The flag at the tip of the spear is different, but the image is the same: A crowd of people, unhappy with election results, is in a standoff with police outside a Capitol. It takes only a handful of people lashing out for the anger to spread into a mob, which then roars forward en masse to topple the barricades before storming into its country’s workplaces of democracy.
The world was stunned, watching this unfold in the United States on Jan. 6, 2021. Slightly more than two years to the day later, Brazil experienced a similar upheaval, spurred by a similar right-wing persona spreading election lies and a sense of aggrievement.
The United States prides itself as an exporter of democracy, and for decades has been holding up its system of liberalism and rule of law as a standard for the rest of the world. After this weekend’s events in Brazil, and the parallels and connections to Trumpism, we must now wrestle with being an exporter of right-wing extremism.
Thus far, the United States has failed to set a high bar of accountability for sedition and insurrection. The leaders who funded and encouraged the Jan. 6 attacks are still at large. Combine this with a systemic tolerance for extremism in law enforcement and military culture and American enforcement looks weak when compared to the Brazilian government’s quick and full-throated defense of its democratic institutions.
Brazil’s democracy may have been saved by sheer timing. The rioters, demanding that the military intervene to reinstate the defeated former President Jair Bolsonaro, were not interrupting a formal transfer of power. The government buildings were largely empty, so the rioters vented their anger on objects rather than people. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had already been inaugurated on Jan. 1, along the same walkways the rioters tore through in their assault.
Lula recently spoke of the parallels between Bolsonaro and former President Donald Trump, saying Bolsonaro was “a bit worse … a ruder, less civilized, and a bad copy of Trump.” Brazilian media has been chronicling the parallels between the right-wing rage machines in both countries, raising concern about an insurrection-like attack based on weeks of planning that had been detected on social media.
People watching events unfold on TV two years ago were horrified watching the American government and law enforcement caught flat-footed. The vice president, overseeing a constitutionally mandated process, was sent fleeing to safety through secret underground tunnels. Hours went by before the National Guard secured the building. It took nearly a week for the FBI to catch up and organize nationwide criminal investigations. And it took two years of political hand-wringing, a turnover of Cabinet officials and a lengthy congressional investigation before the government affirmed what the public suspected: that then-president Trump was complicit in the attack.
By contrast, within 24 hours, the heads of the three branches of Brazil's government organized a public show of unity and signed a joint statement calling the simultaneous attacks on Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace “terrorist acts.” Brazil’s federal police have already arrested or detained an estimated 1,500 people connected to the attacks and are using Twitter to keep the public updated on their pursuit of justice.
Videos circulating online of Brazilian police officers taking photos of the gathering crowds and chatting up protesters are being met with quick reactions from Lula’s government: The Bolsonaro-allied secretary of public security was fired immediately, and the Supreme Court suspended the local governor for 90 days, citing “security failures.” A Supreme Court minister mentioned the attack “could only have occurred with the consent, and even active participation, of the competent authorities for public security and intelligence.”
Brazil’s relatively swift response followed years of poor behavior by Bolsonaro. While in office, Bolsonaro exhibited Trump’s same brash populist style; indeed, Bolsonaro’s first one-on-one meeting with a foreign leader was with Trump in the White House, where he was greeted warmly by the sitting American president. Where Trump once spoke of grabbing women’s private parts, Bolsonaro referred to a female elected official as not being worthy of rape. Bolsonaro stoked culture wars around race and identity, saying he’d be "incapable of loving a homosexual son." He led political rallies during which he threatened to lock up his political opponents.
After his electoral defeat in October, Bolsonaro again copied the Trump playbook, initially refusing to concede, spreading lies about voter fraud and similarly denouncing electronic voter systems. His right-wing party filed legal motions in the attempt to nullify millions of votes. Bolsonaro’s son met with Trump and his former advisers. The defeated leaders may even be residing in the same state. NBC News was unable to determine Bolsonaro's whereabouts Monday, but according to recent news reports, he was in Florida.
Unlike the United States, Brazil is not shy about holding its former leaders accountable for corruption. Operation Car Wash, the 2015 money laundering investigation, resulted in the arrest of Brazilian billionaires, judges and police. Former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office, and the current president, Lula, himself served 18 months in prison.
Today, Lula has promised swift justice for the “fascist attacks” on his country's capital.
“We will not accept the path of criminality to carry out political fights in Brazil. A criminal is treated like a criminal,” said Brazil’s Justice Minister Flavio Dino during a news conference Sunday.
More than 18 months after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, reporters revealed that more than 200 Americans self-identified as active law enforcement officers when signing up for the Oath Keepers, an armed, anti-government militia that helped organize the Jan 6 attacks. In November, the founder of the Oath Keepers was found guilty of seditious conspiracy in federal court. No one from the military chain of command has lost their job or been charged in the attack on the Capitol. And local police departments have yet to reckon with the extremists in their midst.
The question facing both counties now is how or if their former leaders — Bolsonaro and Trump — will ever face true accountability. But while Brazil and the United States face questions of accountability for the heads of state who stoked these riots — Bolsonaro and Trump — protecting democracy is not only about catching the big fish.
CORRECTION (Jan. 10, 2023, 10:15 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the date of Lula's inauguration as president. It was Jan. 1, not Jan. 2.