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What's happening in Brazil is straight from Trump's election scheming playbook

The U.S. cannot afford to be silent, as Brazil's president endangers both democracy and the planet.
Image: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro at Planalto palace in Brasilia.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia.Sergio Lima / AFP via Getty Images file

About a year ago, Brazil's right-wing president and Covid denier, Jair Bolsonaro, was accused of crimes against humanity for his response to the pandemic. As I wrote back then, Bolsonaro used pages from the Trump playbook — lies, denials and threats — to survive the political fallout.

This past weekend, facing pre-election support at just 31 percent, the incumbent and divisive Bolsonaro defied his opponents once again by outperforming the pollsters and forcing a run-off election with 43.2 percent of the vote to leftist challenger Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, the former two-term leader of Brazil who took 48.4 percent of the vote. Neither finished with the necessary 50 percent to win outright.

Bolsonaro has tapped into Brazil’s conservative sector and has made it his own, just like Donald Trump has done to the Republican Party in the United States.

Still, predictions about da Silva’s political comeback and return to the presidency of the world’s fourth-largest democracy were obviously premature. While some of that can be attributed to da Silva’s past conviction in the huge “Operation Car Wash” corruption case, there is no denying that Bolsonaro has tapped into Brazil’s conservative sector and has made it his own, just like Donald Trump has done to the Republican Party in the United States. The comparisons to Trump are not too far-fetched, especially since Trump praised Bolsonaro on Monday, posting that “for the sake of Brazil and its future greatness, they have to get Jair over the finish line, against a Radical Left Socialist.”

As a result, with his political life still very much alive, Bolsonaro has positioned himself to either win the runoff or reject the results. The unfounded claims of a rigged election have been planted for months, and Bolsonaro doubled down after Sunday’s election, telling reporters that his ability to overcome the "lies" of the polls has already made him the second-round favorite. He also noted that fraud in the first round was still possible and wanted the military to confirm the results.

“Our system is not 100% ironclad,” Bolsonaro claimed. “There’s always the possibility of something abnormal happening in a fully computerized system.”

Just like Trump, Bolsonaro will not give up the rigged election lie, even as many of his political allies won their races for governor and Congress on Sunday. (In Bolsonaro’s eyes, only God can remove him from power, as he reportedly told supporters last year.) This, in addition to increased political violence in Brazil when compared to other election cycles, raises a scenario that Bolsonaro won’t ever concede power, severely testing a relatively young democracy that arose after a 1964 coup led to two decades of military rule.

In Brazil right now, the threats to democracy and the planet are real.

The question for Americans watching from afar is how will Brazil respond if democracy does indeed die there? The U.S. cannot afford to be silent. Whoever rules Brazil is also “the steward of the Amazon rainforest,” author Arick Wierson wrote in an NBC News Think piece. Bolsonaro’s environmental record, rather than preserving the Amazon region as a way to combat climate change, has been atrocious, with the worst deforestation levels in 16 years. Protecting the Amazon, Wierson noted, “has implications far beyond Brazil’s borders.”

That alone should raise the interest level for Americans, and so should the simple fact that threats to democracy — whether in the U.S., Brazil or anywhere — must be stopped. Just like Bolsonaro, Trump has found a way to downplay the urgency and importance of such threats. The authoritarian right that has now gone mainstream will forever blame the warnings about these dangers on communism, socialism or the radical left. It works, and no matter how one thinks about the claim, both Bolsonaro and Trump have tapped into this feeling.

With the second round of what will surely be a “white-knuckle race” just weeks away, the election’s closeness could by itself set the stage for a post-election reaction that polarized Americans are already too familiar with. The Brazilian "Great Steal" could follow the same plan as the Jan. 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol. That attack was thwarted by the actions of just a heroic few who believed in defending democracy and what it represented. If indeed that is what Brazil will experience no matter if Bolsonaro wins or loses, will Americans be able to recognize it?

In Brazil right now, the threats to democracy and the planet are real. That should matter to anyone who cares. Recent history would suggest that at least for those Americans who support Trump, what Bolsonaro is trying to pull is exactly what Trump would have wanted. Such a possibility should scare anyone who believes that as imperfect as democracy is, it is still a noble political system that requires constant vigilance and protection.