicians and sympathizers, this meme is based on an illustration by the artist Dudu Torres and was published on the cover of the magazine Mundo Estranho in November 2017.26 While the original illustration closely respects the description of the Horsemen in John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation, the meme replaces their scary faces with those of contemporary public figures.
Emerging from a desert landscape, reminiscent of depictions of the Christian Hell and tinged with vivid orange hues, the four Horsemen advance towards the spectator, threatening to run him over. In the foreground, we see the ‘rider on a white horse’27 who has been commonly associated with contagious diseases at least since the beginning of the twentieth century.28 This Horseman has the features of Eduardo Pazzuello, a military man who served as Bolsonaro’s Minister of Health between May 2020 and March 2021. Widely criticized for his ineffectiveness in fighting the pandemic, Pazzuello appears accompanied by the caption ‘Incompetência’ (incompetence). The second Horseman—often taken to represent war and bloodshed in the Book of Revelation—is another military man, the Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a reserve general of the Brazilian Army. His tacit acceptance of Bolsonaro’s policies seems to be the reason why in the meme Mourão is related to the word ‘Descaso’ (neglect).
On the left, the third Horseman is Bolsonaro’s Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes, who is a former student of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and famous for championing outdated Neoliberal ideas. He holds a burning work card and is accompanied by the caption ‘Fome’ (famine). Thus, the depiction of Guedes reflects the common understanding of the Book of Revelation’s third Horseman. Finally, on the right in the background, we see Bolsonaro, who carrying again a sickle as an insignia—as in Aroeira’s cartoon—is identified as ‘Morte’ (death), the Biblical epithet of the fourth Horseman.29 In his hand, Bolsonaro brandishes a box of hydroxychloroquine, a substance that the Brazilian President insistently advocated as a treatment of COVID-19, while disregarding the scientific body of literature that suggested that there was no clinical benefit for the substance’s use against the disease. The horses’ depictions underscore the allegoric character of their riders: Guedes’s squalid horse connotes famine; Pazuello’s rotting horse, devoured alive by maggots, connotes pestilence; Mourão’s burning horse, wearing an iron helmet, connotes war; and Bolsonaro’s skeleton horse connotes death. However, different from what we saw in the cartoons by Luis Gê or Aroeira, in this meme Bolsonaro is no longer the leader of the Horsemen. Even more ominously, by being represented as following behind the three other figures, he seems to embody the final consequence of what his opponents qualify as literal necropolitics.30
It is important to stress, however, that Bolsonaro’s opponents not only depict him as a Horseman of the Apocalypse. An alternative example can be seen in the image of an ‘Apocalyptic Beast’ published in July 2019 by the cartoonist Osmani Simanca (Fig. 5),31 who was born in Cuba but has taken on Brazilian citizenship and works for the Bahia-based newspaper A Tarde. An exercise in the teratology of political imagination, Simanca’s hybrid beast has a pig-like body and four legs with hooves but moves thanks to two pairs of wheels adorned with Nazi swastikas. Pointing with its right hand forwards and holding a burning cross in his left, the beast has multiple heads, as do some of its predecessors mentioned in the descriptions of the Biblical Apocalypse.32 The first one, hidden under a white Ku Klux Klan hood, is that of former US President Donald Trump, identifiable by a yellow lock of hair peeking out of the top of his hood. This lock of hair plays a second role as the spitting tongue of the beast, as it protrudes from the toothed mouth-like opening of the hood. Thus, posing as the head of the animal, following the direction of the beast’s little arms and hands, Trump stands in as the leader of the pack of heads that are stacked onto the back of the beast. In the middle, next to Trump, we see two other heads whose mouths foam like those of rabid dogs. These heads have the faces of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italian politician Mateo Salvini. Finally, to the right, near the beast’s hindquarters, we can identify the head of Bolsonaro. His face contorted into an ugly grimace, he is depicted dropping small toxic green heaps from his mouth. This is probably an allusion to the misconceptions and problematic statements frequently expressed by the Brazilian President throughout his long political career. The politicians and their more or less important roles in the composition transform Simanca’s apocalyptic beast into a visual summary of the transnational rise of the so-called Alt-Right in politics.33 According to Simanca’s image, in mid-2018 Trump could still be considered the leader of this political trend, followed by Orban and Salvini, while Bolsonaro, distinguished through his ‘shit spitting’ rhetoric, merely represented its shameful rear-guard.
Finally, I turn to another image by Aroeira, published in the newspaper O Dia on 01 August 2018 (Fig. 6).34 It is part of a larger series of cartoons in which Aroeira shows Bolsonaro as the summoner and leader of a horde of bloody and decrepit zombies. In this particular cartoon, Bolsonaro’s legs—he is comically depicted as having four instead of two—form the shape of a swastika. His entire body shines as a ‘Fogo Fátuo’ (will-o’-the-wisp), the ghostly light often seen over swamps and said to mislead unwary travellers by resembling a flickering lamp or lantern.
At first glance, Aroeira’s brainless and gawkily stumbling zombies are an obvious reference to Bolsonaro’s followers, who are widely regarded as deprived of critical thinking and euphorically endorsing even the most extreme opinions of their leader. Although it would further be possible to relate Aroeira’s zombies to the dead who return at the End of Days as prophesied by John of Patmos,35 the use of zombies as a visual metaphor in this and other cartoons by Aroeira seems more in line with the wide diffusion of the motif in the contemporary imagination, as witnessed by post-apocalyptic television series, movies, and video games, such as, for example, The Walking Dead (2010-2021)36 or 28 Days Later (2002), directed by Danny Boyle.37
Considered in this broader context, Aroeira‘s zombies seem to acquire more suggestive connotations. For instance, the metaphor of the walking dead occurs frequently in the criticisms of Neoliberal policies, such as those proposed by the Bolsonaro administration. Despite the profound questioning of its material and ideological foundations after the financial crash of 2007-2008, Neoliberalism keeps staggering forward. As Japhy Wilson has pointed out, ‘[i]n the absence of a rational explanation for this uncanny persistence, critics have resorted to gothic representations of the undead. […] Among these morbid metaphors, the figure of the zombie has acquired peculiar prominence’.38
The hastening climate collapse linked to Neoliberalism also seems to play a role in the contemporary spread of zombie iconography.39 In this sense, the undead could be understood as outgrowth of a more profound angst, symptoms ‘of a sick, asphyxiated, apocalyptic imaginary, obsessed with the degradation of bodies, with the slow destruction of the biosphere, and with our conditions of survival as biological species.’40 In this context, one may recall Bolsonaro’s reckless environmental policy as an additional inspiration for Aroeira depicting the followers of the current Brazilian President as zombies.
Messias as Messiah
In contrast to the relatively straightforward visual vilification in the images by Bolsonaro’s opponents, the apocalyptic images produced and/or spread by Bolsonaro’s supporters tend to be more complex, thus asking us to take a closer look. In some of the cases, which I will turn to discuss in the following, Bolsonaro is depicted as ‘Messiah’, a true saviour and liberator. It is worth remembering that the translation of ‘Messiah’ in Portuguese is ‘Messias’, precisely Bolsonoro’s middle name. Along this line, most of Bolsonaro’s supporters see and venerate him as the only one capable of rescuing Brazil from the political, economic, and moral upheaval supposedly caused by former left-wing governments. In a broader sense, the images that I will discuss in this section update the old idea of ‘culture wars’, popularized by authors such as James Davison Hunter.41 Since the 1990s, ‘culture wars’ usually refer to the conflicts between opposing social groups over hegemonic values, beliefs, and lifestyles, which often revolve around issues such as abortion, homosexuality, women, and transgender rights; racism etc. Moreover, in the images discussed in this section, we can recognize the afterlife of a series of resentful emotions usually connected to the fascist imagination since the first decades of the twentieth century, such as fear regarding communism and rebellious working class, as well as hate and contempt for women.42
Bolsonaro’s image as a contemporary Messiah is well visualized, for example, in a digital montage entitled Eu sou o Mito (I am myth) by the artist Raphael Souza (Fig. 7).43 It is the reinterpretation of a poster for the aforementioned film I Am Legend, starring Will Smith. The movie’s story is set in New York after a virus has wiped out most of mankind and created a horde of nocturnal and hostile mutants that infest the city. Smith, who plays the role of a US Army virologist immune to the virus, strives to develop a cure and fights the mutants. In Souza’s work, the qualities of the lone hero who, in post-apocalyptic times, stoically battles for the survival of humanity are thus projected upon Bolsonaro.
On the top of Souza´s montage, we read the phrase: ‘Em uma Nação tomada pela doença, ele será a cura’ (In a Nation ravaged by disease, he will be the cure). Below, in larger letters, the word ‘myth’—an epithet widely used by Bolsonaro’s supporters to refer to him since the 2018 presidential election—replaces the word ‘legend’ in the original movie’s title. Mirroring the depiction of Smith in the original movie poster, with his head held high and a rifle close to his body emphasizing his virility, Bolsonaro advances confidently into a bleak landscape. Behind him, we can recognize the buildings of the Palace of the National Congress, which is located in the city of Brasilia and was designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. The building is in ruins. Smoke ascends from its remains, and the red flag of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), in tatters, is unfurled over its twin towers. In the bottom left of the image, we see a dog peeing on a poster displaying a photo of the former President Dilma Rousseff, a member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores. In 2011, Rousseff was the first Brazilian woman to assume such a position, from which she was later removed by a controversial impeachment process, in 2016.44 The hatred and contempt against women are juxtaposed with Bolsonaro’s staged virility to produce an image that seems to strongly appeal to his electorate’s fantasies. Souza’s montage was, in fact, printed on T-shirts to be purchased and worn by his supporters.45
Most of the persuasive power of an image such as ‘Eu sou o Mito’ stems from a specific interpretation of what caused the current Brazilian political and economic crisis widespread among Bolsonaro’s supporters. According to this interpretation, which oversimplifies historical processes that are much more complex, the crisis was due to the political and economic elites that took command of Brazil after the military dictatorship ended in 1988. The action of these elites is summarized as follows in the Government Plan proposed by Bolsonaro in 2018: ‘Over the past 30 years, Cultural Marxism [sic] and its derivations like Gramscism [sic] have allied with corrupt oligarchies to undermine the values of the Nation and Brazilian family. … [For thirty years] the left has corrupted democracy and stagnated the economy’.46
In short, Bolsonaro’s plan states that the left’s corruption and disrespect for traditional values led Brazil to the brink of a disastrous situation. The use of terms such as ‘Cultural Marxism’—a conspiracy theory that claims Marxism as the basis of efforts to subvert the so-called Western culture—is also revealing.47 As Bolsonaro himself stated during the 2018 Presidential campaign, his main target was the overthrow of what he identified as the cultural hegemony of the left in Brazil.48 João Cezar de Castro Rocha recently highlighted how Bolsonaro turned the aforementioned idea of ’culture wars’ into the very heart of his campaign. In this, as in many other ways, he was following a global trend: ‘in fact, in the international rise of the right and the far-right, culture wars are intelligible only in the context of authentic ideological battles for the establishment of normative (even reactionary) models of family, art, education, law and politics’.49 In political terms, the most important element here is the notion of anti-communism, evident in Bolsonaro’s rejection of vague ideas such as ‘Cultural Marxism’ and ‘Gramscism’. However, we must remember, as Rocha does,50 that his aversion to communism is older, stretching back at least to his training period at the Agulhas Negras Military Academy in the 1970s.
The ideas of ‘culture wars’ and anti-communism are even more explicitly presented in a series of apocalyptic images from the pixel-art platform game titled Bolsomito, developed by BS Studios and released in October 2018.51 The protagonist is an avatar of Bolsonaro, as indicated by the game’s title coupling the first part of his name to the epithet ‘mito’. Bolsomito is presented by its creators as follows:
The game is inspired by the current Brazilian political moment and its protagonist is a good citizen who is tired of the growing corruption and inversion of values that undermine society.
Your main objective is to wipe out the leaders of the dreaded Red Army, which is responsible for alienating and indoctrinating much of the nation … To get to the heads of the organization, Bolsomito must face diverse groups whose mission was to defend the people, but who today are nothing but puppets of the Red Army.52
Bolsomito, the ‘good citizen’ (‘cidadão de bem’ in Portuguese) referred to in this description, appears in the game’s opening screen as a white man with blue eyes wearing a suit and tie (Fig. 8). He sits among rocks and holds a scorched Brazilian flag in his right hand. Flames can be seen in the landscape behind him. The scenery evokes the city of Brasilia hit by some cataclysm, and is similar to that of the landscape shown in ‘Eu sou o Mito’. Among the flames, we can glimpse some of Brasilia’s main monuments, such as the Planalto Palace—workplace of the Brazilian President and another project by Niemeyer—and a sculpture by the artist Bruno Giorgi, which is shown partly melted by the fire.
The ‘diverse groups’ mentioned above are the minorities against which Bolsonaro has positioned himself throughout his political career: homosexuals, feminists, blacks. For most of the game, Bolsomito must beat them until they die.53 However, the main enemies of Bolsomito, the bosses that he fights at the end of each of the ten stages of the game, are the ‘leaders of the dreaded Red Army’. These are meant to represent mostly left-wing politicians, such as Jean Willys, a famous LGBTQ+ advocate, Dilma Roussef or the former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In the game, these figures are depicted as evil demons and grotesquely caricatured.
In the animation created to promote the game (Movie 1),54 the Brazilian people are shown in miserable conditions, barely surviving in a devastated landscape. The voice-over of the animation states that the situation is due to the demonic leaders of the ‘Red Army’, against whom the game’s hero rises. In a frame, this army is figured as a metaphorical ‘red flood’ (Fig. 9): a promiscuous, wild, and chaotic mingling horde that breaks down the barriers of traditional values. The depiction of the Red Army retrieves an old metaphor that was used by German proto-Nazis to describe communist advances in Europe from the 1910s.55 Amid the raging ‘red flood’, only Bolsonaro stands as the ultimate bastion: upright, firm, fearless.
The last and most ambivalent set of apocalyptic images which I would like to discuss in this section can be found on a Facebook page titled ‘Fanfics do apocalipse bozomiro’,56 launched just a few days after the first round of the 2018 election. One of the images used as a profile photo on this page shows Bolsonaro as a typical Christian demon (Fig. 10).57 In this case, it is him (and not left-wing politicians) who is depicted with red skin and two horns protruding from his forehead. His eyebrows draw together over hollow eyes, and he can be seen sporting a Hitler-like moustache above his mouth, which is twisted into an angry grimace. At the time of writing the first draft of this chapter, in late 2018, the page’s cover photo showed an illustration of the Palace of the National Congress being destroyed by a meteor shower (Fig. 11).58 The dome on the left of the image is already broken, while the hemisphere on the right looks as if on the brink of collapse.59 Between dome and hemisphere, not much remains of the twin towers that occupy the centre of the building: the one on the left is about to fall, while half of the other on the right is already destroyed, and a dense cloud of smoke emerges from it. The illustration could be compared to a long series of older ominous images, such as some paintings attributed to the seventeenth-century painter François de Nomé;60 the cataclysmic fantasies of John Martin;61 or the iconic photographs of the destruction of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack.
At first, one might think that the juxtaposition of these particular profile and cover images in Facebook is meant to convey Bolsonaro as a kind of ‘Antichrist’ who would bring the ‘political’ Apocalypse to Brazil, evoked by his seat of government in Brasilia. But surprisingly the Facebook page in question is not a warning against the harmful consequences of Bolsonaro’s government. Rather, the page mostly supports him, mocking the many denounces regarding the aggression perpetrated by Bolsonaro’s followers, made by Bolsonaro’s opponents and proliferated in the press and social media at least since September 2018.62 In this context, the image of Bolsonaro as a devil reveals itself as a deliberate irony. It does not claim that the current Brazilian president is, in fact, an evil being. Rather, Bolsonaro only appears as such in the view of his opponents, which according to Bolsonaro’s supporters and the authors of this page would be distorted by their biased moral, cultural and political principles.
The irony is already evident in the title of the page, which designates the denounces against Bolsonaro’s followers as ‘fanfics’, as fictions. In this way, the authors of the page portray these denounces as hysterical and unreasonable reactions to imaginary threats, mere manifestations of victimism. Not by chance, one of the page’s favourite targets is denounces made by women, giving the posts a largely misogynist undertone. It is difficult to assert whether the denounces reproduced in ‘Fanfics do Apocalipse Bozomiro’ are exaggerated or even false. It is certain, however, that they serve well to translate the mood of violence that has characterized Brazil since the 2018 presidential election.63
This chapter cannot exhaust the growing iconography that connects Jair Bolsonaro and the myth of the End of Days. My aim has been, however, to indicate some of the main connotations of this corpus of images and how heterogeneous they can be.
These images’ heterogeneity becomes clear when we compare Aroeira’s cartoon that shows Bolsonaro as the leader of an army of zombies marching to the right (Fig. 6), with the imagery of Bolsomito’s animation (Fig. 9), in which the politician is depicted as the last obstacle to the chaotic ‘Red Army’ heading to the left, towards him. In their divergence, these opposing images challenge the very notion of their inspirational source being the same man. In fact, however, such a contrast could be interpreted as a symptom of the deeply divided collective conscience of Brazilian society. Bolsonaro did not create such a polarization solely by himself; rather, a very unequal society that is still characterized by widespread sexism and racism contributed to the configuration of such polarization. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro has systematically taken advantage of his position as President to accentuate instability and conflict.
The only factors that unify, albeit tenuously, this corpus of images are very generic concepts, such as destruction and hatred. If we consider the usually prophetic nature of apocalyptic images, the prognosis shown by those discussed here is bleak. As authentic Horsemen of the Apocalypse, pestilence, famine, and death are already a reality in Brazil, and their effects tend to get worse.
Furthermore, if Brazilian ideologies akin to Fascism maintain their strength, a peaceful social coexistence seems increasingly infeasible. As Umberto Eco has summarized,
For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, a ‘life for struggle’. Pacifism is therefore collusion with the enemy, pacifism is bad, because life is a permanent war. This, however, brings with it an Armageddon complex: since the enemy can and must be defeated, there must be a last battle, after which the movement will rule the world.64
Will the current Brazilian Apocalypse have its own Armageddon? It is maybe too early to say. We know, however, that, in Bolsonaro’s speeches, an armed conflict was many times proposed as the ultimate solution to Brazilian problems. Since the late 1990s, he claims that ‘[Brazil] will only change, unfortunately, when we go into a civil war… And do a job that the military regime did not do: killing 30,000 [opponents]!’.65 Conversely, confronted by Bolsonaro’s more recent threats against Brazilian institutions, some of his opponents advocate increasing polarization and seem to agree that violent conflict is imminent.66
In my opinion, however, it is more likely that, as occurred in the US during the Trump administration, the political climate in Brazil will remain strained at least until the next Presidential election, in 2022. Notwithstanding, whatever the outcome of this historical process will be, I believe that the apocalyptic images discussed in this chapter will retain their revealing power as they are simultaneously witnesses to and agents that contribute to reifying the conflicts already at stake.
1 John Otis, ‘COVID-19 Numbers Are Bad In Ecuador. The President Says The Real Story Is Even Worse’, NPR, 20 April 2020, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/20/838746457/covid-19-numbers-are-bad-in-ecuador-the-president-says-the-real-story-is-even-wo; Gideon Long, ‘Ecuador’s virus-hit Guayaquil is grim warning for region’, Financial Times, 05 April 2020, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/5e970473-0710-44f6-bfae-2a830b78a3a1
2 Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, (1562-63). Oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
3 Fra Angelico, Last Judgement, (c. 1431). Tempera on panel, 105 x 210 cm. Museo di San Marco, Florence.
4 The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Direction Ranald MacDougall. Production: Sol C. Siegel et al.. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959.
5 I am Legend. Direction: Francis Lawrence. Production: Akiva Goldsman et al.. Village Roadshow Pictures et al., 2007.
6 A good example is the former US President Donald Trump. A Google Images search for ‘Trump Covid Cartoons’ shows several images relating him to the COVID-19 pandemic.
7 ‘WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard’, World Health Organization, accessed 01 November 2021, https://covid19.who.int/table
8 In Brazil, a ‘Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito’ is an investigation conducted by the Legislative Power, which transforms the Parliament into a commission to hear testimonies and gather information.
9 ‘Luiz Gê’, Facebook, 31 May 2020, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/877351922382549/photos/pb.100057891827060.-2207520000../2956775017773552/?type=3
10 See, for example, Dürer’s fourth woodcut of his Apocalipsis cum figuris series: Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse, (1498). Woodcut, 38.8 x 29.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
11 Arnold Böcklin, War, (1896). Oil on limewood, 100 cm x 69.5 cm. Galerie Neue Meister in the Albertinum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
12 On this topic, see José Murillo de Carvalho, Forças Armadas e Política no Brasil (São Paulo: Todavia, 2019). Regarding the military support to Bolsonaro’s election, see Piero Leirner, O Brasil no Espectro de uma Guerra Híbrida: Militares, Operações Psicológicas e Política em uma Perspectiva Etnográfica (São Paulo: Alameda Editorial, 2020).
13 Robert Hamerton-Kelly, ‘An Introductory Essay’, in Robert Hamerton-Kelly (ed.), Politics & Apocalypse (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2007), p. 5, emphasis in original.
14 Hamerton-Kelly, ‘An Introductory Essay’, p. 2.
15 Quoting Antonio Gramsci, Dreyfus thus defines ‘organic elite’: ‘… if not all the techno-entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs and military, “at least an elite amongst them had the capacity to be the organizers, of their interests and of society”. This elite of the organic intellectuals (referred to hereafter as the organic elite of the multinational and associated economic bloc) became a social force, aware that its “own corporate interests in their present and future development transcend the corporate limits of the purely economic class, and can and must become the interests of other subordinate groups too”’. René Armand Dreifuss, ‘State, class and the organic elite: the formation of an entrepreneurial order in Brazil 1961-1965’ (PhD diss., University of Glasgow, 1980), p. 245.
16 On this topic, see, for example, Gilberto Grassi Calil, ‘O revisionismo sobre a ditadura brasileira: a obra de Elio Gaspari’, Segle XX. Revista catalana d’història, 7 (2014), pp. 99-126.
17 Perry Anderson, ‘Bolsonaro’s Brazil’, London Review of Books, 41:3 (February 2019), accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v41/n03/perry-anderson/bolsonaro-s-brazil
18 Pablo Ortellado, Esther Sollano and Marcio Moretto, ‘Uma sociedade polarizada?’, in Ivana Jinkings, Kim Doria and Murilo Cleto (eds.), Por que gritamos Golpe? Para entender o impeachment e a crise política no Brasil (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016), pp. 193-200; Breno Bringel, ‘Crisis política y polarización en Brasil: de las protestas de 2013 al golpe de 2016’, in Breno Bringel and Geoffrey Pleyers (eds.), Protesta e Indignación Global (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2017), pp. 141-54.
19 Esther Solano, Crise da Democracia e extremismos de direita (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Brasil: São Paulo, 2018), p. 1.
20 Anna Virginia Balloussier, ‘Criador da Lei de Godwin diz que é ok chamar Bolsonaro de nazista’, Folha de S. Paulo, 17 October 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2018/10/criador-da-lei-de-godwin-diz-que-e-ok-chamar-bolsonaro-de-nazista.shtml; Federico Finchelstein, ‘Jair Bolsonaro’s Model Isn’t Berlusconi. It’s Goebbels’, Foreign Policy, 5 October 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/05/bolsonaros-model-its-goebbels-fascism-nazism-brazil-latin-america-populism-argentina-venezuela/
21 Umberto Eco, ‘Ur-Fascism’, in Umberto Eco, Five Moral Pieces (San Diego, New York, London: Harvest ed., 2002), Epub edition.
22 Joaquim Xavier, ‘Governos que acabam antes de começar’, Convesa Fiada, 09 December 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.conversaafiada.com.br/politica/governos-que-acabam-antes-de-comecar?fbclid=IwAR0jpOkDkD75QS_ZgbbYpwE9mjlqZ0W0o1Z1bfYZ48f7lv7qcMUv_GBYFXI
23 ‘Saiba quais as investigações que pesam contra os quatro filhos do presidente Jair Bolsonaro’, O Globo, 17 March 2021, accessed 01 November 2021, https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/saiba-quais-as-investigacoes-que-pesam-contra-os-quatro-filhos-do-presidente-jair-bolsonaro-1-24928113
24 ‘Renato Aroeira’, Facebook, 12 May 2019, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10205706666823975&set=pb.1774377871.-2207520000..&type=3
25 ‘Guilherme Boulos’, Facebook, 16 January 2021, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/guilhermeboulos/photos/a.403745789775978/1948407621976446/
26 ‘Revista Mundo Estranho’, Facebook, 06 November 2017, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/mundoestranho/photos/a.10154861997811738.1073741838.56939311737/10155942415776738/
27 Revelation 6:2.
28 For instance, ‘a white horse appear, with a rider holding a bow (representing, probably, Pestilence)’. Isidore Singer and Cyrus Adler. The Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1916), v. 10. p. 392, emphasis added.
29 ‘When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘“Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him’ (Revelation 6:7-8)
30 Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture. 15:1 (2003), pp. 11–40.
31 POLITICALCARTOONS.COM, accessed 01 November 2021, https://politicalcartoons.com/sku/227875
32 For example, ‘[I] saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy’ (Revelation 13:1).
33 Patrik Hermansson et al., The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century? (New York, Routledge, 2020).
34 ‘Renato Aroeira’, Facebook, 01 August 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10204698075649826&set=pb.1774377871.-2207520000
35 ‘And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them’ (Revelation 20:13)
36 The Walking Dead. Direction: Frank Darabont et al.. Production: Jolly Dale et al.. Idiot Box Productions et al. 2010-2021.
37 28 Days Later. Direction: Danny Boyle. Production: Andrew Macdonald. DNA Films and UK Film Council, 2002.
38 Japhy Wilson, ‘Neoliberal gothic’, in Simon Springer, Kean Birch and Julie MacLeavey (eds.), The Handbook of Neoliberalism (Abingdon, Routledge, 2016), p. 578.
39 On this topic, see, for example, Pat Brereton, ‘Cultural and Visual Responses to Climate Change: Ecological Reading of Irish Zombie Movies’, in D. Robbins, D. Torney and P. Brereton (eds), Ireland and the Climate Crisis. Palgrave Studies in Media and Environmental Communication (Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47587-1_11; Elaine Chong, ‘Facing the Sublime: The Zombie Figure, Climate Change, and the Crisis of Categorization’, Emergence: A Journal of Undergraduate Literary Criticism and Creative Research, 5 (2014).
40 Pierre Déléage, ‘Histoire politique du zombi’, Lundimatin, 190 (May 6), 2019. In the French original, we read: ‘… d’un imaginaire malade, asphyxié, apocalyptique, obsédé par la dégradation des corps, par la lente destruction de la biosphère, de nos conditions de survie en tant qu’espèce biologique …’. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.
41 James Davison Hunter, Culture wars: The struggle to define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
42 Klaus Theveleit, Male fantasies. Volume 1: women, floods, bodies, history (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987).
43 ‘Eu sou o mito’, Márcio Brasil, 31 October 2014, accessed 01 November 2021 https://www.marciobrasil.net.br/bonito-de-ver/eu-sou-o-mito.html
44 Anderson, ‘Bolsonaro’s Brazil’.
45 See, for example, Mercado Livre, https://produto.mercadolivre.com.br/MLB-892659558-camisa-camiseta-jair-bolsonaro-eu-sou-o-mito-662-_JM, acccessed 01 November 2021.
46 O Caminho da Prosperidade. Proposta de Plano de Governo (2018), accessed 01 November 2021, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/b628dd_f16f8088c3f24471a43c52a93e25e743.pdf In the Portuguese original, we read: ‘Nos últimos 30 anos o marxismo cultural e suas derivações como o gramscismo, se uniu às oligarquias corruptas para minar os valores da Nação e da família brasileira. … [Por 30 anos] a esquerda corrompeu a democracia e estagnou a economia’.
47 Martin Jay, ‘Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe’, Salmagundi Magazine, 168/169 (2010), pp. 30-40.
48 Adriana Ferraz, ‘Entrevista de Bolsonaro ao “Estado” com elogios a Chávez mobiliza militância’, Estadão, 12 December 2017, accessed 01 November 2021, https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,entrevista-de-bolsonaro-ao-estado-com-elogios-a-chavez-mobiliza-militancia,70002117151 In the Portuguese original, we read: ‘hegemonia de esquerda no Brasil’.
49 João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Guerra Cultural e Retórica do Ódio: Crônicas de um Brasil Pós-Político (Goiânia: Caminhos, 2021), p. 116. In the Portuguese original, we read: ‘De fato, na ascensão internacional da direita e da extrema-direita, as guerras culturais somente são inteligíveis no âmbito de autênticas batalhas ideológicas pelo estabelecimento de modelos normativos (reacionários até) de família, arte, educação, lei e política’.
50 Rocha, Guerra Cultural e Retórica do Ódio, pp. 207-318.
51 Bolsomito. Development and distribution: BS Studio. Plataform: Steam, 2018. When it was first released, the game was entitled Bolsomito 2K18.
52 BS STUDIOS, ‘Bolsomito’, Steam, game released on 05 October 2018, https://store.steampowered.com/app/930460/BOLSOMITO/ In the Portuguese original, we read: ‘O jogo é inspirado no atual momento político brasileiro e tem como protagonista um cidadão de bem que está cansado da crescente corrupção e inversão de valores que abala a sociedade. | Seu objetivo principal é acabar com os líderes do temido exército vermelho, responsável por alienar e doutrinar grande parte da nação, … para chegar nos cabeças da organização, o Bolsomito deverá enfrentar diferentes grupos que tinham como missão defender o povo, mas hoje, nada mais são que marionetes do exército vermelho’.
53 The reference to minorities being spanked to death provoked indignation among sectors of Brazilian society, which demanded the suspension of the game’s sale. On 19 December 2018, this demand was accepted by the Judge Álvaro Ciarlini, who justified his decision by considering that the game promoted racial discrimination, as well as oppression, prejudice, and violence, including the practice of homicide and intolerance. As a result, the game was removed from the Steam store search and its selling was suspended. See Rafael Arbulu, ‘Jogo “Bolsomito 2K18” é suspenso após pedido do Ministério Público’, Canaltech, 21 December 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://canaltech.com.br/games/jogo-bolsomito-2k18-e-suspenso-apos-pedido-do-ministerio-publico-129605/
54 The animation is available on https://cdn.cloudflare.steamstatic.com/steam/apps/256732913/movie480.webm?t=1540188882, accessed 01 November 2021.
55 Theveleit, Male fantasies, pp. 229-35.
56 ‘Bozo’ is the name of a famous clown who presented television programs in the 1980s and 1990s. It is one of the many Bolsonaro’s nicknames that his opposers use to make fun of him.
57 ‘Fanfics do apocalipse bozomiro’, Facebook, 15 August 2019, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/bolsolipse/photos/a.236073947264063/415742712630518
58 ‘Fanfics do apocalipse bozomiro’, Facebook, 10 October 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://www.facebook.com/bolsolipse/photos/a.236074287264029/236074387264019 This image was originally published on the cover of the magazine Superinteressante in December 2011.
59 In the real building, the Federal Senate’s plenary chamber is located under the dome, while the Chamber of Deputies meets under the hemisphere.
60 See, for example, François de Nomé, King Asa of Juda Destroying the Idols, (undated). Oil on canvas, 82,5 x 126 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
61 See, for example, John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, (1851-1853). Oil on canvas, 197 cm × 303 cm. Tate Britain, London.
62 Alice Maciel et al., ‘Apoiadores de Bolsonaro realizaram pelo menos 50 ataques em todo o país’, Exame, 11 October 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://exame.com/brasil/apoiadores-de-bolsonaro-realizaram-pelo-menos-50-ataques-em-todo-o-pais/?fbclid=IwAR3Dxy6zkr2GbI0HhWYUr77yhxtLOyM9-wiwEtLrF3dBigiT3DzeUe2EdEI
63 Such violence struck Bolsonaro himself, who was the victim of a knife attack on 06 September 2018. See: ‘Jair Bolsonaro leva facada durante ato de campanha em Juiz de Fora’, G1, 06 Sptember, 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://g1.globo.com/mg/zona-da-mata/noticia/2018/09/06/ato-de-campanha-de-bolsonaro-em-juiz-de-fora-e-interrompido-apos-tumulto.ghtml The violence also resulted, for example, in the death of the Capoeira master Moa do Katendê, murdered by a Bolsonaro supporter during a political discussion, soon after the first round of the 2018 election. See: ‘Investigação policial conclui que morte de Moa do Katendê foi motivada por briga política; inquérito foi enviado ao MP’, G1, 17 October 2018, accessed 01 November 2021, https://g1.globo.com/ba/bahia/noticia/2018/10/17/investigacao-policial-conclui-que-morte-de-moa-do-katende-foi-motivada-por-briga-politica-inquerito-foi-enviado-ao-mp.ghtml
64 Eco, ‘Ur-Fascism’, emphasis in original.
65 Bolsonaro’s original sentences, in Portuguese, were: ‘Você só vai mudar, infelizmente, quando um dia nós partirmos para uma guerra civil aqui dentro. E fazendo um trabalho que o regime militar não fez: matando uns 30,000!’ Rocha, op. cit., p. 232. The television interview where Bolsonaro states this can be seen on https://youtu.be/e-AeMiyLe-8, accessed 01 November 2021.
66 See, for example, Vladimir Safatle, ‘O golpe começou’, El Pais, 08 September 2021, accessed 01 November 2021, https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2021-09-08/o-golpe-comecou.html