Inside the strange, sadly telling Bolsonaro-DiCaprio feud

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s leading-man gigs have grown fewer and farther between over the years, he’s committed more of his time to environmental preservation. The photo above depicts the A-list heartthrob-turned-activist speaking to the UN about the paramount importance of protecting the planet, part of a wider effort that’s also involved producing and narrating documentaries to this same effect.

So it came as something of a surprise when Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected ultra-conservative Brazilian president, accused DiCaprio of financially backing the fires now ravaging the Amazon region. More of a surprise, relatively speaking, than it would’ve been for any national leader to place the blame for an interior catastrophe on any other Academy Award winner.

As noted in Deadline over the weekend, Bolsonaro was heard to say, “This Leonardo DiCaprio’s a cool guy, isn’t he? Giving money for the Amazon to be torched.” The puzzling comment echoed a sentiment Bolsonaro expressed during a Facebook live broadcast, in which he claimed, “Leonardo DiCaprio, dammit, you’re collaborating with the burning of the Amazon,” and theorized the existence of a “campaign against Brazil”.

One might wonder why someone who’s devoted much of his adult life to protecting nature on a very public platform would want to bankroll a forest fire through murky back channels. Bolsonaro has offered no explication of his accusations, or evidence to support them, which is undoubtedly part of the point.

Brazil’s commander-in-chief has been frequently compared to the United States’ own strongman du jour, Donald Trump, and this odd story lays bare the playbook that they both share. Trump’s modus operandi has long been to make outrageous claims and let the public busy themselves sifting through them in search of truth or something to disprove.

Bolsonaro’s regime has previously arrested four volunteer firefighters charged with setting the blaze so that Brazil could attract more benefit money from non-governmental aid organizations, one of which has connections to DiCaprio. The vagueness, the expectation that everyone else will do the work of making sense of it, the relaxed relationship to reality – it’s all classic Trumpism, which is to say classic authoritarianism.

DiCaprio responded to the specious statements on Instagram with no minced words:

The final paragraph feels especially pointed, as DiCaprio mentions local governments with the implication that he’s making the distinction from the now-compromised national government. If this odd saga can be understood through the lens of Trumpist thought, we may also securely predict how this will all end: with a whimper at most, as Bolsonaro moves on to the next pie-in-the-sky denunciation of his enemies and the rest of the world focuses on his deeds more heinous than slandering the good DiCaprio name.

It’s a discouraging case study in an emergent political philosophy gaining in popularity around the globe, one troublingly adopted by local candidates in the States as a warning sign of deep societal corrosion. Those willing to resort to dirty, underhanded tactics are waking up to the fact that they often work, at least partially. Bolsonaro’s behavior, seemingly inexplicable, fits into a trend. He didn’t begin it, and he won’t be the end of it, either.

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