In the months before Brazil’s elections in October 2018, many experts both within and outside the country dismissed the possibility that Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and previously obscure far-right congressman, could win the presidency. Bolsonaro did not belong to one of the major political parties, and had a history of pro-dictatorship, racist, and misogynist rhetoric that seemed beyond the pale for the fourth-largest democracy in the world.
Yet in late October, Bolsonaro notched a resounding victory, winning the Brazilian presidency with 55 percent of the vote. The rise of extreme, anti-establishment heads of state is not confined to places where immigration or opposition to free trade are driving populists’ rise. In fact, as I have written, the rise of leaders like Bolsonaro and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte reveals that autocratic populism is highly flexible, thriving in many different scenarios, and driven by different core grievances. It is thus actually even more dangerous to international stability than it would be if it only could grow in the soil of Europe and North America. Duterte’s brand of brutal leadership can thrive in a wide range of environments, posing a global threat to democratic government.