Shattered glass and trashed buildings. Crowds of angry fanatics attacking police and pushing barricades. Thugs posing with trophies taken from offices. The images that come to us from Brazil convey shocking levels of fury and nihilism. Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro assaulted the Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace — three pillars of the country’s democratic order — reducing their interiors to shambles and looting and defacing state treasures.
These Bolsonaristas refuse to accept their hero’s electoral defeat or the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was inaugurated just 10 days ago. Many of them camped out near Brasilia military headquarters since the October election trying to drum up support for a military intervention to restore their idol to power.
The similarities between the images of Jan. 8 and those of the Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt in the U.S. suggest the use of a similar playbook. Like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro engaged in relentless disinformation campaigns designed to discredit his country’s electoral system. This encourages supporters to see his defeat as being engineered by a rigged system, keeping them in a state of agitation. And like Trump, Bolsonaro had already planted the idea that violence might be needed to “correct” a stolen election. “If necessary, we will go to war,” he promised his followers in June. On Sunday, that’s exactly what they did.
But Jan. 8 was never intended to replicate Jan. 6 in its outcome. For one thing, Bolsonaro was out of the country. Having lost his presidential immunity and being the subject of multiple investigations, he traveled to Florida, although it appears he will return to Brazil soon. His politician sons Eduardo and Flavio Bolsonaro were also spotted at the Italian Embassy in Brasilia, having requested Italian citizenship because of the family’s Italian origins.
For another, the insurrection was purposely staged when lawmakers and jurists were in recess. The buildings were empty, making them easier to breach and putting the world on notice that the Brazilian far right has the means and connections to do real damage. The pictures of the military police failing to obstruct the rioters, many of whom felt empowered enough to pose for photographs, communicate to the government and to right-wing forces abroad that Brazilian extremists feel protected by anti-democratic enclaves within Brazilian institutions.
In response, Lula wisely took immediate action, arresting an estimated 1,500 rioters (so far). Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes suspended Brasilia’s governor, Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally with oversight of the police in his area, for 90 days and ordered the arrests of two senior security officials in the province.
The Brazilian far right’s telegenic operation, like the claims of election fraud that justified it, shows the imprint of its American propagandist counterparts. Among those who have counseled Bolsonaro’s camp since his election loss are former Trump advisers Jason Miller and Steve Bannon. The latter, who helped plot to overturn the 2020 election, is especially close to Bolsonaro’s family. And what more vivid demonstration of Bannon’s desire to “shock the system” and take a wrecking ball to the state than the images of Brazilian government spaces in ruins? Right-wing extremist Matthew Tyrmand, a frequent contributor to Bannon’s podcast, called the rioters “patriotic citizens” after claiming fraud in the Brazilian elections for months.
The warning to democracy the Bolsonaristas delivered on Jan. 8 has a precise and chilling meaning in Brazil, where a 1964 coup precipitated a 21-year military dictatorship that killed over 400 people and tortured thousands. Bolsonaro, a former army officer, has repeatedly praised the dictatorship, and that regime has become the reference point for what Brazil scholar Andre Pagliarini calls “simmering pro-coup sentiment” in the Brazilian far right.
Like the other Cold War right-wing military regimes in Latin America, the Brazilian dictatorship was propped up by the U.S. Brazil was part of the terrifying Operation Condor consortium of military dictatorships that exchanged knowledge about repression and psychological warfare, shared intelligence about leftist opponents and plotted cross-border murders and kidnappings of dissidents. These transnational networks, which included Nazis and fascist criminals in exile, may be forgotten by many, but extremists like Bannon and Bolsonaro most likely take inspiration from them.
Jan. 6, 2021, and Jan. 8, 2023, are parts of a global attempt to subvert democracies and install authoritarian rule. We must be vigilant in calling out the new far-right networks that stretch from Moscow to Budapest, Rome, Brasilia and Washington and prosecute the instigators promptly, as Lula is doing in Brazil.