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Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro may have wanted to pull a Donald Trump. Here's why he couldn't.

Democracies can only last if all participants, both the winners and the losers, do what they can to protect it.
Image: Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a press conference at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia, Brazil.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in his first speech after narrowly losing to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, did not conceded Tuesday but did vow to follow the Constitution.Arthur Menescal / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despite predictions to the contrary, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro appears not to be the election denier that former President Donald Trump is, making democracy in Brazil, for now, more resilient than democracy in the United States.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro appears not to be the election denier that former U.S. President Donald Trump is.

After the right-wing Bolsonaro lost the presidential election to the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Sunday by about 2 million votes out of 119 million cast, initial attention turned to whether the “Trump of the Tropics,” as he’s been called, would concede the race to a former president who'd been convicted of corruption. The silence lasted through Tuesday, but on Wednesday Bolsonaro agreed to a transition of power (without a formal concession speech), and on Thursday he called for the end of his supporters’ road blockades that had numbered in the hundreds.

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What could have been the start of a Brazilian “Stop the Steal” campaign this week had fizzled out by week’s end, and it is doubtful that it would ever have grown as big as the campaign to keep Trump in the White House. However, Bolsonaro's agreeing to a peaceful transfer of power hasn’t stopped noted American “Stop the Steal” election deniers from calling for a military coup in Brazil to protect Bolsonaro.

On Sunday, once it was clear that Bolsonaro would not catch up to Lula’s lead, far-right election denier Ali Alexander was urging the “brothers of Brazil” to “take to the streets” with a “military standby,” noting on Truth Social, with no evidence at all, that “Joe Biden’s team is currently STEALING the Brazilian election for socialist Lula. Literally a COUP.” Alexander was demanding an audit of the vote, a baseless trope being regurgitated by the likes of right-wingers Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson.

“The margin of victory is less than 2 percent,” Carlson said Tuesday on his show. “There are a lot of questions about this election, whether all the ballots were counted, for example. And Bolsonaro has not conceded. But questioning the election results in Brazil is no longer allowed there or even here.”

Like an even more twisted statement of manifest destiny, the United States has had a shameful history of bulldozing through the political wishes of its southern neighbors while all the time boasting that it believes in democracy and that democracy here is better than democracy anywhere else. Meddling in Latin America’s political affairs and sometimes propping up dictators while purporting to be a lover of democracy has always been an obvious American hypocrisy. But there is a particular irony here in watching American conservatives, who used to boast that America’s chief export is democracy, rally to export election denialism. This right-wing attempt to export this anti-democratic idea that only right-wingers’ wins are legitimate is worrisome. But there are two major reasons why it’s likely to fail.

First, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro is isolated. Some of his most prominent allies and supporters have already conceded the election to Lula, squashing the possibility of countless lawsuits and false claims that emanated from Trump World after the 2020 election and led to an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“The key difference is that powerful right-wing politicians, Bolsonaro’s allies, all jumped out as soon as the results were announced and accepted the results, congratulated Lula, the victor, and said publicly that they were willing and looking forward to working with the Lula administration,” Harvard professor of Latin American studies Steven Levitsky told NBC's "Meet the Press Now" Thursday.

Understanding how democracy works, those very same Bolsonaristas can be the thorn to Lula’s mandate, given that they will have political power in the country. Many of these same politicians and their supporters tried to suppress the vote from the Lula camp, but once the election was over, it was over, and they begrudgingly realized there would be a new president, a realization that Bolsonaro might have not accepted, according to Lavitsky, if his main allies hadn’t accepted it.

“I think Bolsonaro would have loved to contest the election. Bolsonaro would have loved to overturn the election, but he’s alone and he’s going to have to accept his defeat,” Levitsky added.

Such an admission by Bolsonaro is actually good for the deeply polarized country.

Brazil’s electoral process, even with the false Bolsonaro claims of fraud, has held on.

There’s a second reason why Brazil’s young democracy might survive one of its biggest challenges since it was formed in 1985 in the wake of a decades-long military dictatorship. Brazil employs an electronic voting system that leads to quicker results and resolutions. In an effort to combat more cumbersome and problematic processes from the 1990s, Brazil’s electoral process, even with the false Bolsonaro claims of fraud, has held on. In contrast to what the United States will likely witness during next week’s midterms and what occurred during Trump’s 2020 lies, Brazil appears to be ahead in the democracy game.

“I think these elections really showed that Brazilian institutions and our voting systems can withstand pressure, can withstand criticism," the director of counter-disinformation strategies at Equis Research, Roberta Braga, who is Brazilian, told me on Latino Rebels Radio this week. "The elections were conducted in a free and fair manner with some concerning efforts to suppress voters, isolated incidents on the day of, but not mass interruptions at scale."

Even with the expected misinformation wave that now seems to be a part of every major election around the world, Brazil passed a major democracy test this week. Bolsonaro is definitely playing a balancing act by acknowledging the frustration and distrust his core supporters feel, but so far, even with the U.S. right wing pushing for a Jan. 6-type moment in Brazil, political reality appears to be setting in.

Democracies can only last if all participants, both the winners and the losers, do what they can to protect it. Bolsonaro didn’t fully embrace democracy this week after losing his election, but he did enough to keep it relevant in Brazil. The same cannot be said in the U.S., as “more than half” of Republican midterm candidates are supporting some election denial position, according to a new CBS News analysis.

That is dangerous for democracy in the U.S., and maybe we Americans need to turn to Brazil for real lessons on how to keep democracy alive.