Jair Bolsonaro

Big Man politics 2.0

On Bolsonaro, Trump, Orbán, and many others

5 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
01/11/2018

In political anthropology, the term Big Man politics refers to a particular kind of autocratic rule, often situated in what used to be called 'lesser developed' parts of the world such as Africa and characterized by a kind of masculine totalitarianism in which the affairs of the state, including its budget, were reduced to those of the male leader and handled by means of his alpha-masculine features. That means: corruption as a form of personal entitlement, violence as a widespread modus operandi, a soft spot for the military, ruthlessness in repression and censorship, extreme self-consciousness in wielding the sticks of power, and self-evident sexual promiscuity and misogyny.

The Big Man is the Other

The term was always exotic, in the sense that it was rarely, if ever, used to describe the political attitude of leaders of so-called 'developed' nations and always seen as a less-than-civilized mode of political practice.

Big Man politics was typically practiced by the nonwestern (or former Soviet) Other - think of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko and Iraq's Saddam Hussein and, more recently Russia's Vladimir Putin and South Africa's Jacob Zuma. Even when political leaders such as Charles de Gaulle, Silvio Berlusconi or even Winston Churchill displayed several of the features of the political Big Man, the term remained reserved for leaders with whom 'we' - the civilized West - would never be associated.

The term Big Man was always used to mark an evaluative distinction between inferior and superior political systems.

The term was always used to mark an evaluative distinction between inferior and superior political systems. It was, in that sense, also an evolutionist term: Big Man politics was indicative of an 'earlier stage' of political development, something that would ultimately be transcended by a fully matured democratic, rational and more pluralist politics. Which was why Big Man politics could in some instances be explained away as an effect of the inertia of cultural traditions - think of the Saudi Kingdom and the Emirates and even Turkey (even if the latter country had a female prime minister not too long ago).

The thing is that there were several ways in which Big Man politics could be represented, time and again, as a phenomenon of the political margins, as something quite interesting but not very important.

The algoritmic Big Man

But look around you now. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential elections - a man with a formidable track record of racist and sexist statements, of appeals to citizens to arm themselves in the fight against crime, of sympathies for the military junta that ruled his country for two gruesome decades, and of open threats with extermination aimed at the political Left.

Bolsonaro now joins a growing number of world leaders similarly equipped and oriented ideologically. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines sounded remarkably similar on almost every occasion; he too has installed some kind of 'armed governance' in which the rule of law is sidelined; and he even dismisses the International Court of Justice as a potential arbiter of his policies.

But Duterte is just the most extreme instance of a new form of Big Man politics of which, perhaps, Donald Trump is the most typical example, but in which leaders such as Turkey's Erdogan and Hungary's Orbán must be included, and from which Russia's Putin cannot be excluded either. In all these cases, we see the Big Man figure in all its facets, including those of violence, racism and sexism.

As for the latter, all of them have made strong statements emphasizing masculine dominance and heterosexual 'purity', hostile of LGBTQ people as well as of feminism. In the case of Trump, his relentless attacks against Hilary Clinton add a deeper (and very nasty) political layer to - what he called 'locker-room banter' - his infamous 'pussy grabbing' boasting. 

What ties such new Big Man politicians together is a flexible set of ideological orientations shared with the Alt-Right and articulated in endless online culture wars.

What ties such new Big Man politicians together is a flexible set of ideological orientations shared with the Alt-Right and articulated in endless online culture wars in which particular ideas of masculinity feature as powerful tropes and argumentative tools. In explorations of the Manosphere and of the worldview of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, similar views were prevalent; they often bear the label of 'toxic masculinity' and are quite systematically intertwined with views of White racial superiority.

The world should become 'normal' again, it is argued, and 'normal' stands for white masculine dominance. This world is currently 'abnormal' because women have taken too much power (so it is suggested), men have grown weaker (homosexuality and transgenderism are symptoms of it), and people of 'inferior' racial or other backgrounds have entered our societies and are planning to 'take over from us'. In many instances, this entire apocalypse is blamed on the Left - the ultimate enemy for people such as Bolsonaro.

These lines of argument, we now know, are the very essence of algoritmic populism. It is by means of such arguments that online culture wars are converted into online political campaigns propelling the Big Men towards the centers of power. Through very sophisticated social media strategies in which conspiracy theories, fake news and alternative facts are given free rein, a constant atmosphere of crisis is created, requiring a type of superhero-politician who destroys the existing system and gives that system back to 'the people'. Algoritmic agency takes this message around and gathers the crowd around it - ready for the superhero-politician to fly in.

And where can such superhero-politicians be found? In the margins of the political system, of course.

Big Man politics 2.0

Which is where they were in the beginning: in exotic kingdoms or dictatorships ruled by the not-so-sopisticated Other. In the 21st century, it's the most sophisticated technology on earth that appears to favor the Big Man and takes him from the margins to the centers of power.

Politicians favoring an authoritarian, violent, heavily armed, ultra-nationalist, racist and masculine-heterosexual dominated regime are the ones who define the political 21st century so far.

And once the Big Man holds that center of power, the online world provides him with un unequalled infrastructure of control, surveillance and repression. In Turkey, both mass media and social media contents are meticulously controlled; Orbán in Hungary introduced similar measures,  Putin's Russia is not a friendly place for critical journalists, and Trump's constant and frontal attacks on US media institutions such as the New York Times and CNN and internet giants like Facebook and Google are well documented.

The Big Man 2.0 is equipped with the most advanced techniques of knowledge control ever made available to mankind: a perfect panopticon in the sense of Foucault, in which surveillance and repression can be infinitely dispersed over every activity undertaken by anyone. 

Politicians favoring an authoritarian, violent, heavily armed, ultra-nationalist, racist and masculine-heterosexual dominated regime - a kind of regime many of us thought  belonged to the past and to the margins of the world - are the ones who define the political 21st century so far. They are now in the center of the world system, and very, very modern in how they plan, implement and consolidate their roads to power.

Mobutu Sese Seko or Saddam Hussein could never imagine the extraordinary system of power and control that Bolsonaro has at his disposal as soon as he enters his Brazilian presidential office. The paradox is clear: in the digital age, a form of leadership long considered exotic and inferior such as Big Man politics has become a highly succesful format of electoral politics.