Enraged protesters broke into government buildings that are the very symbol of their country’s democracy. Driven by conspiracy theories about their candidate’s loss in the last election, they smashed windows, sifted through the desks of lawmakers and trashed the highest offices in the land in a rampage that lasted hours before order could be restored.
Sunday’s attack by supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s capital drew immediate parallels with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by former President Donald Trump’s backers two years and two days earlier.
The two populist former presidents shared a close political alliance with an overlapping cast of supporters — some of whom helped spread Trump’s lies about losing his re-election due to voter fraud and later parroted Bolsonaro’s similar claims after his own re-election loss last fall. Bolsonaro was among the last world leaders to recognize Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.
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“The U.S. example of election denying and creating alternative facts, and radicalizing law enforcement, and of openly disparaging democratic institutions was a template that I don’t think Bolsonaro et al would have come up with on their own,” said Scott Hamilton, a former U.S. diplomat in Brazil.
Still, experts warn against conflating the two attacks.
There were “undeniable similarities” to Jan. 6, said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, which tracks disinformation around the globe.
“The imagery. A lot of the calls for action on social media are very, very similar,” he said. “But there’s a huge caveat. Democracy in Brazil is a lot different than democracy here in the United States. The culture, the context, even the institutions are really different, and that really matters.”
Many of the connections are out in the open. Bolsonaro’s lawmaker son, Eduardo, in 2019 signed on to work with Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s international populist movement. Bannon became one of the loudest proponents of Trump’s election lies in 2020 and has amplified Bolsonaro’s claims about rigged voting machines.
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Trump was one of Bolsonaro’s few foreign allies, and Bolsonaro often exalted his American counterpart’s leadership, even posting photos of himself watching Trump’s addresses. He and his son visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and both attended dinners at Bannon’s house.
After Sunday’s rioting in Brasilia, Bannon called the protesters “Brazilian freedom fighters” in a video on social media.
The Conservative Political Action Conference, a key gathering of right-wing activists that has been a hotbed of pro-Trump enthusiasm, met in Sao Paulo in September. One of the attendees, former Trump spokesman Jason Miller, was later detained by Brazilian authorities before leaving the country.
“We do not advocate violence but believe peaceful protests are proper and that the situation in Brazil should be fully investigated,” Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s lead organizer, said in a statement to The Associated Press in reaction to the weekend rioting.
Protesters stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace, with some calling for the military to oust President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Others waved banners suggesting they believed claims that voting machines were programmed to steal the election from Bolsonaro, reminiscent of signs brandished on Jan. 6 promoting similar conspiracy theories in the U.S.
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The images of Brazilian protesters fighting with police guarding the complex, breaking into government offices and searching the desks of opposition lawmakers added to the flashbacks about the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The attacks followed months of Bolsonaro exploiting fears about election integrity without offering evidence, similar to Trump in 2020.
In November, Bolsonaro blamed his loss on a software bug and called for most electronic votes to be annulled. Independent experts rejected his claim, and Bolsonaro’s bid to annul the votes failed.
Social media still throbbed with misinformation about the election after it ended, and posts urging Brazilians to converge on their capital city on Sunday to challenge the election results went viral on TikTok, Facebook, Telegram and other platforms. One post racked up more than 800,000 views just since Friday, according to an analysis by Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking organization.
Wendy Via, president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said Sunday’s riots are yet another example of how online misinformation and rhetoric can spur violence if they’re deployed by a leader with a large enough audience.
“We did see this coming,” Via said. “This doesn’t just happen in Brazil, or the United States. This is a global problem. Should we compare what happened in Brazil to Jan. 6? I say 100%, because it’s the same playbook.”
But there are important differences between the two attacks and the forces in the two countries that propelled them.
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“This was not part of an orchestrated movement to overturn the election results,” said Christopher Garman, managing director of the Americas for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting group. “It’s a little bit of a different animal” than Jan. 6, he said.
On Jan. 6, 2021, Trump was still president, and he urged his supporters at his rally on the ellipse to march to the Capitol and stop Congress’ ratification of Joe Biden’s victory. In Brasilia, the protest occurred on a Sunday, when few were in government offices and Bolsonaro had already relinquished power.
Bolsonaro had even left the country — to Trump’s adopted home state of Florida, where he appears to have been staying in the Orlando area. On Monday, he checked into a hospital there, complaining of abdominal pains.
Garman said Bolsonaro’s hand may have been checked by Brazil’s supreme court, which has been aggressively penalizing misinformation about the election to the point of censoring social media accounts and news reports that it found misleading. Bolsonaro knew that if he pushed too hard, the court could rule he could not run for public office again.
“If he had followed the Trump path, his political rights would have already been suspended,” Garman said.
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The situation in Brazil is also more fraught than in the U.S. Systemic corruption is a greater concern in that country, as is the stability of what is still a fairly young democracy after decades of authoritarian rule that lasted through the 1980s. The man who beat Bolsonaro, Lula, is a former president who was imprisoned on corruption charges during Bolsonaro’s initial 2018 election, only to have his conviction annulled by Brazil’s supreme court.
The anti-establishment anger may sound familiar to those who follow U.S. politics — a hyper-polarized political environment and a weakened center, along with mounting distrust in both institutions and those on the other side.
“It’s not healthy for any democracy to have these levels of distrust,” Garman said.