Americans tuning into the television news on January 8th eyed a disturbingly recognizable scene. In an “eerily familiar” moment of “déjà vu,” just two years and two days after the January 6th Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C., a mob of thousands stormed government buildings in the capital city of another country — Brazil. In Brasilia, what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ominously labelled “the first major international imitation of our Capitol riot” seemed to be taking place.
As the optics suggested, there were parallels indeed, underscoring a previously underappreciated fragility in our democratic framework: the period of transition between presidencies.
Those January 8th rioters in Brazil were protesting the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, the politician Barack Obama once referred to as “my man.”
Like President Trump, Lula’s predecessor, rightwing autocrat Jair Bolsonaro, had been voted out of office by a slim margin. Deemed “the Trump of the tropics,” he had followed the former U.S. president’s lead in seeding doubt as to election integrity in the months leading up to the vote. Like Trump, he also predicted election fraud and spread stories about rigged voting machines. Small wonder given his team’s ties to former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon who had consulted with the Bolsonaro team and insisted that Brazil’s election, too, would be stolen, while afterwards praising the rioters as “Brazilian freedom fighters.”
The fervent Bolsonaro supporters, like their American counterparts, wreaked havoc, destroying furniture at their Supreme Court, works of art in the presidential palace, and generally leaving the insides of the buildings they stormed, including that country’s congress, “in ruins.”
Far more overtly than in the United States, many in the security forces in Brazil seemed to sympathize with the protesters. A Brookings report found that “while the attack unfolded, Bolsonaro supporters met surprisingly limited resistance. Police officers… were caught on camera chatting with protesters and buying coconut water.” It added that “several military officials reportedly participated in the vandalism” and called the apparent “total complacency of local government and public security officials” alarming.
Still, if you peek beneath the surface, you’ll find some important differences.
As a start, Lula had already been installed as president when that presidential palace was stormed — and he wasn’t there — while Joe Biden was still 15 days away from his inauguration when the January 6th uprising occurred.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of that. The riots in Brasilia did not, in fact, disrupt the actual transfer of power. Although there had been protests in the run-up to Lula’s installation as president, including significant numbers of Bolsonaro supporters who refused to accept the election results and camped in protest tent cities for weeks in the capital, Lula, unlike Joe Biden, accepted the presidency without disruption. In addition, unlike Trump, Bolsonaro had actually authorized the transfer of power to the new president. He then headed for Florida before Lula’s inauguration, leaving his supporters without a leader in their ongoing protests. “We either live in a democracy or we don’t,” he told them. “And no one wants an adventure.”