Stephen Fry Interview: “Everything I feared about Bolsonaro came true”

I really did feel that for the first time in my life I’d been in the presence of something quite frighteningly evil

An interview by Brian Mier

British actor, director and author Stephen Fry is well-known around the world for many reasons. In Brazil, he is famous for being the first well known English-speaking personality to warn the World about Jair Bolsonaro, during a courageous 2014 interview for his documentary series Out There in which he confronted then-Congressman Bolsonaro about his homophobia. I was asked to interview Mr. Fry on his thoughts about the upcoming Brazilian presidential election for the news channel Brasil 247 via video which was dubbed into Portuguese. The following is a transcript of our conversation, which took place on August 17, 2022.

Brian: I’d like to thank you for giving us a bit of your time, you have about 15 minutes, correct?

Stephen: I’m afraid that’s all the time I have, yes. But it’s nice to speak to you and I know Brazil is going through quite an experience now that the election has begun in earnest. It’s October the 2nd, is that right? Is that the actual voting day?

Brian: Yes. 46 days from now.

Stephen: 46 days. Well, there is a saying in English, I’m sure you have an equivalent in Brazilian Portuguese as well, which is that a week is a long time in politics. And 40 odd days is a very long time. But I guess the battle lines are drawn. I don’t know what the feeling is. The last I heard is that… Is it a 7% lead for Lula?

Brian: Well, they cherry-picked the lowest poll result in the international media. He’s consistently leading in double digits.

Stephen: I’ve heard that. I think the story they are trying to tell in the west is that he’s been attempting to bribe the Brazilian people lately with a big R$41 billion real kind of attempt to throw money at some of the voters he needs from Lula. This may have had a small effect on it, but not a major one.

Brian: It didn’t have a statistically significant effect and it was based on this kind of arrogant premise that poor people are stupid and can be bought by a little bit of a welfare check increase and it didn’t play out. The presidential polls that have come out since the extra money was given out last week, show no statistically significant difference in popularity for Bolsonaro.

Stephen: Well that at least is a relief. I suppose that… Obviously what the world is looking at is how much Bolsonaro is trying to play the same game that Trump played on January 6. Everyone is saying it yet it doesn’t make it any less shocking. He keeps repeating that he will not stand down if he loses – he’s clearly planning not to accept the result. And this idea that only paper ballots will do is such a ridiculous lie. And I believe that most of the Brazilian people accept that electronic ballots are reliable and safe and can be trusted. You know, I speak as someone who has had the misfortune or good fortune of meeting Bolsonaro and as I repeat to people, it sent chills through me because I could see those cold eyes and that sort of weird, male “thing” that he gave out and these bizarre arguments – not even arguments but almost kind of superstitious nonsense about homosexuality, which is what I was interviewing him about, supposedly. And he made that remark about how he would rather have a son die than have a son who was gay. And I really did feel that, for the first time in my life I’d been in the presence of something quite frighteningly evil. I know that sounds a bit hysterical, but he really did give me that impression. There was a sort of something that came off him that was deeply disturbing. And I see it every time I watch him speaking in public and making statements. And we all have to face this strange problem in politics today which is that the divide has widened to the extent that there are people on each side who simply can’t hear the others. It doesn’t matter what we say. It doesn’t matter what evidence is brought forward to demonstrate in our view that Bolsonaro is a dangerous, tyrannical, machista, militarist nightmare who is bad for Brazil, who represents the worst in a country that is deeply loved around the world. I mean, you’d find it very hard to go around America and Britain not to see people smile when the picture Brazil, because it has everything in terms of beauty and style and a wonderful kind of acceptance and diversity. You look at all these Carnavals and you look at the different areas from North to South and there’s such a fabulous mixture of people who seem to have inherited or been born into one of the most beautiful and important countries on Earth. And then you have a leader who seems to find in Brazil something that no one else sees. A kind of fantasy of militarism and putting a fist on your chest and behaving like a 1960s Junta General. It’s childish, it’s embarrassing. And it would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening. I think people have to understand that he is a real threat, to the stability, not just of Brazil and the South America, continent but of the World, really, because there are more and more people like him in politics and they see each other and join together. So Orban and to some extent Erdogen, some people in Poland as well as Putin and Trump – these are all people who have a similar contempt for everything that has been erected in the World to try and connect society, to try and connect countries together whether it’s the World Health Organization or the United Nations generally and other such bodies, which of course have faults and are not perfect but which are the last, best hope to deal with the extraordinary crises that are facing us today, especially of course the climate. And Brazil has a unique part to play in that. Everyone looks to how Brazil will look after this extraordinary gift to the World, the Amazon rain forest. And of course in the last 4 years it’s been a disaster. I feel a bit embarrassed. I’m not a Brazilian why am I choosing to lecture or daring to suggest that I have anything to say about an election. I know people look after themselves and have their own elections and why should someone from another country try to interfere? I suppose the only excuse I can give is that I have an affection and respect and admiration and belief in Brazil and the Brazilian people. Maybe if I were Brazilian and I saw the same thing happening in Britain I would be upset and say, “oh, but I like Britain, I like some of its traditions and it would be awful to see Britain going down the toilet.” Well that’s really how I speak just as a friend of Brazil who loves to visit the country and believes that it has so many qualities that are inspirational for the rest of the world. There’s a choice. I am sure that Lula is not perfect, but on the other hand, what he achieved in his presidency was pretty impressive in terms of raising up a lot of poor people and improving the outlook for a whole range of those who were forgotten. I think part of the problem is that in the West now, the word Socialism, because of America, has become almost akin to Communism. But of course, actually, Lula isn’t a socialist in a communistic, Marxist sort of way, he is what we would call a social democrat. He obviously believes in a mixed economy which involves a bit of government direction and what you might call Keynesian economics rather than allowing corporate interests to run rampant in the country and suppress unionization and suppress freedom and diversity and all the things that help people get along with each other. So I have given rather a long speech now but I was hoping to express something of what I feel.

Brian: In Brazil a lot of people really like you for many reasons, obviously, but everyone remembers you as being the first person from outside of Brazil who warned the World – at least the English speaking World – about Jair Bolsonaro. I was just re-watching that. I actually am friends with Ed Davies, who was your cameraman during that interview. He told me that he shook Bolsonaro’s hand and Bolsonaro said, “it’s a pleasure to meet somebody with pure blood. Unfortunately the blood of our people is tarnished by blacks and Indians.” Ed said he was immediately disgusted by him. I know that you came off feeling very chilled. How do you feel now that he’s been in power for nearly 4 years and what do you think is going to happen in October?

Stephen: Well, everything that I feared about him seemed to come true in terms of his racism, his homophobia, his lying, his refusal to conform to any of the decencies of debate, logic and evidence and truth and of course his handling of the pandemic was absolutely shocking. It was truly horrifying. So what will happen in October? Well, you know more about these things than I do but certainly he’s giving out signals that he won’t accept it if he’s defeated and at the moment the polls show he will be defeated heavily. And if he then tries to whip up his foot soldiers, his fans and admirers, his core supporters to do something equivalent to the January 6 insurrection in Washington then it would be a very dark day indeed for Brazil. In Lula’s time – and as I said, I am not suggesting that he was perfect – in his time, Brazil rose to that condition that was known as BRIC. Brazil, Russia, China and India were these new countries with new economies that were all going to rise up and equal the G7 and become huge players on the World stage. And Brazil would have been a great country for that. And Bolsonaro got rid of that. So one of the things I think Brazilians should tell themselves is that he is not a patriot. He’s not someone who is doing the best for Brazil. He’s only doing the best for his friends, his family, his supporters and the corporate people who pay him. There is a deep corruption in that and it has lowered the standing of Brazil. So him standing there in a military uniform claiming to love Brazil while doing that awful, sentimental half-crying that fascists always do – that shouldn’t fool anybody. He’s not going to help the country. He’s only going to help himself and some fantastic sentimental idea he has about Brazil that is false.

The question is whether or not Brazil can prepare itself, whether the military is really behind him in as much as if he calls on the military on October 3, because he’s clearly lost, and says, “Let’s take over the Palace, I’m not stepping down, support me.” I don’t know what your reading is, but what I have looked at so far I think the military would not go that far. I think they understand that that would be disastrous for the country. I think he would be suppressed in his attempt to do an insurrection. But maybe I’m being too optimistic. Maybe things will get worse, but I think the best thing that can happen is the more people who vote for Lula, the more people who turn out on election day, the more dramatic and perfect the result is, the less chance he has of claiming this ridiculous fraud that he will call and try to blow a whistle and say that it was all to do with the electronic voting system. If enough people vote, and I suspect they will, but what do I know. We all try to be as optimistic as we can. Unfortunately I have to go now. If you have any last quick question, please do. I’ve just generally babbled.

Brian: One very quick final question. Why do you think fascists like Bolsonaro, Trump and to some extent Boris Johnson and others around the World have become so powerful in the last few years?

Stephen: I think that’s a really good question and it’s one that we need to address. I’m afraid that one of the answers is that the left, the progressive center, the middle left not the hard left but the soft left, the liberals.. We – people like me – have failed. We have not come across in any way as the friends of the people and the voters. We are regarded as an elite, as “woke” as puritanical, as self regarding, as self important and there is a strong sense that figures like Bolsonaro and Modi and Orban and Trump and Johnson speak for a disenfranchised, usually white working class who don’t feel that the establishment, the media, the actors, Hollywood, people like me, speak to them, that we have our “educated” way of talking which is snobbish. I think that there is a gap in rhetoric in our ability to stand as if we can for everyone in the way that a populist – and the word populist is used for people like Bolsnonaro because they just cut away all nuance, all apparent difficulty, when it is a difficult situation. The honesty of a true intellectual or a true progressive who has to admit that they don’t have all the answers, is bulldozed aside. Bolsonaro is a bulldozer. He’s been a bulldozer in Amazonia  and he’s a bulldozer of any idea that has any subtlety or any decency in it. You just simply loudly shout, lie and inflame your supporters and make them feel that they are the most important people in the World. It doesn’t matter about telling the truth or about accepting small differences and variations in the way people look at the World. Just say, “this is how it is. I speak for you. You’ve been forgotten. The left, those university professors, those journalists, those actors and TV commentators, the mainstream media, those people on Twitter – they just want to come over as holy and they’re just sanctimonious and they hate you and I love you.” And that is a message and it is simple and it’s unfortunate but true that lots of people listen to it. There’s an old saying on the right which is very funny – I have to admit it. “How do you get a leftist to humiliate himself? Let him talk.” And we can talk to each other and we think we are making great sense but the rest of the world thinks we’re just snobbish, elitist, pretentious, wankers, as we say in England, that’s the problem. So we need to find a left wing populism that manages to be honest and decent but somehow reaches people in the way that right wing populism does. I think that is a problem facing the World. And on that note, I’ll have to disappear because I am booked and am going to be late for something, but it was lovely talking to you. And, very best of luck to all my friends in Brazil.

 

Brian Mier
Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.

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