When it became clear that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, also known as the “Trump of the Tropics,” would fail to win re-election, Brazilian January 6 fears began to grow louder. How will a president who has been spreading false allegations of electoral fraud and saying he will accept the election results only if he wins, react if he loses the election to a well-known challenger?
Now we know the answer.
Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro did not accept defeat. Like Trump, Bolsonaro fed his legions of supporters — who didn’t even accept the election results — with a daily dose of fake news via social media.
As it turns out, Brazil had its own January 6 edition. Instead of unruly mobs storming Congress while the president idly watched, there were unruly mobs blocking roads and highways across the country as the president idly watched.
Brazil’s largest airport had to cancel several flights because people could not get through a roadblock led by truck drivers. But while Trump took hours to decide to call on protesters to “go home,” Bolsonaro didn’t bother to say anything in the nearly 48 hours after the election. When he finally appeared after two days of silence, he gave a short two-minute speech in which he clearly did not acknowledge the election and did not mention his opponent Lula da Silva by name.
Why did Bolsonaro take so long to make an announcement? One possible reason is that they were waiting to see how the post-election protests would play out and what kind of support they would have to contest the election results. But the protests did not gain widespread traction and no relevant media, religious, military or political figures supported the protests.
The ever-practical Brazilian political class quickly began thinking about strategies to survive in a post-Bolsanaro environment. The powerful president of the Chamber of Deputies, a strong supporter of Bolsonaro, declared that “the will of the majority as expressed in the vote will never be contested” and began negotiations with the newly elected president’s team. His place in the future Lula regime. So, in the 48 hours after the election, Bolsonaro became increasingly isolated. When he finally decided to break his silence, he concluded that his best option was to strengthen his position as a political leader, thanked his supporters and said that now “strength has really emerged in our country”.
One lesson Americans can take from the elections in Brazil is that when an incumbent authoritarian president is seeking re-election, the speed of vote counting matters. With a nationalized system of electronic voting – used for more than a quarter of a century – Brazilians can know election results hours after voting closes. Before Bolsonaro could muster a single word, world leaders, ahead of Biden, had already congratulated his challenger; Politicians who supported Bolsonaro conceded defeat, and even his vice president, an army general, began discussing a transition. The speed with which all this happened left little room for maneuver. On the other hand, in the United States, voters took days to know the results, giving Trump and his supporters plenty of time to make false accusations of electoral fraud and contest when the results were finally known.
Like the United States, Brazil’s relatively young democracy will also suffer the consequences of the behavior of presidents who do not follow the basic rules of political decorum. Even as things normalize, with newly elected presidents taking office following structured procedures, social identities linger.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro no longer holds office — but BolsonarismoLike Trumpism, it will remain a powerful political force for years to come.
The decline of the civic political culture that underpins their appeal is already a reality no matter who leads the executive. And if Trump recaptures the White House in 2024 — which is far from impossible — his Brazilian disciple, a decade younger, will no doubt be watching.
Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira is a professor of political science at Berea College in Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. as a Fulbright Scholar in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia. He is the author of “Brazil, the United States, and the South American Subsystem: Regional Politics and the Absent Empire,” which was selected by Foreign Affairs Magazine as one of the Best International Relations Books of 2012.