“A little flu”: The political analysis of the negationist discourse

Written by: Jorge Osvaldo Romano, Liza Uema, Myriam Martinez dos Santos, Larissa Rodrigues Ferreira, Vanessa Barroso Barreto, Thais Ponciano Bittencourt, Paulo Petersen, Paulo Augusto André Balthazar, Eduardo Brittos Santos, Renan Alfenas de Mattos, Annagesse de Carvalho Feitosa, Juanita Cuellar Benavídez, Ana Carolina Aguiar Simões Castilho, Caroline Boletta de Oliveira Aguiar, Érika Toth Souza[1].

In the second article of the series “The analysis of the discourses on the Covid-19 pandemic”, produced by the Research Group “Discourse, Social Networks and Socio-Political Identities (DISCURSO)”, we present the political analysis of the “negationist” discourse on the pandemic.
Having the Covid-19 pandemic as a reference that accentuates inequalities, but puts hegemony in suspension, opening up opportunities for a political dispute between the “negationist” and “scientific” discourses, in this article, through the methodological assistance of the political analysis of speeches and the approach to interpretative frameworks presented in the previous text, we deepen the characterization of the “negationist” speech. Starting from a succinct identification of its main spokespersons, the analysis brings the diagnosis that this discourse creates of the problem, the predominant tone of its discursive practices, the demands and the groups that articulate in antagonistic political identities - the “they” and the “we” - with antagonisms at the national or international level, that are created or reproduced in the dispute, and the solutions and proposals to face and get out of the pandemic.

Analysing the Covid-19 pandemic as an event[2]- in addition to highlighting the deepening of the inequalities that were already being enhanced by neoliberalism - allows us to identify the opportunities that are created with the suspension of the hegemony, that are manifested in the political dispute between the “negationist” and “scientific” speeches. Indeed, in the discursive field referring to the Covid-19 pandemic that conforms from the discursive practices expressed in speeches, documents, performances and decisions by several political and social actors at national and international level, it is possible to delimit two master speeches in the dispute politics: the “negationist” and the “scientific”, in which two thematic poles are articulated with different emphasis: the sustainability of life and the sustainability of the economy[3].

On the one hand, there is the “negationist” discourse, defended by some authorities, economic and religious leaders, and traditional and social media. This speech minimizes or does not recognize the breadth and importance of the pandemic. Privileging the sustainability of the economy, it encourages a return to presential work and the end of restrictive horizontal quarantine and lockdown measures.

On the other hand, there is the “scientific” discourse, defended by medical doctors and supported by international organizations, media, state governors and many foreign governments. In turn, this discourse privileges health care and the sustainability of life, defending social isolation, horizontal quarantine and even lockdown as the best way to guarantee life and, also, the future success in terms of economic sustainability.

Thus, taking as a reference the analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic as an event and using the methodological assistance of the political analysis of the speeches and the approach to interpretative frameworks[4] presented in the previous work of this series[5], this text will characterize the “negationist” speech . In the upcoming article, we will share the results of the political analysis of the “scientific” discourse.

The main spokespersons of the “negationist” speeches

Among the few spokespersons at the international level of the “negationist” discourse and its variants, we identified presidents and prime ministers from countries such as the USA (Trump) and Great Britain (Johnson before being infected by Covid-19), as well as authoritarian leaders from countries like Belarus (Lukashenko), Tajikistan (Berdymukhamedov), Tanzania (Magufuli) and Nicaragua (Ortega). At the national level, there is the president of Brazil, ministers and members of the second echelon, parliamentarians of the so-called “new center”, businessmen, agribusiness leaders, members of the armed forces, the military police and firefighters (retired and active), leaders of Pentecostal churches, social media bloggers and producers of fake news. From this set of actors in our research, at the international level we will highlight the President of the USA and, at the national level, the President of Brazil and leaders of Pentecostal churches.

Donald Trump (Donald John Trump), a 73-year-old white man, born in New York, a successful businessman with a public life characterized by participation in television programs, films and by the press repercussions of his millionaire divorce deals. In 2016, amid a fierce presidential race with Hillary Clinton and, contrary to the prediction of most analysts, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States of America by the Republican Party, with 290 votes out of 538 voters in the Electoral College - although his opponent had 300,000 more votes than he did. During an administration characterized by controversial measures - for example, in terms of migration, trade and foreign policy - and supported by a nationalist-protectionist discourse and promises to improve employment indicators, the president faces the challenges of the pandemic in a context of attempted presidential re-election, which should take place in the second half of 2020. Despite the growing severity that has transformed the country into the epicenter of the pandemic, Trump has maintained a tone of optimism, minimizing the serious epidemiological picture, supporting economic opening and encouraging his supporters to confront governors who advocate social isolation. Since the beginning of June 2020, Trump has been facing a great wave of anti-racist mobilizations and against police violence aimed at the black American population. It is seen by its critics as an inexperienced extremist leadership, which attacks democratic representative ideals, international cooperation and tolerance. However, for his supporters, the president is a leader who will put America's founding interests and principles first.

Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a white man, born in Glicério (SP), 65, elected president of Brazil in 2018, with 55.13% of the valid votes in the second round by the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which he left in November 2019. He joined the Army reserve in the late 1980s, served as a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro from 1989 to 1991 and seven parliamentary terms as a Federal Deputy through nine parties. He was elected President of the Republic with a speech that articulated positions against politics, corruption and leftism; the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility, the defense of legal security in police activities; the arming of good citizens; the defense of Christian family values; and an ultra-neoliberal agenda in economic terms. His first year and a half of government has been characterized by an environment of institutional instability, with accusations of corruption against his family clan, ministerial changes, strong conflicts with the Supreme Court and the presidency of the Chamber and Senate, expansion of the number of military personnel in first and second positions in different areas of the Executive; increased antagonism and threats to democratic institutions; hostility of traditional media and mobilization of its followers through digital media; and strong external mirroring and alignment with the US President's communication strategies and positions. In this context, the country has become increasingly polarized, and his followers see him as a true Messiah, unjustly treated, but capable of saving the Brazilian homeland from the dangers of the communist cultural war. With the advent of the pandemic, Bolsonaro adopted a negationist discourse, which minimizes its growing severity in the country, defending, unlike state governors, the end of social isolation and the immediate return to normal economic activities.

Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches such as the Assembleia de Deus Vitória em Cristo, Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, Igreja Mundial do Poder de Deus e Igreja Internacional da Graça de Deus, have a significant increase in the number of followers in Brazil, traditionally Catholic. This growth was accompanied by a greater presence of churches in the media - TV, radio and social media - and in governmental spaces of power, both at the legislative and executive levels, especially with the current president who declares himself evangelical. Leaders of these churches, such as pastors (or bishops) Silas Malafaia, Edir Macedo, R. R. Soares and Valdemiro Santiago have become privileged interlocutors and even tutors to the current president. They also align themselves with the president in his stances on the Covid-19 pandemic. These leaders, all opposed to horizontal social isolation and the temporary closure of churches, argue that the virus is harmless, that it is another tactic of Satan, and promise miraculous cures. They attack the country's major communication groups, mainly Rede Globo and Folha de S. Paulo, governors, universities and scientists or any focus of opposition to the Bolsonaro government's negationist measures, claiming that they induce the population to panic, without protecting the poor, only pleasing the middle class and the rich.

Negationist discourse: diagnosis and injustice[6]

In the discursive practices of spokespersons of the “negationist” discourse, the diagnosis of the problem negates or minimizes the importance of the pandemic as a risk to the sustainability of life, treating the measures of horizontal social isolation as hysteria and panic created by the media and authorities of opposition, since the consequences of treatment cannot be more harmful than the disease itself. The injustice of this impact is projected on the population and the poorest regions of the country, being justified by the punishment of unemployment and hunger. The Brazilian president's discursive practices are an example of adaptations of the discourse in the path of denial of the pandemic: fantasy when there were still no deaths in the country; hysteria when the first death appeared; little flu when there were 11 deaths; not afraid to reach 202 deaths; it is going away when 1,230 deaths were reached; I am not a gravedigger with 2,588 deaths; And? I'm sorry, what do you want me to do? I am Messiah, but I do not work miracles when asked about the growth to 5,083 deaths; reached the limit, there is no more talk with 6,759 deaths; organization of a barbecue for 3,000 people at the Palácio da Alvorada, which was replaced by a jet-ski tour on Lake Paranoá when the country reached 10,627 deaths; unemployment, hunger and misery will be the future of those who support the tyranny of total isolation on the day that the number of deaths reached 15,662; who is on the right takes chloroquine, who is on the left tubaína[7] mocking critics of his campaign to make chloroquine use more flexible when the country surpassed 1,100 deaths in one day, reaching a total of 17,971 deaths; everything ig about Covid, assuming that governors would be changing data to increase the number of infected people on the day that 32,568 people had died from the virus.

And on the day that the number of dead people in Brazil reached 34,021, surpassing Italy and reaching daily records, the government erased from its digital platform all the consolidated figures on the progress of Covid-19, such as the total number of infected people, the number of deaths and the disease evolution curve since the first case was registered in the country, in February. Regarding this fact, Bolsonaro claimed that the accumulation of data, in addition to not indicating that the largest portion is no longer with the disease, does not portray the country's reality. On June 11, when Brazil reached the peak of more than 40 thousand deaths, during the weekly live via Twitter, it claimed that there could be political use of data on the pandemic and asked its supporters: if there’s a field hospital near you, find a way to get in and film. A lot of people are doing this, more people have to do it, in order to show if the beds are occupied or not.

The tone. In general, the negationist discursive tone is emotional, appealing, incisive and even aggressive in many contexts. Discursive practices, including performances, seek to disqualify health prioritization measures. In the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, we see the encouragement of agglomerations as pro-government demonstrations against governors and supporting the use of chloroquine. The President of Brazil not only encourages these demonstrations, but has participated in person, without the protection of masks and greeting supporters, in addition to circulating through the trade in the federal capital frequently. On the day that the anti-racist demonstrations broke out in the USA, Bolsonaro, during a live transmission, drank a glass of milk, a symbol directly linked to the white American “alt-right”[8] extremists. As Trump did in 2016, he shared on Facebook a video containing Benito Mussolini's quote better a day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.

In the case of the neo-Pentecostal churches, the performance is in the services themselves, transmitted through online platforms, Drive-Thru of Prayer, donations for the most needy and the use of networks to spread the word of God. On June 5, a group of evangelical leaders went to the Planalto Palace to pray for an end to the riot caused by the anti-fascist and anti-racist protests that started in Brazil after the outbreak of demonstrations in the USA.

Solutions and proposals. The solutions that the negationist discourse highlights to face and get out of the pandemic are based, mainly, on the primacy of economic sustainability, adapted to the specific contexts of each country. In the case of Trump, there is a recovery of one of the significant voids[9] in his election campaign: America First and the construction of a new Keep America Great. They are used to face political and economic stagnation due to social isolation at a time when unemployment was falling historically, and to care for lives and also economic interests, since the United States has the necessary technology and power to produce or appropriate medicines and vaccines. You have to make the proper use of the pharmaceutical industry and, otherwise, buy the patent for the vaccine created abroad to first apply it in the country. These void signifiers are also triggered in Trump's discursive practice to address the Democrats' political use of the crisis and the expansion of Chinese relevance on the international stage. Among the solutions to treat Covid-19, we highlight the use of hydroxychloroquine at first, but also the application of disinfectant injection or sunlight into the body.

In the case of Brazil’s president, the solutions and proposals that his negative discourse practices highlight to face the pandemic lie in the relaxation of horizontal social isolation: Brazil can’t stop, prepare Brazil for its resumption, reorganize the economy and mobilize all resources and energy to make Brazil even stronger after the pandemic. Thus, the measure to be taken would be the vertical isolation made by the families: each family must care for the elderly, it cannot be left to the State's account. Put grandpa and grandma in a corner and avoid contact with them, and the others have to work. Because what is happening is a destruction of jobs in Brazil. In terms of life sustainability, those over 40 do not have to worry. Some may drown in the rain, those in the rain are the elderly and those who have pre-existing illnesses. Following Trump, the use of hydroxychloroquine is one of the main proposals in coping with the disease.

Local Brazilian Pentecostal leaders, in turn, defended the strength of faith to heal Covid-19 and, reinforced by the president, called for religious fasting to be free from this evil. They defend the reopening of commerce and temples, as well as controversial solutions, such as immunization through anointed oil or Jesus' chloroquine. The cure of the disease is also ensured through seeds that can be purchased for a thousand reais, by anointed water or gargle recipe.

The “them”. In the hegemonic dispute, the negationist discourse proposes the construction of antagonistic political identities based on the articulation of negative demands and attributes to opposing groups in the “they” - “the enemies” - which, by contrast, allows articulating and shaping political demands and groups in the "We" - "our people". In the discursive practices of the President of the United States, a chain of meanings[10] and negative elements are articulated, such as anti-Trump, Democrats, Obama, surrenders, corporate media, defenders of total isolation that hurts the freedom of the American people, globalization, China and the Chinese virus, inefficient WHO that defends Chinese interests, uncontrolled immigration, unemployment, threat to sovereignty, terrorism and increased crime.

In the Brazilian president's discursive practices, the “them” is synthesized in the significant void anti patriotic and in the nodal point close-all, which articulates the defenders of social isolation who prioritize the sustainability of life, in particular, a few state and municipal authorities who must abandon the concept of scorched earth, the ban on transportation, the commerce closing and mass confinement. The equivalence chain expands politically to the components of the new recycled managerial right wing formed by former allies or traitors who constitute a real threat for a future reelection. But “they” also include enemies before the pandemic: the leftists and the PT - from the electoral campaign to the first year and a half of government. Internationally, the “they” is articulated by the predominance of unconditional alignment with the United States. Thus, both nationally and internationally, the negative “them” articulates the close-all, unpatriotic, traitorous allies, such as ex-ministers Mandetta and the disarmamentist Moro and governors Dória and Witzel[11], the leaders of the Congress Maia and Alcolumbre, ministers of the Supreme Court, as well as China, the press and traditional media and the permanent enemies of the left composed of governors of the Northeast and Haddad 13 and Lula Livre who criticize the government.

The "they" of Pentecostal church leaders is analogous to that of the president, but they are also identified as people without faith, converted into an embodiment of evil and equated with the coronavirus. Thus, in this chain of equivalences, they articulate from the already traditional enemies, such as vagrants, rioters, corrupt, leftists and communists, to the new traitors as political governors - mainly Dória and Witzel and the ex-minister Moro and the partial press, lying and unscrupulous. Thus, the “they” is the very personification of the coronavirus.

The “we". Using as reference the "they”, Trump's speech seeks to build the chain of equivalence of "we" from a readjustment of the empty signifiers of his election campaign America First and Keep America Great, which highlight that the United States must ensure its sovereignty as the great world economic power, with the lowest unemployment rate in history, seeking to prioritize the interests and security of the strong and resilient American people, which has the help of the world's greatest specialists. The "we" chain thus articulates republicans, conservatives, nationalists, farmers, the middle class, growing economies, freedom and work, “free” social media, protectionism, manufactures damaged by international agreements, valuing the individual and free enterprise, democracy, national defense, fighting authoritarianism and terrorism in the world to protect the American people.

The Brazilian president's discursive practices articulate a “we” that brings together Brazil can’t stop; let the myth rule, let the people work; the patriots who preserve the nation's dignity; entrepreneurs and industrialists who guarantee jobs; the economy that is life; the independent media; the truth; good science; the men of God and the citizens of good and arms.

The discursive practices of Brazilian Pentecostal church leaders continue to follow the president, including in this chain the president himself, who is the Messiah, the defenders of the family, the citizens of good, faithful and true workers, the preservation of jobs, honesty, hope, solidarity, the end of social isolation so as not to increase social inequality between the poor and the rich, opening everything because it causes less damage, young people who have to go back to work. The "we" is then synthesized in the coronafaith.

The reproduction and creation of antagonisms

From the identification of the "them" and "we" in the dispute between the negationist and scientific discourses, antagonisms are produced and re-signified, expressing political projects and visions of society in struggle for hegemony.

In Trump's discursive practice, national and international antagonisms intensify. In the national dimension, it is marked by the electoral dispute and radicalizes the opposition between America First, republicans, nationalists and social media without manipulation vs. anti-Trump, democrats and the corporate media. In the international dimension, antagonism is reinforced by placing China and the Chinese virus, the inefficient WHO that defends Chinese interests, globalization that threatens sovereignty, uncontrolled immigration and terrorism, as opposed to Keep America Great, protectionism against manufacturing nationals harmed by international agreements, valuing the individual and free initiative, national defense, and combating authoritarianism and terrorism in the world. With anti-racist protests in several American cities triggered by the death of George Floyd - a black man who died suffocated by the knees of a white policeman in Atlanta in late May - Trump has been recreating new antagonisms. According to him, the anti-racist protests were allegedly taken by professional anarchists, violent crowds, arsonists, looters, criminals, strikers and anti-fascists. In his discursive practice, he articulates these groups in antagonism to governors, when he threatened to use thousands upon thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military and police forces to quickly resolve the turmoil if state governors failed to act.

In the Brazilian president's denialist discursive practice, the main antagonism is between Brazil can’t stop, let the myth rule, let the people work and the patriots in opposition to those who support the tyranny of lockdown, the anti-patriots. This antagonism is reproduced in the people who want to work, the entrepreneurs who keep their jobs vs those who support lockdown - governors, mayors, politicians and former traitor ministers who promote measures of social isolation and who make political use of the pandemic to promote themselves and help to break the economy. It also recreates the antagonism between the independent media, committed to the truth vs. the traditional media that supports horizontal social isolation and propagates panic and hysteria. Or between good science and the interests of the nation vs. the scientific consensus guided by the guidelines of WHO, and the Scientific Committee to Combat Coronavirus with the Consortium of the Northeast.

Pentecostal church leaders redefine this antagonism as a coronafaith vs. coronavirus, in which the good citizens, hope, and belief in the strength of faith to cure the disease are articulated in the coronafaith. On the other hand, the coronavirus articulates vagrants, rioters, corrupt, communists, PT[12], alarmist media and governors who promote drastic measures of social isolation. The president appears as the messiah and his discursive practices are reproduced by the Pentecostal churches. With the anti-racist protests that started in the USA and reached the streets also in Brazil, added to the agenda of the defense of democracy and against the Bolsonaro government in the first weeks of June, Pastor Silas Malafaia, visiting the president along with other leaders of the evangelical churches[13], added a new antagonism to the discursive practice of the Pentecostal churches: the Brazilian people, peaceful and nationalist vs the rioters.