The People’s Pietà: For Whom Populists Shed Their tears
The concept of populism, though lacking an unanimous interpretation and definition, lies at the heart of contemporary political events and academic debates. Among these studies, several scholars have highlighted the possibility of approaching populism as a performative style (Bucy et al. 2020; Casullo, 2020; Tóth, 2020; Mendonça & Caetano, 2020). Not solely as a thin ideology or a political strategy, literature indicates how, in fact, populism can be conceived of as a culturally embedded political performance (Moffitt, 2016; Ostiguy, 2017). Further, the contemporary centrality of social media has influenced and strengthened this debate (Postill 2018; Van Dijk and Hacker 2018), raising the question: how does populism look like? And, what kind of visual elements does it mobilize?
Literature on the so-called forms of “classic populism” expressions often stress how Latin American old school leaders such as Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Perón in Argentina and Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador visually appealed to hyper-masculine performance, publicly presenting themselves as father figures, physically strong man and military shrewd politicians (de La Torre, 2017). In this sense, there appeared to be an overlap between their form of political presentation and gender dynamics. Similarly, contemporary right-wing populism has also been characterized for its hyper-masculine aspects, though they are said to project strength through sexism, homophobia, violence and xenophobia (Löffler et al 2020; Aggius et al, 2020; Tiburi, 2020). Investigations focused on populists such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro often frame them as strongmen, that is, leaders who politicize masculine sociocultural elements to create popular appeal (Kusz, 2018; Kagan, 2019, Da Fonseca, 2018, Curato, 2016). Yet, a deeper analysis of these figures may unearth some aspects which highly contrasts with the stereotypical violence in their tone: the public crying and whining.
This article focuses on an analysis of every episode in which the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro showed his tears to the public since the year of his official presidential campaign. Approaching his images with a psychoanalytic visual methodology (Rose, 2005), specifically making use of the concept of masquerade (Riviere, 1986), we argue that such episodes complexify the narrative of a strong unchecked man, regardless of their authenticity. How can the paradox be understood within the framework of his hyper-masculine populist performance? Does crying in public represent a fault line in his mythic narrative, or does it reinforce it? We argue that his public display of vulnerability is a form of self-pity which humanizes his mythical self-presentation while reinforcing it. By crying, Bolsonaro steps out of his mythical narrative precisely because he is lamenting the burden of being the only one able to occupy the presidency. In doing so, he paradoxically reestablishes the mythical narrative. In this way, this paper seeks to advance a more nuanced view of the gendered dimensions of present day populist performances, understanding that hyper-masculinity in a context of downfall of hierarchies could appear more maternal than paternal.