Brazil’s ‘January 6 Moment’ Is a Warning

The threat from authoritarian populists endures.

Bolsonaro supporters overrun the Congress building in Brasilia.
Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

Three days ago, cable-news channels marked the second anniversary of the assault on the U.S. Capitol by replaying videos taken on January 6, 2021. Anybody who watched CNN on Friday would have seen hours of footage of protesters breaking through thin police lines, storming the Capitol, and wreaking havoc in the symbolic center of American democracy.

This made the videos broadcast yesterday afternoon look eerily familiar. Once again, protesters easily broke through a thin line of police. Once again, thousands of people stormed key government buildings, a look of giddy triumph on their faces. And once again, shocking scenes of mob violence and vandalism unfolded, as a grotesque carnival dragged on for hours in full view of the world.

But these new videos weren’t a replay of events in America two years ago; they were playing out in real time some 4,000 miles away in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

The similarity between the two scenes was no accident. Since Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in the fall of 2018, he has self-consciously modeled himself on Donald Trump. Like Trump, he claimed to be the true voice of the people, depicting anybody who disagreed with him as a traitor or a criminal. Like Trump, he tried to concentrate power in his own hands, calling the legitimacy of independent institutions, such as courts and newspapers, into doubt. And like Trump, he spent the past several years convincing his followers that they should mistrust any election that does not declare him a winner, because the electoral system is rigged.

This made many political scientists extremely concerned ahead of Brazil’s presidential election in October. If Bolsonaro were to win a second term, they warned, he would be in an even stronger position to inflict damage on the country’s system of checks and balances. Brazilian democracy would be in very serious trouble.

Even if Bolsonaro were to lose to his challenger, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, they warned, danger would linger. Bolsonaro might choose to incite his followers to violence to disrupt the handover of power, or possibly call on the military to come to his rescue. A coup would, according to some observers, be a real possibility.

The good news is that Brazilians did manage to remove Bolsonaro from office. In a parallel with Trump that Bolsonaro had hoped to avert, he narrowly lost his bid for reelection. In the weeks after his defeat, senior military leaders made clear they would not support a coup. And even some of Bolsonaro’s long-standing political allies who were elected to important posts on the same ballot that saw him lose—such as Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, the new governor of São Paolo—seemed to abandon him. Bolsonaro effectively surrendered, allowing his team to facilitate an orderly transition.

In the months between Lula’s victory and his formal assumption of power, plenty of ugliness ensued. Bolsonaro never explicitly accepted the legitimacy of his loss at the ballot box. His supporters organized protests, some of which turned violent—scores of cars were set on fire in the center of Brasilia. But the transfer of power to Lula slowly came to seem inevitable.

On January 1, 2023, Lula was duly sworn in. Bolsonaro, fearful of judicial investigations into possible crimes he may have committed during his time in office, slunk off to Florida, renting a house close to Disney World. As Lula succeeded him in the presidential palace, videos shared on social media showed Bolsonaro wandering the aisles of a Publix supermarket and having dinner at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

This made yesterday’s attack on the institutions of Brazilian democracy—including its Congress, its Supreme Court, and its presidential palace—even more surreal. When members of the MAGA movement attacked the U.S. Capitol, they appeared to have no realistic plan for how to carry out a coup. But they did have one immediate goal: to disrupt the certification of the presidential election that was happening inside the building at that moment. The “Bolsonaristas” who stormed Brazil’s seat of government lacked such a goal. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court was in session. And the presidential palace was empty: Lula was hundreds of miles away.

Instead, the rioters seemed almost to be cosplaying American insurrectionists. As Brian Winter, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, quipped: “Brazil, I’m very sorry we keep sending you our worst ideas.”

The similarities between the spectacles in Brasilia and Washington are no figment of the American imagination. Even elected officials in Brazil are drawing the same parallel. As Tabata Amaral, a Brazilian congresswoman for the center-left Brazilian Socialist Party, said yesterday: “We saw what happened at the Capitol in America. But we didn’t do enough to make sure that the same couldn’t happen here.”

And yet, the full measure of the danger posed by authoritarian populists like Trump and Bolsonaro is apparent only if we recognize that this is not simply a matter of one would-be dictator imitating another. Nor should we flatter a publicity-seeking provocateur such as Steve Bannon by crediting him with the ability to inspire major events in a foreign country, as many social-media users have done. Rather, what is happening in Brazil and the U.S. owes much to the underlying logic of the populist movements that have been ascendant in democracies around the world over the past decade.

Populists invariably claim to give voice to the true will of the people. This provides them with a powerful reason to deny the outcome of any election they do not win, because if you embody the people’s will, losing at the ballot box should be impossible. When you lose, you have to either concede that your claim was a fiction or seek refuge in the conviction that your country’s electoral institutions are fraudulent.

Recent years have brought some genuinely reassuring news about the ability of democracies to withstand the rise of populists. After all, voters in both Brazil and the United States did manage to oust authoritarian populists from office after only one term in power. And given how other populists—such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—have managed to entrench power, those successes are far from trivial.

But if 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.

A patient who suffers a seizure is in immediate danger. But if the seizure is caused by an underlying infection such as meningitis, treating the most visible symptom is not enough. In the long run, the underlying disease is the real threat. This is how I have come to think about violent insurrections like the January 6 one in Washington two years ago, or the one in Brasilia yesterday. We should not underestimate the immediate threat they pose. But we must never forget about the deeper malaise.