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Authoritarian Learning: Insurrection by Brazil’s far-right shows Trump taught world how to do January 6

On January 8 in Brazil, supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro attacked the presidential palace, congress, and supreme court, insisting that the country’s October election, in which voters replaced Bolsonaro with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was fraudulent.

For months, Bolsonaro supporters have called for the military to stop Lula, as he is known, from taking office. Today, they attacked the government and called for military intervention to remove Lula from office. Many of them wrapped themselves in the Brazilian flag.

Lula was visiting flood victims 500 miles from the capital, Brasilia, when the attack occurred.

Bolsonaro is a far-right leader who launched attacks on LGBTQ people, women, and democracy. He said he was “proud to be homophobic” and “in favor of torture,” and that “[t]he Congress today is useless…let’s do the coup already. Let’s go straight to the dictatorship.” In July 2022, when polls showed him running significantly behind union leader Lula, he threatened to cancel the election altogether.

At first, Bolsonaro refused to concede the election, and then when Lula took office on January 1, he refused to attend and perform the rituals signaling a peaceful transition of power. Instead, he took off for Florida. At the time, reporters suggested he left to get out of reach as Lula’s prosecutors decided whether to pursue the many investigations of him that were underway, but now it seems reasonable to wonder if he was giving himself plausible deniability for today’s violence.

On Twitter, Bolsonaro distanced himself from the attacks but compared them to “those practiced by the left.” He rejected the idea he had anything to do with the January 8 events.

The scenes of far-right insurrectionists, radicalized by leaders who refuse to accept the outcome of elections, were eerily reminiscent of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol almost exactly two years ago that was a last-ditch attempt to keep then-president Trump in office. Indeed, Bolsonaro was Trump’s protégé in Brazil, and Trump supported Bolsonaro in his quest for reelection.

“‘Tropical Trump’ as he is affectionately called, has done a GREAT job for the wonderful people of Brazil,” Trump said on his social media outlet. “When I was President of the U.S., there was no other country leader who called me more than Jair.”

The far right in the U.S. saw the Brazil elections as crucially important to advancing the power of the global right. On his webcast War Room, for example, Steve Bannon, a key ally of former president Trump, insisted the election was stolen and urged Bolsonaro’s supporters to resist Lula’s inauguration. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo is part of Bannon’s right-wing organization, “The Movement.”

In a statement, the younger Bolsonaro promised to “work with him to reclaim sovereignty from progressive globalist elitist forces and expand common sense nationalism for all citizens of Latin America.” Eduardo has also been seen in Florida with Trump aide Jason Miller.

Political scientist Brian Klass observed that “[p]olitical scientists have a name for what’s happening in Brazil: ‘authoritarian learning.’ It’s when autocratic playbooks spread across borders. Trump taught the world how to do January 6th. Brazil won’t be the last one.”

President Joe Biden said: “I condemn the assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil. Brazil’s democratic institutions have our full support and the will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined. I look forward to continuing to work with [Lula].”

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said: “Everyone must stand up and condemn the attack on Brazil’s Congress, Presidency, and Supreme Court. We stand with democracy and with the people of Brazil and against the demagogues who deny election results.”

House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said: “The violent attack on the heart of the Brazilian government by right-wing extremists is a sad but familiar sight. We stand with the people of Brazil and democracy.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We condemn the attacks on Brazil’s Presidency, Congress, and Supreme Court today. Using violence to attack democratic institutions is always unacceptable.”

International democratic leaders, including Secretary-General of the U.N. António Guterres and President Emmanuel Macron of France, condemned the rioters in Brazil. Macron said: “The will of the Brazilian people and democratic institutions must be respected! President Lula da Silva can count on the unconditional support of France.”

Neither House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) nor Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had any comment on the events in Brazil by the morning of January 9.

By evening of January 8, Brazilian police had retaken control of the vandalized buildings and arrested 170 rioters.

Eraldo Peres (AP)

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Dr. Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. Her new book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, is thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America.