Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, rode during a march organized by his followers on May 31 in Brasilia.
Ueslei Marcelino / .

PANAMA CITY – It has become common to hear that the negligent policies of Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump regarding the pandemic respond to the fact that these presidents prioritize the economy of their countries over the health of their population. In the case of Trump, it is stressed that he needs to get to November without a ruined economy, otherwise his reelection is virtually impossible. I am not convinced. Or rather, this diagnosis, without being incorrect, is crucially incomplete: rather than presidents in favor of laissez faire, they are leaders who belong to an old anti-rationalist political tradition.

The rejection of science, reason and the disastrous consequences they have generated, must be taken seriously and not be minimized as electoral strategies. Still less, discard them as pedestrian imbecility.

AND it’s not just about Trump and Bolsonaro. To stay in our hemisphere, the policies of Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario MurilloNicaragua enters this mold; some of the decisions of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia too. We are before a trend that combines anti-enlightened impulses with a way of acting tied to instincts and mysticism, and that privileges the boss’s outburst over reason.

Some of these leaders had crossed lances against science before coming to the presidency. Their mandates have been consistent with it. And obscurantism, with impeccable logic, distilled dark consequences.

In 2016, Bolsonaro was baptized, like Christ, in the Jordan River. The brand new president imposed a slogan of panic: « Brazil above all and God above all. » Against the evidence, he denied the predation of the Amazon and threw out the director of the National Institute for Space Research who showed satellite images that proved it. When COVID-19 arrived, he called it « a flu », dismissed two health ministers in the midst of the storm, and joined protests against the confinements. Of course, let’s face it, he invited a religious fast to get rid of the disease. Now Brazil is the new center of the world crisis with the second global number of infected people and, it is estimated, it will soon be the second in terms of deaths as well.

A man with a mask walks in front of an advertisement with the photo of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
Inti Ocon for The New York Times

« Pink Revolution » is the term to refer to the magical-socialist regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. The political manifestations of Sandinismo resemble public homilies. She is an avalanche of mysticism: she assures that she speaks with Rubén Darío and that one of her children is the reincarnation of Sandino. When COVID-19 landed in Nicaragua, The esoteric dictatorship organized demonstrations, marathons, mass masses, processions, among other acts that seemed destined to infect the entire country as soon as possible.. After a long time without recognizing the progression of the disease, they have accepted that « divine containment » had limitations. The massive and clandestine burials reflect that the situation is out of control.

We have not seen Trump, like Murillo, with quartz rings and other stones with supposed magical powers, but he has shown a consistent rejection of science and evidence. Before becoming president, he spread the infamy of associating vaccines with autism. Considering that global warming is a concept that China invented to reduce the competitiveness of North American companies, it withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change. An article from the University of Melbourne demonstrates the president’s anti-science attitude. And from there he faced COVID-19. He confessed that he said things that doctors would surely advise him to keep quiet. He suggested that injecting bleach could be a home remedy. People close to Trump have endorsed the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates is seeking to inoculate us with a chip in the COVID-19 vaccine. The result of all this delirium is that today the United States has more than 100,000 deaths from coronavirus. That is to say, almost 30 percent of the world deceased, although its population is around 5 percent of the global total.

Donald Trump held the Bible in front of St. John’s Church on June 1, 2020.
Patrick Semansky / Associated Press

The point is, then, that obscurantism is a way of understanding knowledge and the world and that these rulers have acted accordingly. And that therefore obscurantism must be taken seriously.

The anti-illustration is almost as old as the illustration. The illustration, as defined by Kant in 1784, seeks to emancipate humanity from the hand of reason under the tutelage of different forces. The French philosophes are the vanguard that introduces in the sciences of society the desacralizing will of the hard sciences. Newton’s laws precede the spirit of Montesquieu’s laws by almost a century. Reason summons the general. And, therefore, the universal. Neither physics nor man’s rights, then, depend on his province. The global, the cosmopolitan, the possibility of humanity is reaffirmed.

Anti-enlightenment is the reaction against that combo. Since the end of the 18th century, romanticism has emerged in what will be Germany. Science is rejected as a social tool. It awakens anti-intellectualism and the exaltation of religious, poets and mystics. The moral order that is not anchored to a specific cultural community is denounced. Rather than acting for reason, they follow the drives, the vigor and the emotion. So when romanticism leaves its natural artistic space and turns to politics, it will embrace nationalism.

In its political and radical version, the anti-rationalist impulse germinated in the interwar European fascisms. But in Latin America the genuinely fascist movements were anecdotal. Some of his paraphernalia and anti-Semitism stood out in the populisms of the 20th century (in Argentine Peronism, the Bolivian MNR or Peruvian Aprismo) and much of his state terrorism was present in the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the 1970s. But generally speaking, we did not have an institutionalized anti-rationalist policy. When Bolsonaro promises that the next supreme judge he names will be “terribly” evangelical, we set foot on new ground.

The recent success of these positions in various countries indicates a transformation that cannot be ruled out as a political, strategic or temporary event.. Let’s think about Costa Rica: 10 deaths from coronavirus. Copy. Without being a rich country, it has spent 8 years of its Gross Domestic Product on health, and there are the results. Now imagine that Fabricio Alvarado, the evangelical candidate who reached the second presidential round in 2018 – and whose wife speaks in ‘tongues’ – had won. Would we have the same results? Probably not. So, as national discussions revolved around political or economic issues, the damaging consequences of anti-rationalism watered down. But When an epidemic arrives that places science at the existential center of the countries, anti-rationalism becomes deadly.

When « post-truth » was chosen the word of the year 2016, more than one skeptic thought that the concept, in fact, pointed to the lie of a lifetime. They were wrong. Disdain for experts and data revealed an obscurantist way of approaching knowledge. Actually, Timothy Snyder was correct in ensuring that post-truth was pre-fascism, because, indeed, fascism is the radical political expression of contempt for what is reasonable and universal.

The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. (Joédson Alves / EPA via Shutterstock)

At the moment, we have seen plots of fascism in these governments: the contempt for minorities, a traditional macho attitude against women and, above all, a general behavior that fits in the word that George Orwell claimed described fascism better than any other: « bully ». But with the exception of Nicaragua, where we can appreciate the stabilization of a regime with fascist features, in the United States and Latin America we have seen glimpses of fascism.

On the other hand, what COVID-19 has allowed us to see, clearly and in all its breadth, is the anti-rationalist ferment that distills those political positions. As Anne Applebaum has noted, the three closest officials to Donald Trump feel like they are waging a biblical battle where there is no room for doubt. Unfortunately, the death, famine and fear that this pandemic will generate can be fertile ground for this type of project. It pays to be forewarned and know that, whether we are right or left, it is better not to choose an anti-rationalist as a lesser evil. Nothing illustrates this better than the extent to which investors are withdrawing their capital from Brazil in these weeks. Bolsonaro, the pro-capitalist, was, in fact, an anti-rationalist. The rest of the hemisphere is warned.

Alberto Vergara is a professor and researcher at the Universidad del Pacífico, Lima.

(c) The New York Times 2020