Brazil President Bolsonaro is following Trump's election playbook – Grid

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacts with supporters during in a motorcade rally as part of a re-election campaign in Sorocaba, Brazil, on Sept. 13.
Rodrigo Paiva/Getty Images
Bolsonaro rails against “fake news,” casts doubt on voting machines and warns of violence in case he loses.
Global Editorial Assistant
Brazilians go to the polls on Oct. 2 to choose their new president, but the election — and what follows — may prove much more complicated than the counting of votes.
Already there are rumblings of postelection trouble, and echoes of the sequence of events that led to — and followed — the 2020 election in the U.S.
Consider the similarities:
The incumbent president insists he will honor the results of the vote, but in the same breath says there is no chance he will lose. Nearly every poll suggests he will lose — but he and his supporters say the polls are corrupt and unreliable.
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He rails against rigged voting machines — though there is no evidence of this, nor of any past problems with them. And when challenged on these fronts, his frequent retort is to complain of “fake news” and warn of violence that may erupt if the election does not go his way.
Sound familiar?
The candidate in question is Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro. He was elected in 2018 as a result of a broad backlash against the political establishment — not unlike the populist forces that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. His opponent is another former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known often as Lula, who served two terms as president and was later arrested — and ultimately acquitted — on corruption charges.
Much as Trump did in the run-up to the 2020 election, Bolsonaro has repeatedly made clear that he intends to fight back if the results show a victory for Lula. And as Trump did then, Bolsonaro warns of dark forces and irregularities that may deny him victory.
Beyond the election claims, Bolsonaro shares other qualities with the former U.S. president. He floods the airwaves with false narratives about his opponent; Lula, he says, is anti-church, pro-drug gangs and will bring communist rule to Brazil. While peddling his own fake news, Bolsonaro tars critics with that phrase. Like Trump, he supports gun ownership and is dismissive of the gravity of climate change. Trump once referred to Bolsonaro as his “number one ally.”
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Where the similarities end — or at least are less clear — is in the question of what might follow a Bolsonaro defeat. Analysts believe he may call for protests, and perhaps violence, in response; others have warned of everything from widespread fury among his supporters to chaos in the streets, and even a coup or military intervention. In other words, outcomes that might make the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol appear tame by comparison.
This week, Bolsonaro took advantage of two prominent global events to promote his reelection. On Monday, in London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, the president addressed a rally of supporters outside the Brazilian Embassy and visited a London gas station where he compared the price of fuel with that of Brazil, which, he said, “is one of the cheapest in the world.” Social media and the British press attacked Bolsonaro for using the occasion of the queen’s funeral for political ends. To which Bolsonaro replied: “Do you think I came all the way here to do politics?”
A day later, Bolsonaro took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly for what had been billed as an address focused on the UNGA theme of “transformative solutions to interlocking challenges.” Here again the Brazilian leader veered into campaign-speech territory, listing his core values — “the right to family, defense of life from the moment of conception and the fight against gender ideology” — and spoke disparagingly of the period between 2003 and 2015, when, in his words, “the left ruled the country.” That was a clear swipe at Lula, Bolsonaro’s current opponent, who was president for eight of those years.
To further understand Bolsonaro’s campaign and the nuances of the possible postelection scenarios, Grid spoke with Rafael Ioris, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Denver. Professor Ioris is also a member of the U.S. Network for Democracy in Brazil.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Grid: Could you talk a little about the similarities between the two men — Trump and Bolsonaro — as candidates?
Rafael Ioris: The system of liberal democracy, the idea of an election every four years, is in crisis all around the world. Today, it’s facing one of its biggest challenges since World War II.
The reason is society is changing. With technology, people feel so connected, they get information 24/7, so there’s a gap between the way they’re informed and the way they see themselves influencing society.
Especially in Brazil’s case, on WhatsApp, people communicate so much, but the political system is still very closed. So people get frustrated, they feel like they’re not represented. Voting for your representatives every four years doesn’t feel like enough anymore. This feeling happened in the U.S., it’s happening here in Brazil, and it’s reaching other places as well, like Europe and all of Latin America.
There are also similar factors like social inequality and racism. What is the basic profile of a Trump voter? White voters who are unhappy with the current system, who often don’t feel represented by the Democratic Party or by the Republican one. There was a need for a third option for a while, and in this context, populist leaders emerge all over the world. Recently, these populist leaders have risen from right-wing parties, often leaning into nationalism. The same thing happened with Bolsonaro.
This parallel is very strong — the moment and context in which they were both elected. It’s the perfect storm. Besides that, they also hold very similar values: the “traditional family,” the idea of going back to when things were simpler and right in a social, religious way.
G: What are some of the differences in this social context, between Trump’s campaign and Bolsonaro’s?
RI: Trump used the immigration argument a lot. Bolsonaro tried that, but it didn’t really faze Brazilian voters. He tried to oppose Venezuelan and Angolan immigrants mainly, but that didn’t work. There is racism in Brazil, but the way it affects society is different than in the U.S., so the immigration argument wasn’t as effective for Bolsonaro.
While Trump used race and immigration issues, Bolsonaro built his campaign around the idea of the “traditional Christian family,” which included a more conservative vision of women, opposition to issues surrounding gender ideology — what he deemed to be his “anti-gay kit” — criticism to some textbooks and more.
He also leaned into an anti-corruption narrative, pushing it to present himself as an outsider of this system, which worked better in Brazil due to its track record, cases like Operation Car Wash were extremely significant. Trump also tried that, with his “drain the swamp” policy — but much like how the immigration argument didn’t quite work in Brazil, this didn’t really land in America.
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When it comes to support from the media, there are also some key differences. Trump was already a celebrity; many already had an opinion about him before he even was a candidate. Bolsonaro had to rebuild himself for the papers, which is when he created his “outsider” image. He was just a congressman, not really well-known, and he had the chance to completely reinvent himself to become the candidate he wanted to be.
And it was all so fast. He started calling himself a “myth” and getting support from all kinds of voters. Liberal businessmen, the evangelical community. And none of these people felt represented by any of the many Brazilian political parties. That’s another key difference: Brazil has a number of different political parties, while the U.S. has basically two — people were even more frustrated from not feeling represented by any of these groups. Bolsonaro created a whole new party, while Trump just took over one of the already existing groups.
And that’s something that had already happened in Brazil, with former president Fernando Collor: creating a party with a “savior” character to it. This is something the Brazilian political landscape had already seen and approved of, decades ago.
G: Now that Bolsonaro might face defeat, as Trump did, what are some important similarities and differences to note when trying to understand what could happen?
RI: The main difference here is that Bolsonaro has support from the army. Trump tried to flaunt some kind of support [from the U.S. military], but any such support was never proved or solidified.
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In Brazil, there’s history. We have a long past of many decades of military interventions. From the very beginning, when we became a republic, to the military coup of 1964. It’s a historical lack of civic control over the Brazilian armed forces. We believed we were fixing it by getting a new constitution in 1988, but as we’ve seen in the past year, and especially now that Bolsonaro is leaning into this support [from the military] so much, we see that the problem has clearly not been fixed.
Bolsonaro has direct alliances with the military. That’s a fundamental difference between what he can use to oppose to election results and what Trump had. The Brazilian government right now is basically led by the military.
The main similarity is that Bolsonaro is already hinting at an illegitimate election. That’s exactly from Trump’s playbook. Even after he won, because he didn’t have the popular vote, Trump was doubting the accuracy of the elections. Bolsonaro is ready to contest election results as well, looking to Trump to learn the key points in his speeches, how to construct his narrative, how to doubt the electoral system, even if in Brazil, the voting process is different [with a basic popular vote — no Electoral College].
G: So can we expect a military intervention, a coup, like in 1964?
RI: It’s hard to say. The armed forces in Brazil are an extremely opaque institution. Honestly, I personally don’t think they even know. I don’t know if one general knows where all other generals stand.
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I do think a coup right now would be way less viable than it was in 1964. I don’t think there’s unanimity within the armed forces — and the last thing they want is internal conflict, of course, because that would be a civil war. Because of that, even speculation about a coup can be dangerous for them.
But also, it depends on how the election goes. What if Lula wins by a wide margin? What if something happens in the next month, even between the first and the second and final round of elections? We’re less than one month away, but things move fast, and it’s early to tell.
G: What about Bolsonaro’s attempt to contest the voting system in place in Brazil right now? He told foreign diplomats a month ago that the electronic system is illegitimate and unreliable.
RI: That argument did not work. He thought diplomats would entertain the idea, but they didn’t. They were actually shocked Bolsonaro would even try to push this argument. He was trying to begin to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Brazilian elections to the international community, but it backfired. And if anything, these diplomats are now watching the election more closely.
But it’s important to say that just because this argument wasn’t well-received, it doesn’t mean he won’t still contest the election results.
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When the electronic ballot system was put in place, there was a sense of pride in Brazil. It was a modern and effective system. There were always people that questioned why so many countries had paper ballots and we didn’t, and what his campaign did was try to amplify that.
But I will say, I believe that months ago, Bolsonaro must have thought his strategy for opposing potential negative results would be going better than it is.
G: What other argument could he use in case he loses?
RI: I think we’re missing something here, and that is, beyond contesting results, he could also ask for a bargain. He’s building this narrative, saying he will not accept defeat, but in the end, he might say something along the lines of “I accept my loss, but here are my conditions.”
He could ask for amnesty for himself and his family, considering the current investigations underway into aiding corruption. He could ask Lula to keep some military officials in high government positions, like they are now, with all the perks and privileges.
And Lula, honestly, is the perfect guy for him to ask for such things. Lula is a conciliator. He’s building his campaign focusing on what he’s going to do, rather than on Bolsonaro. So, in order to keep the media focus on his new policies, such as the “Bolsa Familia” [which translates to “family package,” one of his most famous social welfare programs] and other left-wing measures, he could just accept Bolsonaro’s conditions.
Sure, he could always say no. We can’t know yet, but that’s definitely a scenario that could happen. It will also depend on the people’s reaction to election results and to whatever Bolsonaro does or asks for. It will depend on what international diplomatic forces will do about it as well.
G: If a military coup were to happen, what would it look like?
RI: One thing that is important to note is that a military coup doesn’t necessarily mean tanks in the streets. It means that the military is exercising illegitimate power. And that has happened before in Brazil’s history.
It means Bolsonaro has followers inside the armed forces and beyond. He has followers in the state and municipal police forces, for example, not necessarily colonels and tenants. So you have tens of thousands of his followers with access to guns across the country, and what do you do if they say they don’t accept Lula’s victory? You’re in crisis. You can’t simply allow bloodshed to ensue. And that’s where the military comes in. And then, yes, something they could do is have tanks in the streets — it wouldn’t be an intervention, per se, but a police measure. Then again, they could also say this crisis is too dangerous, and in order to contain it, Bolsonaro needs to stay in power.
But even if there are tanks in the streets, they might still fail. What will the media think of it? What will the rest of the world think of it? Look at the military intervention attempt in Turkey a while back, they had their tanks and everything, but no planning. It didn’t work.
I honestly don’t think Bolsonaro counts on the military acting however he asks them to, because it’s hard to sell it in a legitimate way. In 1964, when the military coup happened, they had been building a narrative that they were “saving democracy,” but how will they do it nowadays, when Brazil has a clear voting system? It also has the TSE, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court, and the media on top of it. It gets way more complicated.
The most viable situation is: You have chaos. You have deaths. And the military is in a situation where it must act. And this is a scenario that wasn’t on the horizon for the United States. We don’t know if any of this will happen, of course, but it’s extremely grave that we’re even here discussing it as a possibility.
Chaos could be used by Bolsonaro to contest the election, to stay in power or simply to have leverage and impose conditions for Bolsonaro to accept election results.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.
Global Editorial Assistant
Mariana Labbate is the editorial assistant for Grid's Global team.
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