When it became clear that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, also known as the “Trump of the tropics,” would fail to get reelected, fears of a Brazilian Jan. 6 began to grow louder. How would a president, who had been spreading false allegations of election fraud and who said that he would only accept the results of the elections if he won, react to losing the election to a well-known challenger?
Now we know the answer.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro did not admit to being defeated. Like Trump, Bolsonaro fed a legion of supporters — who also did not accept the outcome of the elections — with a daily dose of fake news through social media.
As it turned out, Brazil did have its own version of Jan 6. Instead of an uncontrolled mob storming Congress while the president watched passively, there was an uncontrolled mob blocking roads and highways all over the country while the president watched passively.
The largest airport in Brazil had to cancel several flights because people could not go through a roadblock led by truck drivers. But while it took Trump a few hours to decide to call on the protesters to “go home,” Bolsonaro did not bother to say anything during roughly 48 hours after the elections. When he finally appeared after two days of silence, he gave a short two-minute speech in which he did not explicitly concede the election and did not mention the name of his opponent, Lula da Silva.
Why did Bolsonaro take so long to make a pronouncement? One possible reason is that he was waiting to see how the protests that followed the elections would play out and what kind of support he could have in contesting election results. But the protests did not gain broader traction, and no relevant media, religious, military, or political figure spoke out in support of the protests.
The always pragmatic Brazilian political class quickly began to think about strategies for survival in a post-Bolsonaro environment. The powerful president of the Chamber of Deputies, a strong supporter of Bolsonaro, declared that “the will of the majority, as it is expressed in the polls, can never be contested” and started negotiations with the team of the newly elected president to secure his position in the future Lula administration. Therefore, in the 48 hours following the election, Bolsonaro became increasingly isolated. When he finally decided to break his silence, he concluded that his best option would be to reinforce his position as a political leader, thanking his supporters and stating that now “the right has really emerged in our country.”
One lesson Americans may take from elections in Brazil is that when dealing with incumbent would-be authoritarian presidents seeking reelection, the speed of the vote counting matters. Having a nationalized system of electronic voting — used for over a quarter of a century — Brazilians could know the election results a few hours after polls closed. Before Bolsonaro could muster a single word, world leaders, with Biden ahead, had already congratulated his challenger; politicians who supported Bolsonaro had accepted defeat, and even his vice-president, an army general, had begun discussing the transition. The speed at which it all happened left little room for maneuvering. In the United States, on the other hand, it took days for voters to know the results, giving Trump and his supporters enough time to make false allegations of election fraud and to contest the results when they were finally known.
Like in the case of the United States, Brazil’s relatively young democracy will also suffer the consequences of the behavior of a president who did not follow the basic rules of political decorum. Even though things might appear normal, with the newly elected president taking charge following constructional procedures, the social marks will linger.
Bolsonaro, like Trump, will no longer hold office — but Bolsonarismo, like Trumpism, will remain a powerful political force for years to come.
The deterioration of civic political culture that formed the basis of their appeal is already a reality no matter who leads the executive. And if Trump recaptures the White House in 2024 — which is far from being an impossibility — his Brazilian pupil, who is a decade younger, will undoubtedly be watching.
Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira is a professor of Political Science at Berea College in Kentucky. He received a Ph.D. in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia as a Fulbright Scholar. He is the author of “Brazil, the United States, and the South American Subsystem: Regional Politics and the Absent Empire,” chosen by Foreign Affairs Magazine as one of the best International Relations books of 2012.