The insurrection in Brasília: A crisis foretold

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Jessica Ludwig
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute
The national Congress building in Brasília, Brazil.

Jessica Ludwig, Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute, details the culmination of events that led to the violent attack on the seat of Brazil's democracy.

It was shocking – although not entirely unsurprising – to see thousands of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro descend on Brasília less than a week after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s inauguration and invade and vandalize the country’s national Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace.  

That this violent attack on the seat of Brazil’s democracy occurred two years and two days after a seditious mob forced its way into the U.S. Capitol to interrupt congressional proceedings to certify a U.S. presidential election warrants urgent attention to the dynamics that are fueling such acts of fervent frustration and violence in democratic societies. 

The Jan. 8 insurrection in Brazil was by no means the first disruptive or even violent demonstration that Bolsonarist radicals had organized since October, when the former president lost the vote Brazil’s second-round presidential runoff. After Lula, who had previously been president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010, was declared the winner, groups of Bolsonaro supporters began blocking highways and attacking police. They established a camp outside the Brazilian army headquarters and other military bases, where they petitioned the armed forces to intervene to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. It’s ironic that the most dedicated followers of a politician who consistently campaigned on establishing “law and order” have turned to wanton destruction and disregard for Brazil’s democratic institutions. 

Evidence of the mob’s violent disdain for Brazil’s democratic institutions was apparent in the aftermath of the assault on the federal government buildings, where the self-styled patriots defaced historic portraits of Brazilian political leaders, trashed ministerial level offices, and even smashed open a glass case containing a copy of Brazil’s constitution.  

Questions have been raised about why the three seats of Brazil’s government were left largely unguarded on the day of the attack. Invitations to join the mob, masquerading as a protest, had been circulating widely on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and on private messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram in the days beforehand. Many even offered free transportation to Brasilia. It wasn’t until President Lula federalized the police response that law enforcement was able to eject and arrest the rioters responsible for the violence. 

The culmination of events that led to the insurrection in Brasilia was fueled by the convergence of several incendiary dynamics that observers have been cautioning could ignite if sparked – and which, still being in play, suggest that the potential for further conflict remains high. 

  • Populism and polarization: The resurgence of populism in Brazil – a strategy through which a political leader bypasses institutions, political parties, and other organized platforms in favor of a personalistic approach to exercising power – has both amplified and exacerbated emerging divisions within Brazilian society. This results in ever more extreme forms of polarization – a perspective in which citizens begin to define their differences through an unyielding “us” versus “them” mentality. 
  • Undermining the integrity of elections: Even before his reelection campaign formally began, Bolsonaro made unsubstantiated claims that Brazil’s election system wasn’t secure. For example, he alleged that hackers tried but failed to steal the 2018 election that awarded him the presidency, that election officials counted votes in secret, and that Brazil’s electronic voting machines were subject to manipulation. Despite an audit and a chorus of election experts who debunked Bolsonaro’s claims, his supporters had already convinced themselves that the results were suspicious enough to call Lula’s election victory into question.
  • Mis- and disinformation on social media: Disinformation experts have been cautioning that the  social media platforms most frequently used by Brazilians could develop and need to execute more effective strategies for interrupting the spread of disinformation online. The popularity of private encrypted messaging apps in Brazil, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, where social media users tend to receive and share such messages from trusted contacts, increases the likelihood that certain psychological factors make mis- and disinformation shared online even more potent. 
  • Illiberal political leadership: During his campaign for reelection, Bolsonaro infamously declared with exaggerated bravado that he would either win the election, be arrested, or be killed. This statement set the scene for a fight if he was not declared the winner. After the election results were announced, Bolsonaro never formally conceded his election loss, and he also left the country for the United States, rather than participate in the formal transfer of power on Lula’s inauguration day. 

In his most recent book, Venezuelan intellectual Moisés Naím described the unleashing of these dynamics – populism, polarization, and post-truth – as “the revenge of power” by aspiring autocrats who have adapted their techniques for maintaining power in the modern era. That such dynamics can be distilled into a formula should give pause to citizens in democracies around the world about whether their own individual priorities center on upholding the constitutional order – or whether they’re allowing themselves to be persuaded that a particular leader is worthy of being supported at all costs and without question.