Brazil delivers an urgent message: Global democracy crisis isn’t going away

Despite the setback suffered by Republicans in the 2022 midterms, the global democracy crisis shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon. Although Donald Trump has been its most visible symbol, it is bigger than any one person, movement or nation.

Fake populist leaders, neofascists and authoritarians are adept at using the public’s grievances and pain — both real and imagined — as fuel for their political project of obtaining and keeping unlimited power. Such leaders created political personality cults built on manipulating the loneliness, anxiety, anger and collective emotional pathology below the surface of a nation or community.   

Ultimately, the people who are attracted to right-wing populism and other anti-democracy movements are seeking simple answers to complex problems in a world beset by forces of inequality, unfairness and injustice. Demagogic leaders promise to tame or wield those forces in a poorly-defined crusade for “justice” or “freedom” or simply for revenge. They can do no such thing, of course: As Trump so vividly illustrates, such leaders typically care only about themselves and perhaps their inner circle, and tend to view their followers with contempt.

People attracted to right-wing populism are seeking simple answers to complex problems in a world beset by inequality, unfairness and injustice. Demagogic leaders promise to tame those forces, or turn them toward revenge.

Fascist and authoritarian leaders thrive on telling ever-bigger lies, and attack the very nature of empirical reality through conspiracism, disinformation, and a vast echo chamber sustained by mass media and online social media. The global right also deploys religion to gain legitimacy, in many cases convincing their followers that a political cult leader is fulfilling prophecy and doing the work of God.

Much of the political class in the U.S. and other Western-style democracies continue to believe the rise of the far right can successfully be addressed through “responsible” public policy and “real” politics focused on material concerns or “kitchen-table issues,” especially through improving the lives of working-class people who may feel alienated and disenfranchised. This is an error in both assumptions and reasoning: Authoritarianism and fascism are revanchist projects based on emotions, myths and fantasies of recapturing an imaginary Golden Age when “tradition” ruled and “those people” — generally some type of Other in a given society — stayed in their place.

Appeals to reason, expertise or the actual lessons of history possess little value in this context. In fact, those things are viewed as effete nonsense by authoritarian leaders and their supporters, who perceive themselves (consciously or otherwise) as heirs to a supposedly uncorrupted libidinal masculine energy, focused on action and the body, rather than the intellect, empathy and mutually respectful discourse demanded by caring, contemplation and consensus politics.

In an interview with Salon last May, Andrew Viteritti, a senior member of the global forecasting team at the Economist Intelligence Unit, explained that the “average global score” of democracy had hit an all-time low in 2021, and that many nations previously designated by his team as “full democracies” had fallen into the category of “flawed democracies.” The number of authoritarian regimes around the world had increased, and every region of the globe had suffered a decline in its average democracy score — except for Eastern Europe, interestingly enough.

If Donald Trump is widely perceived as the leading figurehead of the global right, he is certainly not alone. If Trump’s political power and influence appear somewhat diminished two years after the Capitol attack of Jan. 6, 2021, it is also evident that Trumpism, as a movement, is bigger than he is.

We saw evidence of this on Jan. 8 of this year, when Brazil witnessed its own version of a right-wing populist coup, as thousands of supporters of recently-ousted President Jair Bolsonaro — sometimes called “the Trump of the Tropics” — invaded the capital city of Brasília and stormed the presidential palace, the Congress and the Supreme Court.

As New York Times columnist Vanessa Barbara writes, the resemblance between this ugly episode and the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington was more than superficial: 

Hopefully, that was the last act for the bolsonaristas, extremist supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who was once called the Trump of the Tropics. Yet, as with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, it is unclear if this is the end of a political movement or just the beginning of more division and chaos.

The new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, already faced a difficult challenge to unite his divided country, even without a bombastic former president just offstage and many of his supporters now prone to violence. Bringing those responsible for the attack to justice is a vital place to start.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro didn’t even pretend to observe the rituals of democracy, and did not attend Lula’s inauguration on Jan. 1. In fact he flew to the U.S. and spent the final days of his presidency in Florida. 

“Yet in the days since his defeat many of Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters have camped outside military bases around the country,” writes Barbara, “figuring that the former president would pull together a last-minute plan. ‘We don’t know the date, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t know where, we only trust our president,'” one protester told her.

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Like Trump, Bolsonaro has made claims about a stolen election, and suggested that he and his followers were victims of some amorphous conspiracy. Many of Bolsonaro’s supporters have openly called for a military coup (as occurred in Brazil in the 1960s), an idea that Trump and some of his advisers at least briefly entertained. Some of Trump’s agents and allies, most notably Steve Bannon, Jason Miller and Tucker Carlson, eagerly supported and amplified (and perhaps incited) the coup attempt in Brazil.

At Foreign Policy, Catherine Osborne observes that the “parallels with events in the United States go beyond coincidence”:

Bolsonaro and his top advisors have met repeatedly with Trump and his cohort over the years, even after the former U.S. president left office. The Brazilian far-right leader has emphasized his links to evangelical churches, pro-gun movements, and the U.S.-founded Conservative Political Action Conference. The Washington Post reported in November 2022 that one such meeting between the Trump and Bolsonaro camps followed last October’s Brazilian election. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a congressman, reportedly met with Trump and his aide Jason Miller in Florida and spoke with Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon by phone to “discuss next steps.” Eduardo was in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

As a result, it had long been forecasted that Bolsonaro’s supporters might seek to execute some version of Jan. 6 in Brasília. What had been less clear was when and how such an event would play out—and what impact it might have on Lula’s transition.”

Images of the Brazilian insurrection of Jan. 8 shocked the world, and will no doubt serve as ammunition for online “meme warfare” and right-wing recruitment campaigns. But there is one important difference between the Brasília attack and the one two years ago on Capitol Hill: More than 1,500 of Bolsonaro’s supporters were rounded up and arrested by law enforcement. They were not simply allowed to go home after their rampage, as was nearly all of the Trump mob on Jan. 6.

It appears likely that ringleaders, financiers and other organizers of the attempted coup in Brazil will face prosecution. to this point, Trump and his co-conspirators have been shielded from any real consequences for their crimes against democracy and the rule of law. Indeed, the insurrectionists and their allies, including newly-elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, now control the House of Representatives.

In Brazil and most other “mature democracies”, the Republican fascist coup plotters and other insurrectionists would certainly (at the very least) not be allowed to remain in public office and more likely would be in prison or worse.

At the Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a leading expert on populism and the global right, offers this warning:

[I]f one thing is consistent in the history of populism — not just in Brazil and the U.S., but also in such varied countries as Italy, Thailand, and Argentina — it is that populists can hold on to a significant presence in the political system even after they lose an election. In their lowest moments, they still usually retain the fervent support of a significant base of super fans. The moment their elected successors fail to deliver on their promises, experience an economic crisis, or are embroiled in a serious scandal, the populists are poised to surge back to power.

In that sense, the insurrection in Brazil — even though it was carried out by no more than a few thousand people and has been quickly suppressed — is a worrying omen for what may come via the ballot box. The country remains deeply divided. If Lula’s government stumbles, as well it could, Bolsonaro may return from his Floridian exile in triumph. And even if his hold over his supporters fades, some other demagogue could seize upon the latent mistrust in the political system that he stoked.

In another Atlantic article, Pulitzer-winning historian and journalist Anne Applebaum observes a pattern, beginning with Bolsonaro’s Trump-like refusal to attend the inauguration of his successor: 

He and his followers have been pursuing fictional claims in lawsuits in the Brazilian courts. They then chose January 8, almost exactly two years after the assault on the American capital, to stage their attack — a strange date in some ways, because the sitting president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has already been inaugurated, and the chaotic assault on Congress will not block him from exercising power. …

But the power of example works in other ways too. If Americans want to help Brazil defend its democracy and avoid sinking into chaos, and if we want to avoid #StoptheSteal movements proliferating in other democracies, then the path forward is clear. We need to prove conclusively both that these movements will fail — after all, the American version already did — and that their instigators, from the very top to the very bottom, pay a high price for that failure. The January 6 committee has just made a clear recommendation to the Justice Department, asking for a criminal case to be brought against Trump. The events in Brasília … should remind us that the department’s response to this demand will shape politics not only in the United States, but around the world.

We should also get ready to help the Brazilian government in its quest for justice. We should help it pursue financial ties, political relationships, or other connections between American and Brazilian insurrectionists, including links between Trump and Bolsonaro, if they are significant. We should do so not just for Brazil’s sake but for ours. Democratic revolutions have long been contagious. Now we know that antidemocratic revolutions can be too.

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, one of the world’s foremost experts on fascism and authoritarianism, notes in her Substack newsletter that both Bolsonaro and Trump had “invested in years-long relentless disinformation campaigns designed to discredit their country’s electoral systems in the public mind”:

Personality cults create images of the leader as infallible, and preparing followers to see any setback to their hero as the result of nefarious external forces rigging the system against him is part of preserving his competency in their eyes. Having someone or something to blame — President Joe Biden or Lula as it may be — also keeps the personality cult alive by letting followers avoid acknowledging that their hero is a loser.

Whether they blindly believe the lies fed to them or they know the truth and just want to keep their man in office, hard-core followers of an authoritarian simply won’t accept the new leader and the democratic political order he represents. The Texas GOP’s June 2022 resolution that Biden is not a legitimate president, but only an “acting” leader, is in this vein and a big red flag for American democracy. The trashing of the interiors of Brazilian Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace and lawmakers’ offices at the U.S. Capitol express a common desire to annihilate a political reality that does not include the cult leader at its helm.

Contrary to what many or perhaps most Americans would like to believe, the global fascist tide is more than one big hurricane that will sweep over the landscape and then disappear, after which we can rebuild, repair and prepare for the future. In fact, the forces of illiberalism will continue to cause mayhem well into the future. Vigilant and proactive defense of democracy, anywhere and everywhere, and freedom will be the only way to defeat the global right — and that outcome remains far in the future and will require much sacrifice and struggle.

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