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Mr. Lago teaches at Columbia University and writes often about Brazil’s politics and society.
RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s election season in Brazil, and the usual buzz of activity fills the air. The press is eagerly following the campaigns, running profiles of candidates and speculating about future coalitions. Supporters of the candidate in the lead, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, are heatedly debating who the next cabinet ministers will be. And all involved are crisscrossing the country for rallies, in an energetic effort to get out the vote.
Yet Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s far-right president, stands apart. While his challengers have spent months looking forward to the election, he has sought to preemptively discredit it. He has questioned the role of the Supreme Court and cast doubt, volubly and often, on the electoral process. He speaks as if the election is an encumbrance, an irritation. He says he will not accept any result that is not a victory.
To some, this looks like the groundwork for a coup. In this view, Mr. Bolsonaro intends to refuse any election result that does not please him and, with the help of the military, install himself as president permanently. The reading is half right: Mr. Bolsonaro doesn’t intend to leave office, regardless of the election results. But it’s not a coup, with its need for elite consensus and eschewal of mass mobilization, he’s after. It’s a revolution.
Since the beginning of his term, Mr. Bolsonaro has behaved more like a revolutionary leader than a president. In his first month in office, he said that his role was not to build anything, but to “undo” everything. Rather than run a government, he’s tried to disrupt it. He refused to fill roles in crucial regulatory agencies, placed supporters with no technical expertise in high positions, underfunded social programs, punished civil servants for doing their jobs and neglected to provide a coordinated response to the pandemic, which killed over 680,000 Brazilians.
It’s not destruction for its own sake, however. Dismantling the state is how Mr. Bolsonaro galvanizes his supporters. By identifying clear enemies and antagonizing them, he excites his followers and, crucially, enlists their support. Everything he does — decrees, bills, pronouncements, demonstrations, alliances — is framed for the digital infrastructure of YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp. The more radical his actions and words, the more engagement he generates.
Support for Mr. Bolsonaro may start online, but it leads to the streets. For the past year, Mr. Bolsonaro has conducted a bimonthly “motociata,” a march with thousands of motorcycles that looks very much like a brute show of strength. His presidency, in fact, aspires to be a permanent rally. On Sept. 7 last year, Brazil’s Independence Day, he gathered almost half a million people to protest against the Supreme Court. On the same day this year, he has promised a big military parade to show the army’s support for his government.
It’s not just the military. Many of Mr. Bolsonaro’s most fervent supporters are notable for their power over common citizens. He is popular among police officers — a 2021 study estimated that 51 percent of Brazilian street-level police officers were active members of pro-Bolsonaro groups online — and he is also a favored candidate among gun owners. Of those who approve of his government, 18 percent say they already have a gun at home and almost half would like to have one.
They may get their wish. One of the major achievements of the Bolsonaro administration has been to weaken gun control, flooding the country with firearms. In 2018, there were around 115,000 people with special licenses to carry a gun in the country. Now there are over 670,000 people holding these licenses — more than in the police and the armed forces. A substantial number of them adore Mr. Bolsonaro and are organized into a vast network of nearly 2,000 gun clubs.
Militant and committed, these are the foot soldiers of any future revolution. There’s a lot we don’t know about how that might come about. But it’s clear that if a contingent of supporters, armed and determined to keep Mr. Bolsonaro in power, burst into Brasília, the capital, it would create chaos. In many major cities, it’s not impossible to imagine an insurrection led by police forces — while truck drivers, overwhelmingly pro-Bolsonaro, could block the roads as they did in 2018, creating havoc. Evangelical pastors, whose congregants by large margins support the president, could bless those efforts as part of the fight for good against evil. Out of such anarchy, Mr. Bolsonaro could forge dictatorial order.
Who will stop him? Probably not the army. Mr. Bolsonaro, after all, has many supporters in the military and over 6,000 military personnel working in his government, filling civilian roles. For its part, the army seems to be relatively relaxed about a possible takeover and has — to put it mildly — no special attachment to democracy. There is no sign, as far as can be seen, that the armed forces could be protagonists of a coup. But neither is there a sign that they would resist an attempt at revolution.
Democratic forces are unlikely to fare much better. For all Mr. da Silva’s popularity, left-wingers seem to have lost their capacity to rally the masses. The 13 years of a left-led government that ended in 2016 did much to disperse and weaken social movements, and they have struggled in the years since to recover their dynamism. Demonstrations against Mr. Bolsonaro, for example, have been poorly attended. And political violence is on the rise: A member of Mr. da Silva’s party, for example, was recently killed by a Bolsonaro supporter. People would certainly think twice before going to the streets to defend a Lula victory.
The best bulwark against a revolution, curiously, might be the United States. The Biden administration could make clear the profound costs, in the form of sanctions and international isolation, that would follow any seizure of power. That in turn could frighten big Brazilian businesses — which, as influential backers, can exert considerable pressure on Mr. Bolsonaro — into defending democracy. If the difficulties of executing a revolution are too great and the rewards seem slim, it’s conceivable that Mr. Bolsonaro will back down — or simply stage a performance, as former President Donald Trump did, to maintain control over his followers and prepare the ground for the next election.
The last time Brazil experienced similar political chaos was in 1964, when a military coup removed a democratic government that was trying to carry out progressive reforms. It took just a few hours for the United States, then led by Lyndon Johnson, to recognize the new government of Brazil.
A lot hinges on the hope that the United States now values democracy a bit more.
Miguel Lago is the executive director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies and teaches at Columbia University.
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