Jiu-jitsu star Robert Drysdale is in the minority. Born in the United States to an American father and a Brazilian mother, the retired fighter holds strong political views and has never been afraid to share them. In a community mostly populated by athletes with far-right opinions, who openly support former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, the 41-year-old grappler is an exception to the rule.
For his political stances, Robert is the fifth and final (?) guest of the ‘Not All Brazilians’ series, where I interview Brazilian athletes who go against the grain and do not support far-right politics.
Though he does not consider himself a left-wing athlete, like previous guests of the series, Drysdale never supported Bolsonaro and has always been a fierce critic of Jair’s military tendencies, his shallow speech and the fake news tactics implemented throughout his government and presidential campaigns.
Born in Utah, Drysdale spent his childhood in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, while splitting his teenage years between both countries until finally settling down in Las Vegas, Nevada, which has been his home for the past 15 years.
Although he has lived most of his adult life in the United States, Drysdale still speaks fluent Portuguese and never lost touch with his Brazilian roots. For those reasons, Robert tells me he was fully aware of the dangers Bolsonaro’s politics brought even back in his first Presidential campaign in 2018.
In our talk, Drysdale explained why he thought Bolsonaro’s rhetoric aligned so well with Brazilian middle and upper classes. And he touched on a subject no other guest in the series had brought up yet: “Antipetismo” (Being anti-PT, the Worker’s Party). This phenomenon started to gain strength around 2014, when then president Dilma Rousseff (from PT) won the elections against Aecio Neves, from the Social Democratic Party.
While the far-right did not have as much strength at the time and Bolsonaro was just a minor member of the Congress, it all started when middle and upper class Brazilians got tired of PT running the country (they had been in power since 2003) and the corruption scandals that surrounded the party, most famously Mensalao.
Though Rousseff was never found guilty of corruption, the turmoil from her re-election was enough to lead to her impeachment in 2016 and to strengthen the anti-PT mentality, which ultimately led to Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. This manoeuvre was deemed by many as an inside coup to take PT down from power.
At the time of Rousseff’s impeachment, Bolsonaro took the opportunity to pay tribute to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, an infamous torturer from Brazil’s military dictatorship, who had tortured Dilma when she was a young woman during the fascist regime. Jair has gone on record calling Ustra a national hero.
For those reasons and numerous others, Drysdale found it easy to see why the population decided to give Bolsonaro a chance in 2018, in spite of his populist speech and shallow proposals.
“I don’t think he’s a viable candidate. I don’t think he’s a man of ideas or a man of ideals. He’s got a pre-historic rhetoric. He’s a fossil of the Cold War. I think it’s odd that anyone is listening to him. He’s not well-spoken, he’s not a man of plans. He doesn’t understand the world, he doesn’t understand economics. He’s a military guy with a loud mouth.”
“I get why Brazilians like him. It’s not out of the blue. The Worker’s Party had a historical opportunity to change the country from the bottom up and they threw it down the drain. The Brazilian middle class never liked Lula. They didn’t like him because he was from the Northeast, because he was a union leader, because he didn’t go to college. They had a million reasons why they didn’t like him. All they needed was a real excuse not to like him. That’s corruption and PT gave them that reason. It all went downhill from there. These guys are like ‘We hate Lula so much that the opposite of Lula must be the good guy’. That’s how these people see the world. If this guy is bad, then clearly his opponent is good. We all know it doesn’t work that way. It’s not that simple, but we know that’s how Brazilian middle and upper class think.
“Bolsonaro comes along and he’s a loudmouth. You can’t compare policies, but he’s a loudmouth like Trump. He just says whatever comes to mind and people think that’s good. They go ‘Hey, he’s speaking his mind’. Sure, I mean, Hitler did too. Stalin spoke his mind, too. It doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Linked below is an example of the extremes that the anti-PT mentality reached during Rousseff’s administration. Car stickers such as the one depicted became popular among Dilma’s most adamant detractors.
Se criam um adesivo para carro com o Bolsonaro de 4 e o coooh dele no bocal da gasolina, vai ter um monte de macho brigando, falando que não se pode fazer isto com o mito dele, os mesmo que riram do adesivo da Dilma pic.twitter.com/d2xhYaIB8r— Verdão hendecageek (@VerdaoNerd) March 12, 2022
Being against PT was not the sole reason why Bolsonaro won the elections and Drysdale is aware of that. Violence has always been a massive problem in most Latin American countries and Brazil is not exception. Though Drysdale did not agree with Bolsonaro’s plan of arming the population to fight the issue, he understands how this strategy convinced many Brazilians to vote for him.
Drysdale recognizes that the United States and Brazil are different countries with different policies and culture, but he said it is possible to draw parallels between the two on gun issues. He pointed out that enabling more guns to the population in the U.S. has certainly not curbed gun violence there. Though he carries a gun, Robert wants deeper, more robust gun laws and he sees no reason to make it easier for Brazilians to acquire firearms.
“Brazilians are fed up with crime. So am I. That’s one of the reasons why I left Brazil. They’re fed up with corruption. They’re fed up with a number of problems the country has and Bolsonaro comes along with this simple discourse, saying ‘I’m going hand a gun to everyone and we’re going to solve crime that way’. Anyone who knows anything about crime knows you’re not going to solve crime with more guns on the streets. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”
“It’s hard to compare with the U.S because they’re such different countries. Crime here is so different from crime in Brazil. The laws are different, the police are different. I own a gun, but I don’t think everyone should have a gun. It’s not going to solve crime. If that were the case, the U.S. would be a country free of crime. We have more guns than citizens. Firstly, I don’t think we should take it easy on criminals. I was actually on board with Bolsonaro on that, but you have to have a gameplan. You can’t just come with a hammer and try to solve a problem that’s 500 years old.”
For Drysdale, solving the violence and crime issue requires a clear solution: investing in education. However, Jair’s administration was infamous for cutting funding for public universities and education programs, leading to difficult times for students and faculty around the country.
Fake news about public universities and schools being places where students become indoctrinated by left-wing views, use drugs and have promiscuous sex instead of studying led thousands of Bolsonaro supporters to turn on public universities, schools and even teachers.
Much like the other guests, Drysdale believes that investing in education is the key to preventing far-right leaders from becoming elected again in the future, both in Brazil and the United States.
“The reason why he was popular was because he had this simplistic view of the world. I’m a gym owner. I know how many things people who don’t own a gym don’t see. You have to be in those shoes. The level of responsibilities and overlapping of things that are happening at the same time. You can’t make these radical decisions without running the gym into the ground. Now imagine a country. Once you get there, there are lots of things you wish you could, but you can’t do. You’re not going to solve the problem by giving the police a green light. You have to solve it from the bottom up and that involves education. It involves employment. Opportunity. A number of things that the country has failed in. The U.S. too, for that matter. What they both have in common is they have awful education systems. You can’t expect a competent, educated population if they grow up around poverty, violence and lack of opportunity. I’m not saying there aren’t ways out, I’ve seen plenty of people leave poverty in Brazil. But you can’t expect that herculean effort from every single person. You need an education system that prepares them for the globalized world. Bolsonaro already misses that because it’s too much thinking. You’ve already lost him. He’s a military guy. How else do you solve a problem? You bring in the guns.”
A history major, Drysdale says that reading up on history and social politics ever since he was a teenager helped him become prepared for the dangers of a candidate such as Bolsonaro when he came along in 2018.
Since he did not vote for the candidate in both elections, Drysdale reveals that he is the only non-Bolsonaro supporter in most of his social circles, which led to multiple arguments over the last four years. Nonetheless, Robert cannot be convinced once he sees the stream of fake news, mostly stemming from social media, from where most of his family members and friends get their information.
“I read a lot of history books, I always have. I have a major in history. That’s always been my passion. History and political science. Once you have some background, you can look at these guys and see what they really represent. It’s ironic that you would know more about what’s happening at the moment from reading history than the newspapers or social media. I think it’s more honest. I think history is less politically loaded in the sense that if someone writes about something that happened 50 years ago, they have less to gain.”
“Whereas if people are reporting or using social media to actively propagate fake news, they’re emotionally invested in that cause,” Robert said. “I lost family members over this. I lost friends. I never voted for the Worker’s Party in my life, but I refuse to support Bolsonaro. I have family members who stopped talking to me. They would ask me to go public and make a video with all these other jiu-jitsu guys who supported Bolsonaro. They were like ‘Why can’t you do the same?’. I’ll live under a bridge before I support a guy like Bolsonaro. There’s no way. These people have no plans for Brazil. Their plan was to sell the country to foreign investors. I never thought he was a serious candidate. Brazilians were so fed up with the Worker’s Party that they voted for him out of anger. It was a hate vote.”
“All my friends are Bolsonaro supporters. I have three or four friends in the jiu-jitsu community who don’t like Bolsonaro. I’m surrounded by family members and friends who are fiercely Bolsonaro. My sisters, my mother, my best friend, my gym manager, all my Brazilian students. If the jiu-jitsu people were the only ones voting, Bolsonaro would’ve won with a landslide. It doesn’t bother me. I’m used to people not agreeing with me.”
To drive his point home about how infested with far-right supporters the jiu-jitsu community is, Drysdale shared a personal anecdote from the early years of his career, of which consequences became relevant again during the Bolsonaro presidential campaigns.
“When I was 16 or 17 and I would go to these jiu-jitsu tournaments, we would travel a lot. I always had a habit of reading. I love it, it’s not an effort for me. It’s like meditation. I was reading my books on history, political science, anthropology, philosophy, whatever. My jiu-jitsu friends always made fun of me for reading. They teased me. They’d say ‘How’s that going to help your jiu-jitsu career? You’re just wasting your time. Why would you read a book? You can just Google stuff’. I wasn’t bothered, I’d tell them ‘You should be ashamed of saying what you’re saying’, but I just kept to myself.”
“The funny thing is that when the first Bolsonaro vs. Lula campaign came about, the same people who made fun of me for reading books had the nerve to tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about,” He said. “The same people were now telling me I didn’t understand Brazilian politics or history. I’m not saying I’m the most knowledgeable person in this regard, but I think it’s funny. I’m not going to mention names, but these are people who are well-known in those circles. They were posting nonstop about Bolsonaro. I’ve known those guys for years. It’s laughable. They’d send me YouTube videos as proof that I don’t know what I’m talking about. You can’t take these people seriously,”
Social media has become a massive tool for political manipulation over the past years. During the 2022 campaign, it was reported that Bolsonaro spent over 4,5 million reais (approximately 800 thousand dollars) in YouTube advertisements three days prior to the elections. In the United States, Facebook was paramount to help Donald Trump get elected in 2016, according to a source from inside the company.
On that matter, Drysdale shared his views on the dangers of using social media without enough political awareness to not be manipulated by propaganda. Once again, Robert shared a personal anecdote regarding one of the most popular social media apps these days: TikTok.
“I try to argue, but it always ends in ‘Why do you think your opinion is better than mine?’. They don’t understand what evidence is. I deal with this all the time. They use YouTube videos as evidence. One of my favorite ones was a bunch of cars honking. Honk if you vote for Lula. Nobody honked. Then they flipped the sign and it said. Honk if you vote for Bolsonaro and everyone honked. That’s proof that the election was a fraud. You have to laugh. You can’t argue with crazy. These conspiracy theories have gone off the charts. They refuse to question their own narrative. The problem with the internet is that there’s a flood of information, but people don’t have the tools to filter that information. If you don’t have that, you’re better off without it. Otherwise you’re just easily manipulated. People are getting their entire education from TikTok.”
“I had a guy, a 40-something year old man, argue with me about the Ukrainian war. I said, ‘I know nothing about the history of Russia or the Ukraine’. I probably know more than this guy, but I never got into the history of Russia and Ukraine, but I know it goes far back. But he goes ‘I don’t have to read all those books. I follow this guy on TikTok. He lives in the Ukraine and he knows more than all the historians and these scholars you’re talking about’. He was dead serious. He believed TikTok was a better source of information. It’s all emotion. They already have a position before they even get to the information. You can’t have reasonable conclusions when you have conclusions before you have the evidence. And they feed off one another, so they think ‘clearly we must be right, look at all how many of us there are. Look at all of us. We’re saying the same thing’. It’s a bubble and that’s what the algorithm does. The point of democracy was to have a dialogue. You have two opposing positions. You’re supposed to find a balance where the country operates in a healthy manner, so there’s no tyranny.”
For Drysdale, who does not sympathize entirely with left-wing or right-wing views, the answer lies in not having any kind of bias before dealing with the issues. In order to make a decision, Robert thinks equal parts should be considered until a viable solution is more clear rather than just taking things from a single perspective.
“I define myself as nothing. Give me the issue and I have my own moral compass. There are things I’m on the fence about. Death penalty, for instance. I’m not convinced. The Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. I don’t think that guy should be alive. I’m on the fence. Even some gun laws, to some extent. I listen to people on the right sometimes and I go ‘that makes sense’. I listen to people on the left sometimes and it makes sense to me. You should interpret information case by case. An extremist to me is a person who absorbs all the information from one stance and doesn’t listen to what the other party has to say. There’s a reason why so many people disagree with you. They might have a point. You should listen and make an effort to see if this person makes sense. You may agree to disagree, but you should at least give it some honest thought.”
Robert Drysdale is a fourth-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black-belt. He holds multiple world championships including ADCC, IBJJF and CBJJ titles, among others. The 41-year-old retired from MMA with an undefeated 7-0 (1 NC) record, with all wins coming by way of submission.
About the author: Lucas Rezende is a Brazilian journalist who has been covering MMA since 2012 and contributing with Bloody Elbow since March 2015. (full bio)