The undeniable U.S. hand in Brazil’s anti-democratic riot



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In Washington, there is a legion of people invested in the business of democracy promotion. At think tanks, congressional offices, human rights organizations and even media outlets, an entire professional class goes to work each day charged by an animating belief that the values undergirding U.S. democracy ought to extend throughout the world — and that the U.S. government has a major role to play in extending them.

But we have learned over the past half-decade that this project, often wrapped up in paeans to American exceptionalism, is at odds with a tougher reality. Democracy in the United States is under duress, strained both by the political gains of nationalist extremists and the creaking anachronism of some of the country’s political institutions. And rather than exporting democratic values, the United States has played its part in also fomenting illiberal and autocratic backlashes elsewhere in the world, from trucker blockades in Canada to anti-vaccination campaigns in Germany.

Capital insurrections in Brazil and U.S. echo violent breaches elsewhere

The Soufan Center, which monitors militant extremist threats, recently pointed to the global impact of U.S. domestic radicalism. “Many terrorism analysts abroad consider that the United States has become a net exporter of anti-government and anti-authority extremism, inspiring and motivating sympathizers in many countries around the world,” it noted in a bulletin.

That impact was arguably on show Sunday in Brasília, the Brazilian capital, as supporters of defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro rampaged through the heart of the federal state, storming the presidential palace, the Supreme Court and Congress. The scenes of chaos and destruction immediately recalled what transpired two years prior in the United States, when supporters of President Donald Trump briefly ransacked the U.S. Capitol in a bid to thwart the congressional certification of the 2022 election vote.

What happened in Brazil, to a certain extent, emerged from a Trumpist playbook. For months before the election last year, Bolsonaro cast into doubt the legitimacy of any democratic outcome that didn’t deliver him victory. After losing to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro never fully conceded defeat and skipped Lula’s inauguration earlier this month. Some of his ardent supporters, radicalized online amid a morass of social media misinformation, refused to accept Lula’s victory, camped out in various parts of the country and clung to visions of deliverance at the hands of a coup-obliging military.

Videos of Brazil attack show striking similarities to Jan. 6

The Jan. 8 riot marked a violent coda to months of polarizing anger and reflects deep divisions within Brazilian society. But the American imprint on events is impossible to ignore. Bolsonaro and Trump were fellow travelers, for a time the preeminent ultranationalists of the Western hemisphere, and their camps became eager supporters of the other’s political project. Their acolytes maintained a feedback loop of grievance and hysteria, echoing each other’s dubious claims over electoral fraud, the threat of a “communist takeover,” and the need for an intervention to “stop the steal.” In recent weeks, tech billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter enabled the return of some far-right Brazilian influencers.

“One of the things I would argue that sets Bolsonarismo apart from previous strands of Brazilian conservatism is the way it apes the U.S. right, especially the online alt-right culture war … associated with Trumpism,” Andre Pagliarini, a historian of Brazil at Hampden-Sydney College, told me. “Gun worship, for example, had never figured prominently in Brazilian conservatism. It does now.”

And there’s a political style and agenda, too, shared by both movements. That includes “the claque of men around Donald Trump who began dreaming of a different kind of American influence,” as the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum wrote. “Not democratic, but autocratic. Not in favor of constitutions and the rule of law, but in support of insurrection and chaos. Not through declarations of independence but through social-media trolling campaigns.”

Viktor Chagas, a professor at Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, told my colleagues that Sunday’s riot was “a clear attempt to emulate the invasion of the U.S. Capitol, as a reproduction of Trumpist movements and a symbolic signal of strength and transnational connections from the global far right.”

How Bolsonaro’s rhetoric — then his silence — stoked Brazil assault

But the scenes also reflect the limits of Bolsonaro’s appeal and capacity. While there are suspicions over the extent to which elements of the security forces tolerated or even abetted the protesters’ incursions, weeks of demonstrations against Lula’s election didn’t move any levers of the state. “The Bolsonaro people had really studied January 6 and the conclusion that they came to was that Trump failed because he relied on a mob and that he had no institutional support,” Tom Shannon, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, told my colleagues. “Because of this, the Bolsonaro people worked hard to try to build that institutional support, but they failed. Which says a lot about Brazilian democracy and Brazilian institutions in a very positive way.”

Unlike Trump two years ago, Bolsonaro was nowhere near the scenes of violence, but in the United States, hanging out in a Florida suburb not far from Disney World. He delivered no speeches, riling up the crowds to march on the halls of power. The next day, Bolsonaro reportedly checked into a hospital with abdominal pain. But in the coming weeks, he will still have to stomach scrutiny over his possible role in inciting the riots from afar.

“His silence was terrible,” Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist at the research institute Fundação Getulio Vargas, told my colleagues. “It signaled to a part of his followers that are more ideological that he is supporting them, that they are doing what their big boss can’t do. His silence was the major spark that lit the protests that are now happening.”

Even as U.S. Republicans, in addition to Democrats, denounced the events in Brasilia, another prominent figure remained silent about what happened: Trump.

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