January 11, 2021
Trump and Bolsonaro have fashioned themselves into international allies on every major topic of their presidencies, and have mimicked each other’s often-conspiratorial approaches to climate change, COVID-19, democracy and elections. Photo: Alan Santos / PR.

The world looked on in horror as a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, putting a country that touts itself as the planet’s oldest, strongest and most exceptional democracy on the brink of succumbing to the authoritarian whims of President Donald Trump and his most radical supporters.

But in Brazil, perhaps more than anywhere else, the Capitol riots felt like a warning from a not-so-distant future.

Since winning election in 2018, far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has waged an all-out assault on the country’s democratic institutions, sought to undermine faith in its electoral system, and trafficked in many of the same voting-related conspiracy theories that Trump and the Republican Party fomented over the last six months.

That Trump’s provocations resulted in Wednesday’s melee in Washington set off alarm bells in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, as if it were merely the matinee.

“Attack on Democracy,” the front page of Estado de S. Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers, blared in bold, capitalized letters on Thursday morning ― coverage of news from afar that nevertheless felt like a plea for Brazilians to heed the danger facing their own republic.

Others were more direct.

“For Brazil, it is a warning about what can happen even worse here, if Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism and his militias are not contained, if violations of freedom and rights continue to be tolerated,” former leftist President Lula da Silva, who sought to challenge Bolsonaro in 2018’s elections before he was barred from running, wrote on Twitter.

Alessandro Molon, an opposition member in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, tweeted that the riots in the United States proved that “not even the most stable democracy in the world survives right-wing populism with impunity!”

“That is why it is so important to come together: we need to protect ourselves and avoid the worst in 2022!” Molon pleaded, while São Paulo state Gov. João Doria, a former Bolsonaro ally who may run against him in next year’s elections, called it an “alert for Brazil, where a minority that flirts with authoritarianism and fanaticism tries to weaken institutions and threaten the rule of law.”

For more than two months, as Trump has parroted absurd claims of voter fraud and stolen or disappeared votes, Bolsonaro remained one of his only international allies in the fight. He was one of the last world leaders to recognize President-elect Joe Biden’s November victory, and still seems hellbent on pretending that Trump isn’t going anywhere yet.

This is not a new cause célèbre for the Brazilian. Bolsonaro, like Trump, peddled conspiracies about the 2018 election, openly musing about malfeasance against him even in a race he won. He has not stopped since: Although many of Bolsonaro’s other blatant threats to democratic institutions, as well as the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest on his watch, have received more international attention, he has spent the last two years attempting to undermine Brazil’s electoral system and the last two months using Trump and the United States as a reason to ramp up his attacks.

Just as many Brazilians have pointed to Trump as an example of the horrors that Bolsonaro could bring to their own nation, Bolsonaro has warned that the problems that exist in the minds of Trump and some Republicans in America will make their way to Brazil soon.

On Thursday, he pushed Brazil to abandon electronic voting machines that provide fast and reputable vote counts in favor of paper ballots ― a move some have warned could fuel the type of conspiracy theories that, in the U.S., baselessly alleged that mail-in voting was linked to rampant fraud.

“There were people there who voted three, four times, dead people who voted,” Bolsonaro told a crowd of supporters on Thursday morning, according to Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper. “And here in Brazil, if we have the electronic vote in ’22, it will be the same thing. … We’re going to have a worse problem than the United States.”

No such thing actually occurred in the U.S., and no such thing is likely in Brazil, where the voting system is far more efficient and immediately accurate than any in the United States. But that doesn’t matter to Bolsonaro. The point is to find even the smallest kernel of evidence to bolster wild-eyed conspiracy theories.

Such remarks would be dangerously anti-democratic in normal times, but any sense of normalcy ceased to exist both in the U.S. and in Brazil years ago. In 2016, dozens of angry, right-wing Brazilians evaded security and invaded the country’s National Congress building to call for a military takeover of the government, a small demonstration that nevertheless offered some indication of the discontent that would later drive Bolsonaro to power and portended worse to come. More recently, Bolsonaro has fueled similar outbursts that feel like direct precursors to the sort of insurrection that occurred in Washington.

Throughout the first two years of his presidency, Bolsonaro’s most radical supporters have called for the closure of the National Congress and the Supreme Court, and last year, a handful of militants were arrested after shooting fireworks at the Supreme Court building, as if to mimic a bombing. Bolsonaro doesn’t always endorse the worst, but he’s always there to stoke the fervor among them.

Trump’s instinct is also to throw red meat to his base when times are tough. And the riots, which broke out immediately after Trump explicitly told his supporters to go to the Capitol, offered Brazilians an obvious look at how easily such agitation can erupt into a full-blown explosion, said Bruno Boghossian, a political columnist for Folha de S.Paulo.

“If we only look at it from the perspective of political agitation, it seems like [Bolsonaro] is only trying to get more support and make these people angry so they can support him with even more passion,” Boghossian said. “But when Trump really does something about it, when he does something concrete, then we see what Bolsonaro can really do.”

From the beginning, the worry in Brazil was that Bolsonaro was a more dangerous version of Trump, a force that would offer a much tougher stress test for younger, less entrenched institutions. Trump and the Republican Party ultimately proved American institutions weaker than many initially presumed, but in the end, the country’s elections, the judiciary that oversees them and the Congress required to certify them appear to have held ― if only just, and if only (possibly) just for now.

Brazil’s institutions, meanwhile, have at times acquitted themselves better than many thought they would, and divides in Brazil’s Congress, where Bolsonaro doesn’t enjoy the support of a consolidated party like Trump does in the GOP, may help shield the country from total disaster.

But it’s also not clear, Boghossian said, that other institutions, including lower ranks of the military and the judiciary, would stand firm in the face of an all-out challenge should Bolsonaro manage to incite one.

“In the United States there was objection from the military, from congressmen from the Republican Party, from electoral authorities from the Republican Party in the states, and from the vice president,” Boghossian said. “I’m not sure that Bolsonaro is going to have the objection of all these players in Brazil. … The checks and balances and the democratic institutions and all the authorities involved in the political process might not be as hard on Bolsonaro as the American authorities were on Trump.”

There are nuanced differences between Brazil and the United States that the ready-made comparisons between Trump and Bolsonaro often obscure. Still, it’s undeniable that Trump’s election in 2016 was a preview of what followed in Brazil two years later. Brazil didn’t learn the lessons on offer from its northern neighbor then. But this time, it still has a chance to heed the warnings before it’s too late.

“Brazil must learn a lot from yesterday’s terrible events in Washington,” Miriam Leitão, a columnist for Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper, wrote on Thursday. “This is exactly President Bolsonaro’s plan, and that is why he has been nurturing conspiracy theories around the electronic ballot box, the country’s electoral laws, and the [Supreme Court] since 2018. He plans to reap what we saw yesterday in Washington.”

“Brazil should take everything that happened yesterday seriously,” Leitão continued. “A president who lies for years and sabotages the bases of the Republic will one day use his powers against the country. We need to strengthen the defenses of Brazilian democracy.”