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Bolsonaro Is Learning All the Wrong Lessons From Jan. 6

The Trump-dominated GOP models how a violent effort to overturn an election—even if unsuccessful—can become a political asset.

By , an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.
Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro protest during a motorcade and demonstration in favor of the government in São Paulo on March 14, 2021.
Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro protest during a motorcade and demonstration in favor of the government in São Paulo on March 14, 2021.
Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro protest during a motorcade and demonstration in favor of the government in São Paulo on March 14, 2021. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

As millions of Brazilians watched the live images of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, in disbelief, many commentators in the United States and Brazil were quick to agree that then-U.S. President Donald Trump had overplayed his hand. They believed the attack—which failed to accomplish its objective of obstructing a democratic transition of power—would damage the outgoing president’s political fortunes and complicate the U.S. Republican Party’s future.

One year later, however, the way Brazilians interpret that day and its meaning has changed as the Republican Party—which failed to condemn Trump and now propagates an increasingly revisionist narrative about the Jan. 6 events—looks set to take back control of the U.S. Congress in November’s midterm elections. Guga Chacra, an influential Brazilian political commentator, flatly stated in a recent analysis that “we were wrong” to assume Trump would be ostracized in the attacks’ aftermath, pointing out that “the Capitol invasion didn’t debilitate Trump.” This shift in perspective among Brazilians is buttressed by the real possibility of Trump returning to the White House in 2025.

Today, Trump’s decision to incite a violent mob to disrupt an electoral certification process no longer looks like a high-risk gamble but one of several carefully planned steps to consolidate the false narrative of a rigged election among his followers and maintain control of the Republican Party. Indeed, while the Democratic Party is currently in power at the national level, Trump retains de facto control of the GOP and its agenda. On Feb. 4, the GOP declared the Jan. 6, 2021, riots “legitimate political discourse” and censured Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for taking part in Congress’s inquiry into the attacks.

As millions of Brazilians watched the live images of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, in disbelief, many commentators in the United States and Brazil were quick to agree that then-U.S. President Donald Trump had overplayed his hand. They believed the attack—which failed to accomplish its objective of obstructing a democratic transition of power—would damage the outgoing president’s political fortunes and complicate the U.S. Republican Party’s future.

One year later, however, the way Brazilians interpret that day and its meaning has changed as the Republican Party—which failed to condemn Trump and now propagates an increasingly revisionist narrative about the Jan. 6 events—looks set to take back control of the U.S. Congress in November’s midterm elections. Guga Chacra, an influential Brazilian political commentator, flatly stated in a recent analysis that “we were wrong” to assume Trump would be ostracized in the attacks’ aftermath, pointing out that “the Capitol invasion didn’t debilitate Trump.” This shift in perspective among Brazilians is buttressed by the real possibility of Trump returning to the White House in 2025.

Today, Trump’s decision to incite a violent mob to disrupt an electoral certification process no longer looks like a high-risk gamble but one of several carefully planned steps to consolidate the false narrative of a rigged election among his followers and maintain control of the Republican Party. Indeed, while the Democratic Party is currently in power at the national level, Trump retains de facto control of the GOP and its agenda. On Feb. 4, the GOP declared the Jan. 6, 2021, riots “legitimate political discourse” and censured Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for taking part in Congress’s inquiry into the attacks.

Taken as a whole, the remarkable successes of Trump’s party in controlling the narrative surrounding Jan. 6 since his tumultuous exit from the White House makes emulating his strategy seem all the more attractive—and far less risky.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is no doubt watching closely. Bolsonaro has never hidden his authoritarian ambitions and admiration for Trump, whom he described as his greatest international ally. Ahead of the 2020 U.S. election, Bolsonaro often expressed his hope that Trump would win reelection. This year, the “Trump of the Tropics,” as Bolsonaro is often called abroad, is headed into a presidential election of his own.

Bolsonaro has never hidden his authoritarian ambitions and admiration for Trump.

In addition to frequently embracing Trump’s argument that the 2020 U.S. election was rigged, Bolsonaro has eagerly promoted conspiracy theories about Brazil’s electoral system in recent years, leading electoral officials to say they consider a challenge by Bolsonaro to the outcome of October’s vote “inevitable.” In particular, Bolsonaro seeks to systematically discredit electronic voting, which has been used across Brazil since 1996.

Bolsonaro frequently argues without evidence that Brazil’s electoral system is susceptible to fraud, calling for the reintroduction of paper ballots. After Jan. 6, 2021, Bolsonaro warned supporters, “If we don’t have the ballot printed in 2022, a way to audit the votes, we’re going to have bigger problems than the U.S.” Pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp and Telegram groups are rife with fearmongering about election fraud.

For Bolsonaro, the events of Jan. 6 initially held more lessons of what to avoid than what to emulate. To succeed where Trump had not, the Brazilian president would have to co-opt the armed forces, further erode public trust in the electoral system, and mobilize a larger number of followers to act. Although all of these options seemed possible, they could have posed serious risks for Bolsonaro and his family, such as being prosecuted for sedition or losing control over Brazil’s conservative camp.

In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo—a congressman—focused on the attackers’ mistakes while presiding over the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies’ Commission on Foreign Affairs and National Defense. The younger Bolsonaro said if the invaders had been better organized, “they would have taken the Capitol,” ominously adding that if the rioters—described as “good citizens” by Ernesto Araújo, Brazil’s foreign minister at the time—“would have had a minimal war power … [none of them] would have died,” allowing them to “[kill] all the police inside or the congressmen they all hate.”

But now, the second coming of Trump’s party may lead Bolsonaro and his advisors to believe that rejecting electoral results—even if futile where maintaining power is concerned—could provide him with long-term benefits, including by helping to consolidate a core cadre of loyalists. After all, the fact that the Republican Party today remains in lockstep with Trump despite his 2020 electoral loss suggests Bolsonaro could utilize his own “stop the steal” myth to prevent the emergence of rival politicians on the right, labeling anyone who accepts his opponent’s victory as a traitorous false conservative.

Put differently, Bolsonaro may now reason that, even if he incites an armed revolt that ultimately fails to prevent the transition of power after an electoral loss in October, doing so could still be worth it.

Pollsters agree that Bolsonaro’s chances of winning reelection in October against his likely opponent, leftist former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, are relatively low. Current polls show Lula, who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2010, ahead by 9 percentage points. Yet despite the Bolsonaro government’s numerous woes—a pandemic response likened to a “crime against humanity” and a sluggish economic recovery—polls have started tightening in recent weeks, and even Lula allies publicly acknowledge that the president’s approval ratings are likely to improve as public spending increases ahead of the election. A narrow loss, then, would make Bolsonaro’s claims of voter fraud seem more credible in the eyes of supporters.

Granted, Brazil’s electoral system is not like the United States’. Unlike the United States, Brazil has a Superior Electoral Court, which concentrates the authority to confirm electoral results and is less vulnerable to outside pressure. Due to the absence of an electoral college, Bolsonaro and his supporters also cannot bully lowly state officials into submission to sow confusion about an electoral result’s legitimacy. Moreover, the Brazilian president lacks firm control over a large national political party, which Trump has achieved. And Brazil’s multi- (rather than two-) party landscape may make it more difficult for Bolsonaro to monopolize his influence among conservative voters.

Still, if Bolsonaro loses October’s election and refuses to accept the result—which I believe to be the most likely scenario as of now—he may succeed in turning support for his narrative into a proxy for patriotism in the eyes of his followers. Erstwhile Bolsonaro allies in Brazil who broke with him to position themselves as center-right presidential candidates are so far faring just as badly as U.S. Republicans who questioned Trump’s claim that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen. Both Sergio Moro, Bolsonaro’s former justice and public security minister, and João Doria, governor of São Paulo—whose views are comparable to those of the Republican Party’s moderate wing—are currently stuck in a political no man’s land, vilified by both the left and Bolsonaro’s supporters. Despite Doria’s notable successes as governor—including taking the lead on vaccine procurement while Bolsonaro embraced COVID-19 denialism—polls suggest fewer than 5 percent of Brazilians support his presidential bid.

Parts of Brazil’s armed forces are eagerly embracing Bolsonaro’s narrative about possible voter fraud.

Even without an insurrection, Bolsonaro’s quest to undermine public trust in the Brazilian electoral process poses a severe threat to the country’s democracy. Assuming he will cry fraud if he loses in October, millions of Brazilians will not consider the president’s successor legitimate. A poll conducted last year confirms that the percentage of Brazilians who share Bolsonaro’s concerns about electronic voting—seen by the vast majority of specialists as baseless—is on the rise, currently standing at more than 45 percent.

What is particularly worrisome in this context—and what makes copying Trump’s strategy even more attractive to Bolsonaro—is that parts of Brazil’s armed forces are eagerly embracing Bolsonaro’s narrative about possible voter fraud and his call for electoral reform to reintroduce paper ballots. Last year, Brazil’s defense minister, Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto, reportedly told the president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, that the Bolsonaro government would not allow the 2022 elections to go ahead without the reform. The day before Brazil’s National Congress voted on the proposal—introduced by a Bolsonaro ally—the armed forces organized a military parade outside the legislature, a gesture largely understood as another thinly veiled threat. Refusing to be bullied, lawmakers rejected the measures, which experts believe would have sown the seeds of chaos on election day.

Brazil’s armed forces are unlikely to support a classic self-coup that involves surrounding its National Congress and the Supreme Federal Court with tanks. However, provided that the elections are close, a narrative about voter fraud similar to that promoted by Trump in the United States may allow pro-Bolsonaro elements in the security forces to frame their support for the president as a defense of democratic order. This may involve appealing the results in court, asking for a rerun of the vote, or declaring a state of emergency should protests break out. Some generals have publicly criticized the president, yet generous budget increases and access to power assure most continue to support Bolsonaro, who likes to refer to the military as “my armed forces.”

There are currently more than 6,000 members of the armed forces working in the Bolsonaro government, about half of whom are on active duty, and some are concerned that Lula could adopt a “revanchist” posture vis-a-vis the armed forces if elected. The former president’s attempts to reach out to the armed forces have so far been unsuccessful. Lula recently commented that the armed forces would return to the barracks in his government—meaning many would lose their political appointments.

Just like in the United States, countless Bolsonaro supporters are thus susceptible to considering a violent post-election insurrection not as an attack on democracy but as a heroic attempt to defend a righteous leader from a corrupted system. In this context, Bolsonaro’s attempts to centralize power over the military could be interpreted as setting the stage for a coordinated uprising after the election, if needed. The Brazilian president has also overseen the deregulation of gun ownership in the country, which worries many observers.

Bolsonaro and his allies do not even need to study Trump’s strategy from afar. Brazil has become a global battleground for the proliferation of U.S. alt-right values, and Trump strategists and supporters like Steve Bannon, Jason Miller, and Mike Lindell have established an ample dialogue with the Bolsonaro administration.

At a cyber symposium in August 2021 organized by Lindell and attended by Eduardo Bolsonaro, Bannon described Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections as the “second most important election in the world” (presumably after those of the United States) and predicted that Bolsonaro would win unless the election were “stolen.” Donald Trump Jr., who also attended the meeting remotely, argued that Brazil provided “hope for the conservative movement.”

Although it’s tempting to focus on Brazil’s risk of experiencing its own Jan. 6 in the aftermath of its 2022 presidential elections, the true lesson Bolsonaro derives from Trump’s staying power is that eroding democracy is a long-term effort, involving years of systematically sowing seeds that may produce tangible results down the line. The specter of a Trump-dominated Republican Party triumphing in November could thus provide even greater inspiration to Bolsonaro and other populists with authoritarian tendencies than the 2016 election that brought Trump to power—or even the 2021 attack that saw him out.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel

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