He shocks many Western liberals, and some of his rhetoric on women and gays is certainly extreme. Still, Jair Bolsonaro's rise in the Brazilian polls isn't hard to understand. Because he is focused on three issues that now carry outsized concern in most Brazilian minds: reducing crime, countering corruption, and boosting the economy.

Correspondingly, the simplest issue in Bolsonaro's favor is that which was in Donald Trump's favor in 2016: popular anger over a sense of wasted potential. It's an easy case to make in Brazil today. That nation has vast natural resources, a comparatively well-educated population, but also pathetic statistics where it matters. Brazil's crime rates are an embarrassment, thanks to the 64,000 murders committed there in 2017. In comparison, the U.S. has 115 million more citizens than Brazil but less than 17,000 murders.

Then, there's Brazil's economic growth, which has mostly languished around 1 percent for the last five years. And then, there's the endemic corruption that plagues Brazil's political class. The current president is under formal investigation, the former president was impeached, and the president before that is in prison.

This gives Bolsonaro, a political outsider, an immense opportunity to direct the anger of a population that is deeply disenchanted with the status quo. When Bolsonaro promises not just reform but a whirlwind of reform, he earns favor. But what is often missed out here is just how much Bolsonaro's Workers' Party opponent, Fernando Haddad, represents a very damaged brand.

The Washington Post, for example, presents Bolsonaro's rise as an odd rejection of the supposed successes that Lula's Workers' Party has accomplished, all the corruption aside. Yet for many Brazilians, with Lula now rightly in prison and the so-called "car-wash" investigation continuing to unveil endemic corruption in the Workers' Party apparatus, Haddad's party has lost its credibility.

Yes, for much of the 2000s, the Workers' Party was seen as a savior of the lower classes, as a global beacon for reduced poverty and expanded opportunity. And it's true that Lula deserves some credit for that reduction in poverty. But democracies are not static, and that credit cannot overcome the rampant corruption. Bolsonaro is right on this key point: Brazil's national resources have been used to benefit political elites at the expense of economic potential.

That potential is Bolsonaro's keystone narrative: offering a message of hard-headed reform to a populace that has lost faith in the status quo and even the nature of Brazilian politics per se. Whatever his personal oddities, Bolsonaro appears to offer a better future. That's why he's likely to be the next president of a nation that could, within a generation, become a global superpower, and is home to a populace that could tolerate being a little bit more successful.