For once, Jair Bolsonaro is not surrounded by crowds of young, far-right supporters, cheering for him to be the next president of Latin America’s largest nation.
The retired Brazilian army captain is sitting at a cafe in an airport departure lounge, gazing intently into his cellphone, the tool that keeps him in constant contact with his millions of social media followers.
Only a day earlier, Bolsonaro flew into this same airport, outside the city of Fortaleza, to be greeted by several thousand people chanting “Legend! Legend!” They carried him out of the building on their shoulders.
Now, apart from a couple of aides, the congressman is alone, waiting to fly economy class to Rio de Janeiro after a brief visit to Brazil’s northeast to whip up support. I run into him by chance, while buying a cup of coffee. He readily agrees to a conversation with NPR.
Face-to-face, Bolsonaro, 63, is surprisingly low key, for an outspoken politician who’s in the national — and, increasingly, international — spotlight as a front-runner in polls ahead of Brazil’s October elections.
He shows little sign of the high-voltage charisma that radiates from the only individual ahead of him in those voter surveys — former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, as he’s universally known, is in prison serving 12 years for corruption, and is unlikely to be eligible to run.
Despite serving more than 25 years in Congress, Bolsonaro appears eager to present himself as a political outsider — a no-nonsense figure defiantly challenging the status quo.
Or, as he puts it to NPR, as a “little ugly duckling.”
“We don’t have a big team. We have a very small party,” says Bolsonaro. “A big part of the media doesn’t treat us properly, and even then — without Lula — we are leading the national polls.”
Until recently, Bolsonaro was on the margins of Brazilian politics, a seven-term congressman who occasionally featured in the headlines, mostly for making offensive remarks about the LGBTQ community, women and Afro-Brazilians.
But much of Brazil’s public has lost faith in its political elite, due to the massive “Car Wash” corruption scandal, a deep, two-year recession and fears about violent crime.
By tapping into that general disenchantment, Bolsonaro has advanced from the sidelines to center stage. Some compare his rise to that of Donald Trump, whom he much admires.
Bolsonaro is now considered a serious presidential contender, despite a heavily tainted record that includes telling a congresswoman in 2003 that she did not deserve to be raped by him.
He also once stated he’d be incapable of loving a gay son.
Last year, he caused an outcry by declaring that in his view the inhabitants of Afro-Brazilian communities known as quilombos are “not even good for breeding any more.”
Bolsonaro brushes away questions about this behavior by channeling the blame toward the mainstream media, much of which — like Trump — he considers purveyors of “fake news.”
“None of that is true,” he tells NPR of the media coverage. “They take half sentences … make up others, and then there are massive repercussions.”
He adds: “A large number of people in Brazil already know what happened. This doesn’t influence anything in my campaign.”
Bolsonaro does seem contrite about his remark about rape, saying the congresswoman involved had accused him of being a rapist during an argument, and that his response was “an act of reflex.” However, in 2014, he repeated the same offensive remark in Congress and was fined $3,000.
Apparently keen to widen his support base, and repair his reputation, Bolsonaro’s message these days is about inclusiveness. Officially launching his presidential campaign July 22, he spoke of unifying all Brazilians “whites and blacks, homosexuals and heterosexuals … bosses and employees.”
This doesn’t convince his many opponents. They say not only is he divisive, but Bolsonaro also lacks the experience and financial expertise to lead the world’s ninth largest economy.
Bolsonaro does not deny that he knows little about economics. When asked about it, he retorts: “Do I need to know about medicine to solve the health problem in Brazil? Do I need to know about agriculture to advance the agribusiness?”
If elected, he reportedly intends to appoint military officers in his cabinet, deepening fears among his critics that he has authoritarian leanings.
Bolsonaro’s admiration for the army extends to the country’s repressive military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-85. He describes this to NPR as “a very good” period, that “stopped Brazil [from] falling under the sway of the Soviet Union.”
Some Brazilians — particularly Bolsonaro supporters — have begun to call for the military again to take over government, after concluding that their elected politicians are too corrupt or inept to handle the country’s multilayered crises.
However, Bolsonaro says he does not support that idea. “No, that doesn’t go through our mind,” he says, “Not even the military want that.”
Polls show that many Brazilians have yet to make up their minds about who they’ll vote for, which suggests the race is wide open. In surveys that do not include Lula, Bolsonaro has around 17 percent support.
His strongest support is among males between 16 and 34.
Bolsonaro partly credits the Internet for his relatively strong following among young voters. “Young people in Brazil for a long time have been an easy prey for the left, from communists in Brazil. Social media liberated them from that,” he says. “We are winning the hearts of these young people out there.”
The conversation is brief. After about 15 minutes, Bolsonaro sets off to catch his plane, stopping occasionally to talk to fans seeking selfies or offering hugs and handshakes.
NPR has spent three weeks traveling Brazil, talking to young people about many issues, including the rise of Bolsonaro. Certainly, he seems to have considerable support.
Worried by the crime epidemic, his followers tend to speak approvingly of his plans to widen gun ownership. Hugo Edwardo, 31, a software engineer, described how his uncle, a police officer, was shot dead by criminals, and how he himself was once kidnapped and robbed.
Edwardo believes, under a Bolsonaro presidency, he would have “the right to protect myself, to protect my wife, to protect my family. Every criminal has his guns, and I don’t. If you don’t have security you have nothing.”
Maria Pinheiro, 24, was raised in the evangelical church, where Bolsonaro has strong links, and has a 4-year-old daughter.
She likes that Bolsonaro, who’s Catholic, is a fierce opponent of education in schools about sexuality and gender diversity. “I am totally against that,” she says. Pinheiro says she moved her daughter to a Christian school because she was worried government teachers would — as she puts it — “pervert” the child’s mind.
Yet there is deep worry among young Brazilians, too.
Black and LGBT people in Brazil are frequent targets of prejudice and sometimes violent or deadly attacks. Many view the rise of the far right as a threat to their rights and safety.
Among them is Ítalo Laredo, 25, a gay rights activist. “This is a totally backward move from everything we defend,” he says.
“We can’t let Bolsonaro win!”
NPR news assistant Valdemar Geo contributed reporting to this piece.