The Wall Street Journal editorial board on Wednesday all but endorsed far-right Congressman Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s looming presidential election, casually assuring readers that the former army officer — who has praised the country’s murderous former military junta, appointed a retired general who has openly talked of a modern military coup, and promised to give the military and police “carte blanche” to shoot alleged criminals on sight — poses no threat to the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
Not that members of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board would care if they thought he did.
The elite U.S. press doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to opposing fascists and other right-wing authoritarians. The Journal, however, holds a special regard for right-wing autocrats. Its willingness to excuse their atrocities in the name of modernity, stability and market-friendly economic policies is unrivaled among its peers.
It would be impossible to completely chronicle the Journal’s history of pro-dictatorship propaganda. But just from this century, there are plenty of examples of the paper’s support for fascism in Latin America and beyond to see that the only surprising thing about the Journal editorial board’s decision to back Bolsonaro was that it took it this long. Here’s a sampling.
We’ll start with Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean general whose reign of terror, which lasted from his U.S.-backed military coup in 1973 until his forced resignation in 1990, probably earned him the honor as the Journal’s favorite dictator, at least in the Latin American division.
When Pinochet died in 2006, more peacefully than any of the more than 3,000 people who were murdered under his regime, the Journal ran an unsigned editorial that attempted to paint his brutal rule as “more complicated” than accusing it of murderous human rights atrocities carried out solely for the benefit of wealthy elites might suggest.
“He took power in a coup in 1973, but ultimately he created an environment where democratic institutions would prevail,” the Journal said. “He is responsible for the death and torture that occurred on his watch, but had Salvador Allende succeeded in turning Chile into another Cuba, many more might have died.”
The point, to the Journal, is always to defeat communism — by which it means anything left of Paul Ryan — and so everything Pinochet did was justifiable, if slightly untoward:
“Like Spain’s Franco,” it wrote, “Pinochet was an authoritarian who resisted the Communists and created the foundation of what would become a democratic transition.”
This wasn’t a new bit for the WSJ, which ran a pro-Pinochet editorial in 2003 lamenting that “the man who saved the country” is “every day vilified, ostracized.”
Pinochet may be the editorial board’s darling, but the Journal has found ample time to praise his contemporaries too. In 2000, WSJ senior editorial writer Mary Anastasia O’Grady hailed Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori at the end of his decade in power with a cheerful column that excused the strongman’s litany of human rights abuses. Nor did O’Grady, an editorial board member “who never met a fascist Central American oligarch she didn’t like,” as Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg once wrote, find much issue with Fujimori’s closure of Congress or his reworking of the constitution to allow him to remain in power.
To her, “Fujimori’s authoritarian style” could be excused because “it can be argued that under his guidance the country has in fact inched its way toward modernity.”
“This may explain why, despite Mr. Fujimori’s seeming one-man dominance, democracy in Peru has a better future than in neighboring countries,” O’Grady continued. “The two longest-running ‘democracies’ in the region, Colombia and Venezuela, are marked by social unrest, economic stagnation and inequality before the law, as well as by a systemic hopelessness. Peru, by contrast, has a real chance of moving to the next level of democratic capitalism.”
The most beautiful thing about O’Grady’s and The Wall Street Journal’s consistent and heartfelt love for fascists is how hard they work to make sure you can see it. Like this line, which may be the clearest statement of the paper’s beliefs ever printed: “To wit, the U.S. should stop thinking so hard about democracy and instead think about promoting maximum economic freedom for Peruvians. True democracy will come from there.”
Fujimori was convicted of human rights abuses and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2009. In October a Peruvian judge reversed the presidential pardon Fujimori received last year and ordered him back to prison. And although corruption is now a ready-made excuse for the WSJ’s editorial board to oppose Brazil’s leftist Workers’ Party, it was an easily dismissed inconvenience when it came to right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori (Alberto Fujimori’s daughter) in Peru’s 2011 presidential election. She lost, and she was arrested this week on charges of corruption.
Give them some credit: O’Grady and The Wall Street Journal have at least shied away from unabashed praise for Argentina’s military dictatorship, which was led by army commander Jorge Rafael Videla and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1976 to 1983. Shortly after Argentina returned to democratic governance, he was convicted of crimes against humanity because of the number of political dissidents who disappeared during his regime. (The worst estimates pin the total somewhere north of 30,000.)
“No civilized person could possibly embrace the excesses of the military,” she wrote in a March 2005 column, and yet her most direct condemnations are reserved for the leftist guerrillas of Argentina’s dirty wars.
O’Grady has regularly gone to great lengths detailing the attacks and violence the guerrillas carried out, including the anti-government attacks and thousands of documented killings and disappearances attributed to them since.
She never mentions that the military regime kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of Argentinians, including students, journalists and union members or that one of the military’s preferred methods of murder was to shove government opponents out of planes over the Atlantic Ocean — known as death flights. The junta also stole hundreds of children from detainees, giving them to military families to raise after their parents were killed.
O’Grady’s description of those guerrillas as “terrorists” is instructive: Videla preferred the term too and used it to describe “not only someone who plants bombs but a person whose ideas are contrary to Western, Christian civilization.”
Her excuse, as she wrote in a 2011 column, is that “everyone knows the story of how the Argentine military took over the government in 1976 and proceeded to crush subversive movements ruthlessly.” That gives her cover to blame just one side as she wipes away the government’s atrocities.
Take this passage from one of her 2005 columns, in which you can almost feel the anguish in her voice as she acknowledges — barely — the horrors of Videla’s reign (which ultimately led to the conviction of former military officers) before she returns to the “terrorist” abuses once again: “Yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of the military takeover of the civilian government in Argentina. Soviet, Cuban and home-grown Marxist efforts to seize the country were defeated by that military government, admittedly through extreme repression and at great cost to the nation.”
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was not a dictator. But Uribe, who was in office from 2002 to 2010, exhibited plenty of authoritarian tendencies as he sought to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the militant left-wing rebel group that was also responsible for widespread human rights violations during its conflict with the government.
Uribe may have brought “stability and normality” back to a country that had suffered for a half-century, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs wrote in 2017, but his presidency was also plagued by widespread allegations of “secret wiretapping, corruption, blatant support of right-wing paramilitaries and severe human rights abuses.” This wasn’t just leftist talk: The Economist, hardly a bastion of socialist sentiment, worried that Uribe was “edg[ing] toward autocracy” in 2009, when he sought to alter the constitution for a second time to allow him to pursue a third term.
Although the Journal has always been swift to denounce leftist leaders like former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for amending constitutions to keep themselves in power, it never found reason to raise similar concerns about Uribe.
Uribe’s human rights abuses and heavy-handed tactics, which included close ties between his administration and right-wing paramilitary groups, were hardly a concern for the paper. Instead, in 2008 O’Grady denounced “left-wing NGOs and other so-called human rights defenders,” such as their allies among Senate Democrats in the United States, as “nothing more than propagandists for terrorists.”
In 2012 a Journal contributor at least acknowledged the human rights abuses in a book review but didn’t seem to see them as a concern. “Colombian democracy had tried Chamberlain-like appeasement several times; it was desperate for Churchillian mettle,” the review stated. “The people found it in this man.”
The review also wiped away any anti-democratic concerns about Uribe by painting him “as a victim of his success” presiding over a “messy” problem. The human rights problems were just an accident: His “sense of purpose led him to be less obsessively vigilant about the means than the end,” the author said. Uribe, at the time, was in the process of joining the board of News Corp., the Journal’s owner.
It’s these caveats that are the most damning. In them, the Journal shows that although it’s always willing to condemn every single instance of abuse committed by leftist presidents or movements, it sees human rights violations, extrajudicial murders and authoritarian abuses committed by its right-wing allies as a cost of doing business.
When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman replaced his nephew with his son as heir to the throne, the WSJ predicted that the new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman would usher in an era of modernity and reform. Its evidence? The crown was usually passed from one 80-year-old to another, and Mohammed was only 31 at the time. And he had pledged to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and take an even more aggressive stance against Iran, Qatar and Hamas, some of the Journal’s least favorite repressive players.
It cheered Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen, where the kingdom has attacked hospitals and funeralgoers and a school bus full of children as part of an effort to thwart Iran, which has provided limited support to Yemeni Houthi rebels. “The Yemen operation has been long and hard, but it has largely succeeded in cutting off Iranian supplies to the Houthis and boosted the confidence of Arab states,” the Journal wrote in June 2017 of the war of choice, which has killed thousands of civilians and nearly plunged Yemen into famine.
“A moderate and prosperous Saudi Arabia would bolster stability across the Arab world and is squarely in the U.S. national interest,” the WSJ continued. “Washington should support and encourage the young prince as he pursues change.”
Three months later, after Mohammed began “crack[ing] down on political opponents, detaining prominent clerics and barring some royal family members from traveling abroad” — not exactly signs of a blossoming democracy — the Journal suggested that perhaps he was doing so because “not everyone in Saudi Arabia is cheering” the decision to allow women to drive.
Since the paper’s predictions about Saudi Arabia liberalizing under Mohammed, the kingdom has purged political rivals, arrested women’s rights activists and reportedly murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who disappeared this month after a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Egypt was one of the first countries to overthrow its dictator by popular protest during the Arab Spring. But to The Wall Street Journal’s extreme relief, Egypt’s army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, just a year after the election. In July 2013, as Barack Obama’s administration scrambled for ways to avoid calling the military coup a coup — which would have required a cutoff of U.S. aid — the WSJ urged the U.S. to back Sisi. The editorial board even found a way to invoke its favorite dictator.
“Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy,” the Journal said. “If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old [Hosni] Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.”
Sure, “it would be nice” to see “liberal democracy in the Arab world,” the WSJ’s Bret Stephens wrote the following month. But this is the real world, he explained. And in the real world, the WSJ always picks secular dictators over democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood members.
“Politics in Egypt today is a zero-sum game: Either the military wins, or the Brotherhood does,” he insisted. “If the U.S. wants influence, it needs to hold its nose and take a side.”
Stephens even invoked birther conspiracy theories to bolster his argument:
“As it is, the people who now are most convinced that Mr. Obama is a secret Muslim aren’t tea party mama grizzlies,” he wrote. “They’re Egyptian secularists. To persuade them otherwise, the president might consider taking steps to help a government the secularists rightly consider an instrument of their salvation.”
According to Stephens, ordinary Egyptians don’t need self-rule; they just want to return to a “normal life” under a repressive military dictator.
“What’s realistic and desirable is for the military to succeed in its confrontation with the Brotherhood as quickly and convincingly as possible. Victory permits magnanimity. It gives ordinary Egyptians the opportunity to return to normal life. It deters potential political and military challenges. It allows the appointed civilian government to assume a prominent political role. It settles the diplomatic landscape. It lets the neighbors know what’s what.”
In some ways, life did go back to normal. Under Sisi, Egypt’s security forces have arrested, detained, tortured and disappeared suspected dissidents or Brotherhood sympathizers, Amnesty International found. Still, the WSJ stood by the military dictator. “Sisi’s methods are harsh, but he’s an ally against radical jihad,” the paper wrote in 2015. Stephens, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, went on to join The New York Times as an op-ed columnist.
The Wall Street Journal’s position is clear: “Pro-American dictatorships have more moral scruples,” its editorial board wrote during the Arab Spring in 2011. (The paper’s editorial editors didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the page’s previous support for these leaders.)
In that case, Brazil’s leftists, its LGBTQ people, its women, its black citizens and its indigenous people — all of whom have found themselves on the receiving end of Bolsonaro’s promises of violence and hate — certainly have nothing to worry about. And even if Bolsonaro follows through on his threats, you’ll probably never read about the potential horrors of his presidency in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal.