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Polemics and populism in times of pandemic: Legitimation and construction of authority in Bolsonaro’s addresses

Polémique et populisme en temps de pandémie : légitimation et construction d’autorité chez Bolsonaro
Claire Sukiennik Abécassis
Cet article est une traduction de :
Polémique et populisme en temps de pandémie : légitimation et construction d’autorité chez Bolsonaro [fr]


Cet article traite de la façon dont J. Bolsonaro renforce sa légitimité et construit son autorité dans un discours populiste de type polémique gratifiant pour sa personne, au détriment de ses adversaires. Pour ce faire, le président brésilien tente, dans deux allocutions nationales majeures et dans ses réactions aux attaques, de justifier son refus des mesures sanitaires, et en même temps de renforcer son ethos d’homme fort et de sauveur. L'analyse argumentative montre comment ses efforts se sont heurtés et ont répondu à un contre-discours qui s’est développé au sein d’une polémique publique. La réception de son discours présente les attaques lancées contre sa personne et ses dires auxquelles il doit se confronter pour rétablir sa légitimité et reconstruire son autorité mises à mal par ses détracteurs.

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  • 1 All the quotations in Portuguese are translated by me.
  • 2 “Why Brazil’s COVID-19 Response Is Failing?” is a report published in The Regulatory Review (22.6.2 (...)

1“Other flus have killed more1,” Brazilian president Jair Messaias Bolsonaro told the press on March 11, 2020, while admitting he was not a doctor. He continued to downplay the health situation after the World Health Organization (WHO) had announced the new coronavirus pandemic. From the beginning, the Brazilian federal government had tried to apply new measures, including social distancing in all 26 states and in the Federal District; these measures had nevertheless come up against “mixed signals [sent] by the Bolsonaro Administration about the severity of the outbreak in Brazil […] turning a pandemic into a political debate.” 2

  • 3 Tiago Ribeiro Duarte, “Ignoring scientific advice during the Covid-19 pandemic: Bolsonaro’s actions (...)
  • 4 Francisco Ortega.” Governing covid-19 without government in Brazil. Ignorance: neoliberal authorita (...)

2The attitude of the Brazilian president in a pandemic situation is presented by the media and researchers as the expression of a far-right populism (Duarte 2020)3 tinged with neoliberal authoritarianism, science denial (Ortega 2020)4 and strong religious-evangelical roots. We can think of the specificity of neo-populism in Latin America, including Brazil, as analyzed by Taguieff (2002: 169-170): he mentions the ability of a charismatic personality to win the people’s trust by staging his authenticity and by exploiting dreams of immediate solutions through various forms of messianism while remaining blurry.

3We will examine here how populist and polemic discourse are linked up in the Brazilian leader’s rhetorical and argumentative strategies. Drawing on various studies related to populism (Taguieff 2002, Laclau 2005, Rosanvallon 2008, and Charaudeau 2011) and to polemics (Amossy 2021, 2003, Maingueneau 2008, Koren 2019, Kerbrat Orrechioni 1980, and Plantin 1990, 1996), this article aims at showing how the president of Brazil tries to build legitimacy and authority by wielding a populist discourse of a polemical type that is gratifying to himself at the expense of his opponents. Unlike most other democratic leaders who tried to persuade the people of the necessity to adopt the health measures against Covid-19 on behalf of the common good, the Brazilian president tried to give authority not to the restrictions necessary in times of pandemic, but to his own vision of things. This vision equates life and jobs and eventually leads to a rejection of the measures advocated. How did the Brazilian leader justify and legitimize his posture, which is at odds with Brazilian institutions and with the decisions of other democratic leaders? What rhetoric did he deploy to be approved and followed by his fellow citizens?

1. Conceptual Framework

4Before answering these questions, I would like to define what I mean by authority and legitimacy in a political context, and by the notions of populism and polemics.

  • 5 Beetham thinks that Weber’s typology has proved a source of confusion because the proper status of (...)

5Although distinct from each other, the concepts of legitimacy and authority are interdependent. Legitimacy is the “result of the others’ acknowledgement of what gives someone the power to do or to say on behalf of a status” (Charaudeau 2005:52; my translation). It is an “acquired right” that requires the predominance of institutional status in order to be acknowledged by the public (Bourdieu 1982), in compliance with laws and rules, and in accordance with the moral values of the community (Beetham 2013). Nevertheless, legitimation is not given once and for all and it “constantly needs to be reactivated by various justifications because it can be challenged by the very people who granted it” (Charaudeau 2005:57; my translation). It is therefore in a discourse of legitimation, through a discursive dynamic, that the leader seeks to have his policy recognized–namely, perceived as conform to the founding values of the regime and of the country (Amossy 2022). The ruler can try to strengthen his institutional legitimacy in the event of “controversial actions, accusations, doubts, critique” (Rojo and van Dijk 1997: 528), or even of a “legitimation crisis” (Habermas [1975 [1973]) that may threaten him. Beetham (2013: 18-20) refers to “legitimacy deficit” to the extent that rules of power cannot be justified in terms of shared beliefs, and to “delegitimization” when there is no consent on the part of the subordinate. The author connects (ibid.: 24) this “sole” dimension of consent or obedience“expressed in the act of acknowledging and following a leader”to Weber’s charismatic5 legitimacy.

  • 6 Tribune “About incarnation in politics” by Pierre Rosanvallon.

6Those are indeed the prerequisite of authority which is, in Angenot’s terms, a “legitimized power”, meaning that it cannot be exercised if it is not acknowledged by the Other within the framework of “a collective belief in [its] legitimacy […]” (2013: 8; my translation). It thus allows for an “agreed” submission (Amossy 2022: 9-10) of the subordinate. Authority thus understood cannot be parted from the construction of a credible and trustworthy self-image, which has the capacity to “make people do things, to make people think or say” (Charaudeau 2005: 57; my translation). However, it should be emphasized that this ability has a negative populist counterpart, the “representation-incarnation” (Rosanvallon 2008: 38), or “the ability to appear as a force for interpreting reality” (Libération 2.3.1995)6, which matches “the charismatic ruling dimension of an ‘emotional community’."

7The interdependency between legitimacy and authority is reflected here, on the one hand in the legitimacy crisis caused by Bolsonaro’s populist and polemical practices aimed to make his speech acknowledged and obeyed; and on the other hand, in the efforts he must invest to restore the authority of his declarations.

8I understand polemics as one of the poles of the argumentative activity “on a continuum ranging from the co-construction of responses to the violent confrontation of antagonistic theses” on the same question (Amossy, 2010a [2000]), implying “a coexistence in dissensus” (Amossy 2021: 95). From a socio-political perspective, Taguieff (1997: 19) sees in the polemical structure “to be against” a populist category: “To be populist is first to be against.” I follow Taguieff (2002: 110, 124) in his conceptualization of populism as a “type of social and political mobilization and a dimension [of action or] of political discourse” against instances of power, which highlights the appeal to the people against certain “others” through the symbolic use of social representations (my translations). The relationship of populism to social representations is well explained by Charaudeau (2011: 39):

The true populist must appear as a charismatic leader [...] who builds his leadership on different culture-dependent images according to inherent social imaginaries. […] He can present himself as “a guide of the people”, […] a biblical Savior, capable both of pouring out his wrath on the wicked and of leading to supreme happiness (my translation).

9I intend to analyze Bolsonaro’s discourse by exposing its populist and polemical character, and present the attacks launched against him, which he must confront. I will therefore take into account the reception of the discourse. It is indeed in the confrontation of voices that we can understand the way Bolsonaro tries to strengthen his legitimacy and build his authority at the same time as his ethos of Savior.

2. Corpus and methodology

10For this purpose, my corpus includes three parts: (1) the presidential address7 to the nation in March 24, 2020; (2) the anti-discourse, March 25, originating in Brazilian health organizations that will impact (3) the second speech8 of the president on March 31. The importance of choosing these speeches lies in the argumentative interaction that takes place in a polemical exchange revealing a discursive confrontation between the proponent and the opponent roughly defined as discourse vs counter-discourse (Plantin 1996): they can impact each other in the public space or be attributed to discursive bodies such as the press, state governors and health associations. I will therefore proceed with a three-step study to explore the modalities of the discursive construction of a leader’s legitimacy and authority related to a crucial health issue, by examining

1. How in the March 24th speech, the Brazilian president builds his legitimacy and his authority using a populist stand of a polemical type which rejects the federal health measures and justifies the need for a return to normality in the country,

2. how his legitimacy and his authority are called into question by a polemics launched against him in an axiological and deontologically grounded anti-discourse published by health associations in the Brazilian press, on March 25th,

3. how the Brazilian president responds to this anti-discourse which causes a legitimation crisis he will have to manage in the March 31st speech in order to restore his authority.

11I will focus on the triple function of populism in Bolsonaro’s discourse: the illegitimation of his opponents, the relegitimation of the people and his self-legitimation (Charaudeau 2011: 41). These functions are consistent with the populist scheme: exacerbating the crisis, denouncing the guilty, promoting values, appearing as a Savior (ibid.: 18). The discursive dimension is at the core of an analysis which explores the construction of a populist ethos as a vector of authority in the political culture of Brazil.

3. Constructing authority and legitimacy through polemics and populist discourse

  • 9 Sources: (my translation) “Coronavirus: remember what Bolsonaro has already said about the pandemic (...)
  • 10 On 9.3.2020 Bolsonaro said: “the destructive power of the virus has been oversized, perhaps even fo (...)

12The construction of his legitimacy is carried out first of all through a scenography (Maingueneau 2000: 58), that is, a staging of the presidential speech in accordance with the institutional framework of a head of state: flanked by the Brazilian flag, sitting at his desk as a man of experience, Jair Bolsonaro addresses the people, in an speech broadcast on television and radio, on the evening of March 24. But the Brazilian president is building his legitimacy and authority above all by the way he polemicizes from the start against others, to justify measures contrary to public health guidelines, while reinforcing his own image at the expense of his opponents. In his speech, Bolsonaro accuses the press of aggravating the health crisis, calls to “get back to normal,” stresses the need to maintain jobs and rails against state governors while scoffing at their lockdown measures. He thus responds to the counter-discourse9 on the divisive aspect of his health management whose polemical tone can be noticed from the lead: “Oversized/overrated’10, ‘fantasy’, testimony without surgical mask and manifestation of presence: the president did not comply with the directives of the Ministry of Health and has not transmitted a clear message to date.” The article traces the chronology of “his denial in the current health crisis” (10.3.2020). It comments on the way Bolsonaro blamed the press from the very beginning, accusing it of “pure fantasy,” “alarmism” (22.3.2020); it states his refusal to apply social distancing measures such as wearing a mask in certain institutions or his refusal to wear it himself, claiming his need for contact with the people (18.3.2020). Moreover, the changes in tone and the contradictions in his statements are highlighted in the interdiscourse: he accuses the governors of taking lockdown steps that are “harmful to the economic recovery of the country” (17.3.2020), denouncing a state of “hysteria,” and calls on the same day for “union to fight against the coronavirus.”

3.1. Bolsonaro’s ad hominem attacka polemical exchange

13I am using here the notion of ad hominem argument as a component of argumentative exchange in general and of polemical discourse to exemplify “an interaction which results in integration/disqualification strategies of the adversary [ …]” (Maingueneau 2008: 119; my translation), delegitimization of the other, and self-legitimation. The ad hominem establishes a relationship to “the image of the opponent it allows to be attacked, but also to the image of the speaker who engages in this attack” (Amossy 2003: 409; my translation). I propose to explore, following Amossy (2010a [2000]), the way in which the arguments are constructed and oppose each other in Bolsonaro’s addresses and in the statements of his interlocutors, or, in other words, the relationship between discourse and counter-discourse in the interdiscursive web.

3.1.1. Against the Press

14The strength of the ad hominem argument analyzed here derives essentially from the institutional position of the person who formulates it: the head of the Brazilian executive. Bolsonaro exacerbates the crisis in the preamble to his speech, using a contradictory populist argument supported by an ethos of sincerity. He praises the work of the Minister of Health for “implementing a strategic plan to fight the virus” and then, through the connective “but” moves on to an argument presented as stronger than the previous one and even in contradiction with it:

But what we had to contain at that time was the panic, the hysteria. And at the same time, develop a strategy to save lives and prevent mass unemployment. So we did it, almost against all odds.

15The Brazilian president legitimizes his vision of things by showing that he acts for the public good and ensures the most precious assets of the citizens–saving lives and jobs. But this requires continuous efforts on his part, which he says he makes “at the same time” and “practically against all odds”, that is, despite the fierce opposition he faces.

16Bolsonaro thus displays a populist rhetoric of the type “Nothing can oppose my will” (Charaudeau 2011: 36; my translation), which presents “a force and a power capable of overthrowing the world and dragging the crowds along.” It is a way of building his legitimacy through an appeal to the peoplefor the sake of the poorestwhich he will continue to promote in his subsequent speech, through the exaltation of common values. But the polemical side of “being against” is also implicitly addressed to the press and local governors who oppose his will to power and action, and with whom he does not share the current requirements, namely the duty of the press to inform and the need to apply sanitary norms in the Brazilian states in accordance with a vital emergency. Here lies the heart of the dissensus between the Brazilian president and his protagonists. The collective “we” is used to rally the federal government to his actions, to show a common front, despite mutual antagonisms. However, at the interdiscursive level, two days before, on 22.3.2020 (Veja 23.3.2020), in a statement to TV Record, Bolsonaro accused his opponents of duplicity: “[...] I hope I won’t be found guilty of millions of unemployed, and I would even say more: soon the people will know they have been deceived by these governors and by a large part of the media regarding the coronavirus.”

17This practice of managing the conflict as a constituent of polemics (Amossy 2021) allows him to follow up with a procedure of disqualification specific to this kind of discourse: the refutative ad hominem (Plantin 1990: 208), which targets the opponent’s action, in this case his manipulation of the Brazilian masses in order to construct a parallel reality:

Many media ran against the tide. They spread a feeling of dread peaking in the announcement of a large number of victims in Italy, a country with a large number of elderly people and with a climate totally different from ours. A perfect scenario plotted by the media to spread real hysteria across our country.

18The dramatization effect, through pathosa “feeling of dread,” a “genuine hysteria”, and the axiological verbal group with its conspiracy resonance—“to plot […] a perfect scenario”is aimed at denying the opponent (the media) its role as the fourth power and to ban it by assimilating it to the source of evil. Bolsonaro’s explanations resort to a conspiratorial populist doxa, according to which adverse forces are opposing his aspirations. He tends to reverse his role of proponent into that of opponent “who attacks a target, which is supposed to hold or to have held an opposing discourse, which the polemical statement integrates and rejects ‘aggressively’ [...]” (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1980: 24; my translation). He responds to the press polemical counter-discourse, during a meeting with regional prefects on 22.3.2020: “There is a very strong alarmism from a large part of the media. Some say I’m going against the tide. I do what I believe should be done. I could be wrong, but I think it should be settled this way.” He tries to project an ethos of sincerity and authenticity to foster a relationship of trust by presenting himself as a credible person, who seeks to be reliable.

3.1.2. Against State Governors

19Bolsonaro will try to make his opponents, the governors and local authorities, comply with the populist call for a return to “normality”. This call is used as a justification to delegitimize their actions through the ad hominem attack, and then to legitimize his own words through the construction of a reality related to the coronavirus and through the image of the Savior. How is he going to persuade his audience to recognize an authority capable of carrying out what he proposes in the name of the community?

3.1.3. “Back to Normal”: a justification for the delegitimization of the governors

20Bolsonaro proceeds with the populist polemical strategy “to be against” to invoke the source of the evil against which he claims to fight valiantly. This strategy is mobilized in the wake of a series of dissensions within his administration, culminating in his calling the governor of São Paulo, João Doria of the PSDB party, “crazy” (25.3.2020) for having previously “decreed the quarantine to contain the advance of the virus”, in accordance with the sanitary measures in force (Estadão 2.4.2020). This devaluation of the adversary constitutes an attempt “to eliminate him as a serious partner in the discussion by eliminating his right to advance a standpoint” (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992: 110). On the other hand, the critical counter-discourse in the chapeau of the article (Folha de S.Paulo 30.3.2020), mainly highlights his numerous efforts to delegitimize the medical and scientific authority that guide his health management: “The president is leading a series of offensives against the almost unanimous recommendations of doctors and scientists.” The choice of pointing out the unanimity of the experts’ recommendations aims at proving that the presidential attitude against them has no reasonable basis, which calls into question his credibility and the trust placed in him.

  • 11 He had the rank of captain under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.
  • 12 Estadão published on 23.4.2020 a study by Ricard, J., Medeiros, J. (2020), “Using Misinformation as (...)

21To denounce the policy of the governors in accordance with the recommendations of the experts, Bolsonaro, as a former military officer11, resorts to the warrior register through the metaphor of “scorched earth,” the tactic of retreating in front of the enemy’s advance by destroying crops and villages. He associates them with bellicose entities that prevent a return to normality by their persistence in applying sanitary measures that he considers harmful12 to the economy:

The virus has arrived in Brazil, we are fighting it and soon it will pass. Our lives have to go on. Jobs must be kept. The livelihoods of families must be preserved. We must, yes, get back to normal. A small number of states and municipal authorities must abandon the scorched earth tactic, such as the ban on transportation, the closure of businesses and mass confinement.

22This excerpt can be linked to the argument from consequences put forward the day after his speech, in a new statement on 25.3.2020 about the effects of the lockdowns on “democratic normalcy,” as he referred to recent social unrest due to popular discontent in Latin America ( 25.3.2020): “What some mayors and governors are doing is a crime. They are destroying Brazil. If we don’t get back to work, Brazil could move away from democratic normalcy.” The amplification of pathos in the bolsonarist style contributes to delegitimize the authority of his opponents for the risk that they make incur to the democracy, according to him.

23The Brazilian president thus composes himself an image of credible leader by “the power of his vision and his capacity of incarnation in his force of interpreting reality” (Libération 2.3.1995).

3.2. An authority relying on the charisma of a populist leader

3.2.1. An ethos of Savior

24According to Bolsonaro, getting back to normal is to propose an instant project of “social ideality” specific to populist discourse, through the “reinstatement of popular sovereignty.” He justifies its legitimacy by a hierarchy of values, privileging those that are dear to him and that are supposed to represent what fundamentally unites the members of a social community (Charaudeau 2011: 28): hope, determination, life and work. It is a discursive populist strategy that plays on proximity and representation and allows him to justify ways of acting that he will present as legitimate because they are necessary for the good of the people. They are introduced by the normative verb “must,” i.e., the need for a resumption of daily life by maintaining jobs for the sustenance of families, because life must go on. Denying the temporal dimension of the health crisis by the immediacy of the promise (“and it will soon be over”), and at the end of the speech by the exaltation of a collective impulse and nationalistic feelings (“we will defeat the virus and be proud to live in this new Brazil that, yes, has everything to be a great nation”) is a way of constructing the ethos of Savior that responds to the people’s desire for salvation. It is “making believe” that the return to normality is possible right away, that the miracle of change is achievable, and it responds to his desire to obtain plebiscitary legitimacy as the representative of the people.

  • 13 Alexandre Marques Silva, « (Não) é só uma gripezinha: argumentação e realidade forjada nos pronunci (...)

25However, the question is whether he manages to legitimize his authority when he equates the common values ​​of life and work, claiming that the latter obeys a necessity of survival among the most disadvantaged. As Rik Daems, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, put it on 24.4.2020, “The first duty of any democratic government in times of pandemic” is “to protect the population and save lives,” while respecting both health and social order, and preserving “the balance between security and freedom.” The Brazilian president proceeds to legitimize his power using a rhetorical strategy of “constructing the objects of discourse” (Covid-19) (Marques Silva 2020)13, in order to assert his personal authority as a strong and determined statesman, and as a Savior in the dramatic circumstances of the pandemic.

3.2.2. Self-Legitimation: constructing the “object of discourse”

26Bolsonaro has from the start euphemized the coronavirus in order to better dismiss it. To counter the closing of businesses and schools, he will give himself authority at the expense of recognized scientific knowledge by making people believe “in the existence of a single valid interpretation” which reveals “a particular system of beliefs or even a conception of the world” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969 [1958]: 122). He thus opposes the WHO recommendations with his own interpretation, using a “deductive series” (ibid.: 14) to demonstrate his own postulates, in accordance with his personal beliefs and with the doxa of his audience, which he supports with figures and percentage estimates to make himself trustworthy:

What is happening around the world has shown that the risk groups are those over 60 years old. So why close schools? Fatal cases among healthy people under the age of 40 are scarcer. 90% of us will show no sign [of infection] if we are infected. Yes, we must be extremely careful not to transmit the virus to others, especially our dear parents and grandparents. By following the Ministry of Health guidelines.

27He promotes school opening by deducting the risk group out of those over 60; he reinforces this postulate by the scarcity of “mortal cases among healthy people under 40;” then he includes himself in the collective “we” within a new postulate on the risk of contamination. He thus tries to project a sincere self-image by emotionally appealing to the respect of parents and grandparents in the name of moral values and shared beliefs, and he sets himself as a model of personal immunity.

3.2.3. An ethos of power: a model of identification

28Based on his audience’s doxa, Bolsonaro accredits his postulate that “90% of us will have no sign [of infection] if we are infected,” choosing to dwell on his personal case:

In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I would not have to worry if I was infected by the virus. I would not feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold […]

29The advantage of using a personal example—which must, in order to be accepted as such, enjoy the “status of a fact”—is to set oneself as a model that “encourages imitation” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969 [1958]: 350-353). Looped over in worldwide press, it illustrates a verbal behavior, a “rant” (Charaudeau 2011: 36) that builds an ethos of power, based on “shared beliefs” (Beetham 2013: 17), to show that he is the “legitimate source of authority” and has the “appropriate qualities” for the exercise of power. Moreover, this ethos comes to support “something appealing about any figure who challenges the institutional system” (Laclau 2005: 123) and a type of fascination exerted on the people which contribute to maintain the authority of the Brazilian leader.

4. The reception of the speech in the press

30The presidential address was the immediate target of politicians inside and outside his government who questioned the credibility of Bolsonaro’s speech to the point of challenging or overstepping his authority The Folha de S. Paulo 24.3.2020 headlined “Bolsonaro is ignored by state governors and he isolates himself further [at the Planalto palace, his official residence].” On Rio de Janeiro daily Globo front page (26.03.2020): “Bolsonaro is rejected by governors and scientists; the population stays at home.” The political blog of Brazilian journalist Matheus Leitão, 26.3.2020, reports on governors’ refusal to end the restrictive measures already in place, and on criticism of the president from WHO, the political opposition but also allies, and “civil society [which] in protest deserted the streets of the big cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, on March 25.”

4.1. The anti-discourse of medical associations

31The health organizations, for their part, responded to the speech with a discursive confrontation of antagonistic positions to “prove the controversial point (Amossy 2003: 410).” They reaffirm their challenged scientific authority and question the presidential legitimacy and authority previously constructed.

32I will show how the polemical dimension of this anti-discourse responds to statements perceived as “intolerable” from the point of view of medical and scientific ethics, “to the extent that they find it necessary to conflict with the supposed source of these statements.” (Maingueneau, 2008). I adopt here the rhetorical perspective of Alan Brinton (1985) in which “reason-based attacks on the opponent’s ethos seem […] valid and appropriate ad hominem arguments” (Amossy 2003: 412-413). These theses will allow me to show the constructive function of the ad hominem in polemics as a valid instrument of persuasion related not only to logos and pathos (Woods and Walton 1977) but essentially to the orator’s discursive image. This type of argument (called “ethotic argument” by Brinton 1986) “questions the orator’s credibility and legitimacy.”

33My corpus is made up of reactions from around thirty Brazilian health and bioethics associations14, of primary importance, signed press releases made public on Globo15 media (25.03.2020) which devotes a very long article to the subject under the heading “Health professionals and scientists condemn Bolsonaro's speech on Covid-19.” This anti-discourse is a public statement that argues “in favor of an ethical […] resistance to any form of violence or injustice […] perceived as a mode of action” (Koren 2019: 209).

  • 16 The Brazilian Society of Infectiology denounces presidential authority “make think”, warning that “ (...)

34The article revisits the facts that provoked the controversy: the comparison of the Coronavirus to a “flu16,” the call to end “mass containment,” the claim of a “return to normality” and the accusation against the press of “spreading fear.” The opponents reiterated the validity of the restrictive distancing measures and unanimously praised the work of the Brazilian Ministry of Health. The Board of Directors and the members of the Brazilian Association of Health Lawyers denounced the insubordination of the president by delegitimizing his statements:

We reject the presidential disavowal of the prevention and containment measures adopted by our Ministry of Health and state and municipal governments, by his suggestion to resume school and his unfortunate personal comparison to the reality of most elderly Brazilians.

35These anti-discourses are meant at delegitimizing his person, his power and his authority.

4.2. The deconstruction of J. Bolsonaro legitimacy and authority

4.2.1. Questioning ethos as a vector of authority

36The ethos of a determined leader, promising a “rosy future” that Bolsonaro has built is undermined in the ad hominem attack used as an “ethotic argument” (Brinton, 1986), which targets three aspects of the Aristotelian ethos: phronesis, aretè and eunoia.

37The image of self the Brazilian president has built will be tested here with selected examples that question “the leader credibility and legitimacy” as an “authorized speaker” (Bourdieu 1982: 64) whose right and capacity “to present a given argumentative discourse” (Amossy 2003: 415), i.e. an appropriate speech in times of health crisis, are doubted.

38The questioning of the moral dimension of both the speech and the person (aretè) can be noticed in the opponent’s use of pragmatic arguments related to the vital consequences of Bolsonaro’s choice, and in the pathos expressing indignation. Many evaluative axiological terms are used to condemn the speech as “totally irresponsible, risking an increase of the contamination and the number of deaths” and as “a risk for the fight against the disease that has already caused more than two thousand cases in Brazil” (Globo). The speech is described as a “genocidal speech” (Infectiology Association), which “jeopardizes the lives of billions of people” and “offends seriously Health and people’s life […]” (National Health Council). These denunciations of the risk that the president is putting Brazilians at undermine his credibility in terms of phronesis or wisdom and prudence, and of eunoia, namely his “good intentions” which obviously are not benevolent towards the collective.

4.2.2. A “deficient” ethos: the “death speech”

  • 17 This press release turned into an article by journalist Claudia Colluci (Folha de S.Paulo 29.3.2020 (...)

39The Collective Health Association published a plea17 for the scientific cause against “Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, currently in charge of the Federal Executive” whose aim is to “verify his credentials” (ibid.: 412) to prove that his ethos “is deficient” and that he does not deserve to hold the position institutionally granted to him. The ethotic argument can be interpreted as a form of resistance to the adversary by arguing values and positions that make sense in the name of a deontological ethical commitment: saving lives, sparing deaths.

40This plea justifies its choice of the denomination “death speech” by affective and axiological adjectives such as “incoherent and criminal," “intolerable and irresponsible,” to describe the presidential address. They lead to a series of value judgments which deny Bolsonaro any authority in the management of health in times of pandemic: they condemn his denial of “scientific evidence,” his slandering “of the excellent work of the press” and his downgrading of national and worldwide scientific work. The ad hominem is therefore supported by factual claims showing that the president “lacks moral authority [aretè] on the question at hand, is not really committed to good deliberation or careful thinking [phronesis] on account of ulterior motives, does not really share values ​​or beliefs or principles [eunoia] which are presupposed in this context, or otherwise is deficient in ethos” (Brinton 1985: 56). He is therefore no longer considered as a trustworthy source but as a leader whose statements are not worthy of being taken as true. His institutional authority is also questioned, namely his right to influence the population not to respect the social distancing measures advised by scientific experts. On this very point the Association anti-discourse aims at solving a conflict of opinions for the collective good: it requests to set aside the proponent as a “credible partner” not in the sole intention to discredit him (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992b: 154) but in order to settle a polemics through institutional measures.

41This anti-discourse, which demands a reassessment of Bolsonaro’s institutional right to represent citizens (Rosanvallon 2008: 297), is questioning:

1. the president’s institutional status, demanding from “the institutions of the Republic” to “react to and stop the irresponsibility of the presidency chair holder before the chaos become irreversible.”

2. the president’s legality: “Bolsonaro has committed an offense for violating a preventive health measure, under the article 268 of the Brazilian Criminal Law, for disrespect towards ‘the public authorities’ commitment to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

42The opponents provide institutional and legal justifications of their disrespect by relying on logos—the text of the law—and mentioning an irresponsibility that arouses indignation (pathos). The latter plays an important role in this argumentative discourse as the driving force for a legal recourse deemed necessary “before the chaos become irreversible.”

43Bolsonaro’s vested right to hold office and steer policies is no longer acknowledged, nor is his right to say and act, which proves disrespectful to the sanitary order necessary for the protection of lives, and inconsistent with the norms and values the leader’s pragmatic arguments are supposed to promote if he wants to be legitimate (Fairclough and Fairclough 2012: 45). The anti-discourse thus delegitimizes the presidential posture on the grounds of existential questions about the good, the just and their opposite (Koren 2019: 95).

5. Bolsonaro’s response to his opponents to rebuild his legitimacy and authority

44The Folha de S. Paulo (31.03.2020) reports the impact of the anti-discourse on Bolsonaro’s style and political posture: he “[...] seems to change his tune, [...] greets the Congress and state governors18 […],” calling for a “pact to fight the pandemic while continuing to connect lives and jobs.” According to the daily, “the president spoke for seven minutes and 32 seconds, while pots and pans banging from windows could be heard in various cities of the country against his speech. ”

45We will examine here how he rebounds, in his new speech of March 31, to respond to a crisis of legitimacy and rebuild his undermined authority so that it can be acknowledged by the Other within the framework of “a collective belief in [its] legitimacy” (Angenot 2013: 8).

5.1. Reconstructing legitimacy as the right to say and do

5.1.1. Bolsonaro’s response to Health Associations

46Bolsonaro tries to restore his right to represent citizens by showing himself capable of understanding the problems of those he governs, i.e., “a representation-empathy” (Rosanvallon 2008: 297). How does he deal with the reactions against him when he defends himself? He tries to do so through a re-legitimation of his person and of the people, exalting national values and reverting to “popular sovereignty.” In this spirit, he will first respond to accusations of institutional illegitimacy and then to the serious consequences of his disrespect towards the required health policy while using a type of creed along with pathos:

Since the beginning of the government, we have been working on all fronts to solve historical problems and improve people’s lives […] But now we are facing the greatest challenge of our generation. My main concern has always been to save lives. Both those we have lost to the pandemic and those affected by unemployment, violence and hunger. I put myself in the shoes of the people and listen to their anguish.

47“Saving lives” seems at first to serve the ethos of a Savior, but it is used as a premise to put forward his thesis: “saving lives and preventing mass unemployment” to reaffirm the legitimacy of his measures and actions.

48To this end, he equates the loss of life due to the pandemic—which is at the heart of the controversy—with other factors such as unemployment, violence and hunger - a consequence of the economic situation in Brazil. In this speech, he reintegrates the problem of containment for the Brazilian economy that he explained a day before, on 30.3.2020: “Logically, life is more important than the economy, but if unemployment continues to increase violently, if we don't relax some rules now, we will have a very serious problem tomorrow and after that there will be hunger, misery, anger, depression. We don't know where this can lead.”

49Secondly, he claims his right “to do” but also the legitimacy of the measures he intends to declare by calling for a “great pact” between the political and civil society:

I thank and reaffirm the importance of collaboration and the necessary union of all in a great pact for the preservation of life and jobs. The parliament, the judiciary, the governors, the prefects, and society.

50In this way, he reacts to anti-discourses, including that of the Infectious Society, which called on “the Legislative and Judicial Powers [...] to take appropriate measures in the face of a genocidal discourse [to overcome the crisis], and to restore the unity of all authorities, regardless of differences [...]. Life cannot wait, [...]” (25.03.2020), thus reinstating the call for unity in his request for a pact.

5.1.2. Reconstructing authority: statements and personal credibility

51To restore the credibility of his image, Bolsonaro tries to rebuild the populist ethos of the Savior that should allow him to promote his controversial thesis of the equality between life and jobs. To this end, he invokes arguments from authority. What are the specificities of his discourse in the way it constructs a culture dependent image, defends certain values and appeals to the people?

  • 19 Image linked to the process of the “make do” authority: “I have instructed our Health Minister to s (...)
  • 20 “The messianic ethos according to Marques Silva

52He projects the image of a man of action19, who is fighting the pandemic on all fronts, invested with a “mission” like a providential20 man: “We have a mission: to save lives without forgetting jobs […] We will accomplish this mission at the same time as taking care of people’s health.” The Brazilian president reinforces this image by backing it up with an institutional commitment that recalls the legitimacy of his status and duties: “at the last meeting of the G-20, we, heads of state and government, committed ourselves to protect lives and save jobs. I will therefore do it.” But he also emphasizes the future obligations that this status imposes on him: “my obligation as president extends beyond the next few months,” with the prospect of a promising future, while remaining vague: “Preparing Brazil to recovery, […], mobilizing all our resources and energy to make Brazil even stronger after the pandemic.”

5.1.3. The role of the argument from authority in constructing an image of Savior

53Bolsonaro relies on two instances of power “as a means of proof in support of a thesis” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969 [1958]: 305): a powerful external model he respects, (this is the role model authority according to van Leeuwen 2007) : former US President Donald Trump, who fears for the US economy; and a health authority, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to whom we owe, in particular, “each and every individual matters” and whose statements will be biased and instrumentalized. A model authority

54Trump’s argument: “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” becomes Bolsonaro’s motto to give credibility to his statements about fighting the coronavirus and to his concern for the economy: “I repeat, the collateral effect of the measures to fight the coronavirus cannot be worse than the illness itself.” A bias

55Folha de S.Paulo 31.3.2020 will challenge his use “once again” of the WHO's D-G statements, “to support the thesis that lives and jobs must be saved”. Indeed, he chooses to bias fragments of interviews on “the need for governments to care for the poorest” with his own interpretation of the need to stop confinement measures to allow the “most vulnerable” to work. He will legitimize his position by exalting the moral values and beliefs that guide his choice: the concern for work among disadvantaged populations for whom employment would protect life, in accordance with the Brazilian socio-economic specificity that exacerbates social inequalities in times of pandemic. These values are part of a common doxa that he shares with his audience, and he uses them “to try to share his views with others” (Amossy 1999: 132).

This has been my concern from the start. What will happen to the street vendor, the kebab seller, the day laborer, the assistant bricklayer, the truck driver and other informal workers with whom I have been in contact throughout my public life?

56Bolsonaro is addressing this plebs that he claims to be the legitimate populus playing the role of the entire community (Laclau 2005: 86). He therefore unifies the people by excluding one of its parts (for example, the wealthy or the middle class of which he does not speak), by a populist-type strategy which gives him the authority of a paternalistic leader endowed with an ethos of sincerity and authenticity, caring for the good of the people and sensitive to its anxieties. He expresses it in the first person by evoking a people made up of informal workers who suffer from precariousness and represent Brazil from “below” (Guy Hermet 2001: 49). The figure of the Savior allows for a relegitimation of the people and for Bolsonaro’s self-legitimation in a close relationship with his ethos (in its dimensions of eunoia and aretè) as a vector of authority.


57The image of the Savior, which the Brazilian president strives to build in order to be heard and obeyed, is a strategy that shapes his populist discourse of a polemical nature. We tried to show by an argumentative analysis that in response to his opponents’ strong criticism, this image, not exempt of emotional content, required reworking and readjustments in accordance with the shared values ​​of a certain audience. The opponents of the Brazilian president have explicitly argued by giving good reasons for their refusal to acknowledge his political legitimacy; they also justified their refusal to grant consent to values ​​they do not share, in an attempt to preserve their freedom (paraphrasing Hannah Arendt 1964). Thus, if this health crisis allows the springs of a populist discourse to be uncovered, it constitutes at the same time a test of this discourse and of its capacity to ensure the legitimacy and authority of the leader.

58To that end, I have tried to analyze the discursive and argumentative construction of the image of a charismatic leader endowed with a force of conviction, an energy and a power that pretend to be at the service of the general interest. At the same time, the polemics which develops within the interdiscourse clearly shows that when the authority of the leader does not reflect a trustworthy ethos of credibility, his interlocutors turn into opponents and do not obey of their own free will: there is no longer obedience without coercion. The confidence that implies an “intimate conviction” of the leader's competence and the reliability of his judgment is what gives him his authority. But this requirement must be shared by enlightened citizens; otherwise, the risk of authoritarianism is not far away.

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1 All the quotations in Portuguese are translated by me.

2 “Why Brazil’s COVID-19 Response Is Failing?” is a report published in The Regulatory Review (22.6.2020) which explains the reasons why Brazil has the second highest number of confirmed covid-19 cases, after the U.S. [Online]

3 Tiago Ribeiro Duarte, “Ignoring scientific advice during the Covid-19 pandemic: Bolsonaro’s actions and discourse”, Tapuya: Latin America Science Technology and Society [Online]

4 Francisco Ortega.” Governing covid-19 without government in Brazil. Ignorance: neoliberal authoritarianism and the collapse of public health leadership” [Online]

5 Beetham thinks that Weber’s typology has proved a source of confusion because the proper status of each component of legitimacy has become obscured. I will therefore use the definitions of charisma in its populist dimension as provided by Taguieff, Rosanvallon and Charaudeau. I follow Danblon’s (2006:13-25) rhetorical definition of charisma, a natural authority which relates to the degree of trust that the audience places in the speaker so that his prediction will be persuasive in his enterprise of building an effective ethos.

6 Tribune “About incarnation in politics” by Pierre Rosanvallon.



9 Sources: (my translation) “Coronavirus: remember what Bolsonaro has already said about the pandemic” (Estadão 2.4.2020 Renato Vasconcelos) and “What Bolsonaro has already done to confront measures to combat the coronavirus” (Folha de São Paulo 30.3.2020 Daniela Arcanjo). Two articles from Brazilian daily newspapers devoted to almost daily controversial presidential invectives and actions, since the health crisis outbreak in Brazil on March 9th, 2020.

10 On 9.3.2020 Bolsonaro said: “the destructive power of the virus has been oversized, perhaps even for economic reasons.”

11 He had the rank of captain under the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

12 Estadão published on 23.4.2020 a study by Ricard, J., Medeiros, J. (2020), “Using Misinformation as a political weapon: covid-19 and Bolsonaro government in Brasil”. They mention “The use of ad hominem attacking (or promoting) decision-makers or public figures in order to delegitimize those supporting social isolation measures and […] praise those who publicly support ‘a return to normality.’”

13 Alexandre Marques Silva, « (Não) é só uma gripezinha: argumentação e realidade forjada nos pronunciamentos de Jair Bolsonaro sobre a covid-19 ». Eidea 2020, V.2. "It is (not) only a little flu: argumentation and forged reality in Jair Bolsonaro's pronouncements on covid-19" [Online]

14 To name a few, the Brazilian Center for Health Studies, the Brazilian Society of Geriatrics and Gerontology, the Association of São Paulo Physicians


16 The Brazilian Society of Infectiology denounces presidential authority “make think”, warning that “such messages can give the false impression that social prevention measures are inadequate [school closure] and that covid-19 is similar to a mere cold, a disease with low mortality."

17 This press release turned into an article by journalist Claudia Colluci (Folha de S.Paulo 29.3.2020) which is a meta-discourse faithful to the original she describes as a “manifesto”: Health organizations consider Bolsonaro's speech “intolerable and irresponsible”.


19 Image linked to the process of the “make do” authority: “I have instructed our Health Minister to spare no effort to support [...] all the states of Brazil. […] the Economy Minister to take all necessary measures to protect, above all, the employment and income of Brazilians. And […] the armed forces to participate in the fight against the coronavirus.”

20 “The messianic ethos according to Marques Silva

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Référence électronique

Claire Sukiennik Abécassis, « Polemics and populism in times of pandemic: Legitimation and construction of authority in Bolsonaro’s addresses  »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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