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Brazil Is About To Show The World How A Modern Democracy Collapses

Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is a threat to Brazilian democracy — and a model for authoritarianism that leaders around the world will follow.

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Bolsonaro supporters rally and pray in Brasília ahead of a New Year’s Day inauguration ceremony that will make him Brazil’s 38th president. , AP

RIO DE JANEIRO — The tanks began to roll into Rio de Janeiro on the morning of April 1, 1964, some of them from the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, others from São Paulo. The Brazilian capital had moved to Brasília, the new planned city in the country’s interior, a few years prior, but Rio remained the effective center of power, and somewhere in the city, President João Goulart was clinging to power.

Goulart, a leftist who became president in 1961, had spent the days prior on the phone with a top military officer, Gen. Amaury Kruel. The general was hoping to prevent the collapse of Brazil’s government by urging Jango, as Goulart was known to Brazilians, to fire prominent leftist officials and institute a slate of reforms that would please both the military and the centrist establishment in Congress that opposed Goulart’s shifts to the left.

Goulart refused. The military marched.

By the next morning, Goulart had fled to Porto Alegre. A few days later, he was in Uruguay. Brazil’s democracy had collapsed.

Five decades later, on the evening of Oct. 28, 2018, members of the Brazilian military were parading through the streets of Rio again. Green Army jeeps honked their horns and flashed their lights; soldiers standing atop them waved Brazilian flags as adoring crowds cheered their arrival.

This time, though, the military was not coming to depose a president, but to celebrate him. Jair Bolsonaro, a federal congressman and former Army captain, had just won the election to become Brazil’s 38th president.

“What a nightmare,” Argentine journalist Diego Iglesias tweeted in Spanish of the scene.

Bolsonaro, whose presidency will begin with a New Year’s Day inaugural ceremony in Brasília, has routinely praised Brazil’s military dictatorship, which gave way to the return of democratic governance in 1985. And his rise to power shares many similarities with the military regime’s: Bolsonaro has seized on widespread discontent and fatigue with an incapable and corrupt political establishment, on fervid opposition to a leftist party that had spent more than a decade in power, on an economic collapse that Brazil has only slowly begun to escape, and on rising levels of violent crime.

And while he has pitched his surge to power as the result of a “populist” revolt, his base of support mirrors that of the old coup masters: wealthy financial elites, segments of the population willing to trade the rights and lives of the poor and marginalized for their own safety and economic prosperity, and traditional parties and politicians who refuse to acknowledge their own roles in creating the monster before folding themselves into his arms.

Much like the military once did, Bolsonaro has threatened his leftist political opponents with violence and imprisonment. He has promised to deliver a political “cleansing never seen before in Brazil,” and threatened media outlets that report news unfavorable to him. His vice president is a former Army general who, in an interview with HuffPost Brazil, refused to rule out a return to military rule, and who has posited — over Bolsonaro’s unconvincing objections — that the new administration could rewrite the country’s constitution.

This is not exclusively a Brazilian phenomenon. Countries around the world, from Hungary to Turkey to the Philippines, have turned to noisy leaders who promise instant renewals and silver-bullet solutions under the banner of a right-wing, nativist “populism” ― the preferred term of news outlets, even though the key constituencies backing these candidates tend to comprise the nations’ elite.

Each major election has become, in part, a referendum on the state of global democracy as a whole. And each victory for a right-wing, anti-democratic figure has paved the way for a similar candidate in the next major election somewhere else.

Of the bunch, though, Bolsonaro might be the most pressing threat to a major democracy. Brazil’s is the fourth-largest in the world, and the largest by population in Latin America. If it dies, this time, it won’t be at the hands of the armed forces. It will be self-inflicted.

“There have been very, very few military coups in Latin America over the last 35 years,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist and author of How Democracies Die. “So I think that while increased public support for a military coup is troubling, it’s much more likely Brazilian democracy will die at the hands of an elected leader.”

Brazil is about to show the world how a modern democracy falls apart.

‘Democracy Hasn’t Delivered’

It was still too early for an afternoon beer when I passed the first vendor doling out ice-cold cervejas along São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista on a Brazilian summer day in late November.

Paulista, which splits one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, was closed thanks to a mid-week holiday, storefronts advertised Black Friday sales, and a giant Christmas tree outside one of the shopping malls gave away the approaching holiday season. Locals and tourists alike perused pop-up tents selling handcrafted wooden bowls and art, and loudspeakers blared a pop soundtrack for the people who’d come to do yoga in the street.

Aside from the occasional bit of political graffiti sprayed onto a lamp post or the sidewalk, there were barely any signs that throughout 2018, Brazilians had repeatedly swarmed Avenida Paulista to demonstrate in favor of and against Bolsonaro.

It was here, in July, that people in São Paulo joined the largest women-led protest in Brazilian history, as women and LGBTQ people who feared Bolsonaro’s history of racist, sexist and homophobic statements urged Brazilians to vote for anyone else. “Ele Nāo,” they yelled ― “Not Him.”

It was also here that Bolsonaro’s supporters gathered in mid-October for a rally meant to push him over the majority threshold he had fallen just short of in the first round of voting. At that demonstration, Bolsonaro, who had been stabbed on the campaign trail in September, told the crowd via a cell phone that, as president, he would target funding for the media and human rights groups. He vowed to give his opponent ― former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, of the leftist Workers’ Party ― and prominent leftist activists two options: “Leave, or go to jail.”

But by the end of November? “Everything feels normal,” a friend told me, “until you watch the news.”

Like Trump, Bolsonaro is a creature of the rot in his country’s democratic institutions that had set in years before he’d entered the picture, or that had been there all along.

Power in Brazil has always remained concentrated largely among a white and wealthy elite; literacy and education rates are still low, especially among the poor; an over-militarized and under-trained police force has continued to kill large numbers of poor (and mostly black) citizens; and the return to democracy was marked by more than a decade of economic instability and hyperinflation that perpetuated vast social, racial and income inequality. 

Still, Brazil has spent much of the last several decades fashioning itself into a shining example of what a democratic Latin America could one day look like. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso stabilized the economy in the early 2000s, then leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a working-class firebrand, presided over a period of rapid growth that had Brazil’s economy on pace to surpass those of France and the United Kingdom.

On da Silva’s watch, expanded social welfare programs helped some 30 million Brazilians rise out of poverty, and broader affirmative action policies increased educational, health and employment access for black Brazilians, women, the poor and the indigenous. Violent crime fell to its lowest levels in decades. When da Silva left office in 2010, his approval ratings neared 90 percent. Brazil, it seemed, was finally working.

Or was it? In 2010, Tiririca, a Brazilian clown, announced a run for a congressional seat in São Paulo and launched a campaign meant to parody the Brazilian political system. “Pior do que está não fica, vote no Tiririca,” he said: “It can’t get any worse, vote Tiririca.” He playfully satirized the corruption endemic in Brazilian politics, promising that he would “enrich every Brazilian family ― especially mine.”

Then he won, and that victory, in retrospect, might have been a sign of a lurking discontent that Bolsonaro would soon exploit.

Brazil was already one of the world’s most unequal countries in terms of income distribution, and while the poor unquestionably benefited from the Workers’ Party’s policies ― including a hike in the minimum wage ― the vast majority of the economic gains achieved under da Silva went to the richest 1 percent of Brazil’s population. So even as a new lower-middle class earned more than it ever had, Brazil’s obscene levels of income inequality likely expanded during the good years. Violent crime had been reduced, but not to levels befitting a developed democracy: Even before the economic collapse, Brazil was home to more than a dozen of the planet’s 50 most violent cities. 

Things got worse: The economy collapsed in 2013, plunging millions out of work and millions more back into poverty. In 2014, a money-laundering investigation turned into the world’s broadest political corruption investigation. Known as Operation Car Wash, or “Lava Jato” in Portuguese, it has implicated hundreds of Brazilian politicians, including da Silva and outgoing President Michel Temer, of the centrist Democratic Movement Party. Violent crime has surged ― there were more than 60,000 homicides in each of the last two years. President Dilma Rousseff, da Silva’s hand-picked successor, was impeached in 2016. Da Silva was convicted on money-laundering charges in 2017 and imprisoned this year; Temer has only narrowly escaped trial on bribery charges.

Compared with their counterparts across Latin America, Brazilians have always shown a low level of support for democracy. That support has eroded even further amid the crises: In 2017, just 32 percent of Brazilians agreed when Latinobarómetro, which conducts polls across the region, asked if they agreed that “democracy may have problems but is the best system of government.” No other Latin American nation showed less support for democracy, while other surveys found that nearly two-thirds of Brazilians had lost faith in political parties, the presidency and Congress. More than half of Brazilians said they would support a more authoritarian style of government if it “solved problems.”

“If you ask people on the street if they’re worried about what Bolsonaro may mean for democracy, it’s not like people are particularly concerned,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

“Democracy,” he said, “hasn’t delivered what many of us have expected.”

The PT, as the Workers’ Party is known by its initials in Portuguese, has received much of the blame for the backlash that fueled Bolsonaro’s rise. A great deal of this criticism is legitimate: Da Silva and the Workers’ Party had risen to power on something resembling revolutionary hope ― a belief “that it could use the established order in Brazil to benefit the poor, without harm – indeed with help – to the rich,” as the British essayist Perry Anderson wrote in 2016.

By the time Rousseff was impeached in 2016, to the delight of millions of mostly middle-class and wealthy Brazilians who had marched in the streets demanding her ouster, the party had embraced a brand of economic austerity and engaged in the sort of corruption that alienated many of its own working-class supporters.

In addition to its usual base of elites, the counter-revolution in Brazil could now count on winning at least some support from the PT’s natural constituency. Bolsonaro drew support from across the political and social spectrum, even from poor and black voters whom some of his most repressive policy goals will surely target. Polls ahead of the election showed that Bolsonaro led Haddad among black and mixed-race voters and women ― and that he also earned a surprisingly large share of the vote from LGBTQ Brazilians ― despite his racism, sexism and homophobia.

“Even if he were a racist, I would still vote for him,” Marcelo Amador Pereira, a black man who lives in São Paulo and lost his job during the Rousseff administration, told HuffPost Brazil before the election. “Because he is running against the PT, and I will not accept any part in what the PT did to Brazil.”

Elite Failure ― And Acquiescence 

The problem with pitching Bolsonaro’s rise to power as a purely populist revolt, though, is that the main source of his support was not the poor and working classes that had once fervently backed the Workers’ Party, but the same elites Bolsonaro constantly railed against, who have taken almost no responsibility for their role in creating the circumstances that made his ascent possible.

Healthy democracy relies on mutual support for a basic set of rules, but in the aftermath of the 2014 presidential election, Brazil’s center-right establishment began to disregard the old consensus. The center-right Social Democratic Party, or PSDB, questioned the results of Rousseff’s narrow re-election that fall, giving oxygen to fringe social media conspiracy theories that the Workers’ Party president had benefited from election fraud. 

Two years later, the centrist parties launched an effort to impeach her that looked less like an effort to hold Rousseff accountable than a chance for Brazil’s establishment to seize via goo-goo crusade the sort of power it couldn’t win at the ballot box — and protect itself from judicial and public scrutiny in the process. For others on the right, including Bolsonaro, it was merely an opportunity to rid Brazil of a leftist government that they claimed had waged a war on “God, family and the Brazilian people.” 

Operation Car Wash, meanwhile, has long been viewed as a positive development for Brazilian democracy, an effort to rid the country’s political system of the corruption that runs rampant through it. But it’s undeniable now, even for the investigation’s proponents, that it played a role in undermining democracy instead of bolstering it.

“One of the undesired results of the Lava Jato case ― this confrontation of corruption ― is a very extreme polarization of the public debate in Brazil,” said Bruno Brandão, the Brazil director of Transparency International. “It also discredited the political system and the political class. And more worrisome, it discredited the democratic system itself.”

The polarization isn’t entirely the result of the corruption investigation ― on the left and the right, the parties of implicated politicians have spent years trying to discredit Car Wash. Temer repeatedly attempted to curtail it; Congress tried to kill new anti-corruption legislation in the middle of the night; da Silva and the PT decried it as an elite effort to destroy the left, which wasn’t entirely true, given that a rash of politicians from other parties were removed from office and sent to prison, too. 

But the investigators themselves helped undermine the credibility of their cause and, by extension, democracy. Judge Sergio Moro, who spearheaded the Car Wash investigation, was responsible for the conviction of da Silva, who had led presidential polls before he was banned from the race thanks to the corruption case.

Moro spent years positioning himself as apolitical, but his pursuit of da Silva took on an air of zealotry. The conviction was criticized as sloppy and legally questionable by independent Brazilian legal experts, and the timing of certain revelations from Moro — wiretapped phone calls between Rousseff and da Silva, released in 2016 in the midst of her impeachment; testimony accusing da Silva, Haddad and the PT of graft, unsealed the eve of the election — suggested the judge was putting a finger on the scales of the cases and, perhaps, the election. (In November, Moro agreed to serve as the head of the National Justice Ministry under Bolsonaro.)

Brazil’s elites and its media, meanwhile, underestimated the strength of the anti-establishment surge taking place under their feet, or the dynamics allowing it to fester. Over and over again throughout the last two years, Brazilian political observers and journalists assured me not just that Bolsonaro wouldn’t win, but that he couldn’t. When they didn’t ignore him outright, they treated him as a sideshow; surely his worst, most provocative statements would be enough to convince Brazilians he was too radical a reactionary.

Beneath the surface, Bolsonaro and his supporters took advantage of social media, amplifying his message across Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp ― Brazil’s most popular social network ― exploiting both the existing distrust of Brazil’s largest media outlets and the utility of those social networks for spreading news that was baseless and manufactured out of thin air.

Members of the media and political elite were sure that, with da Silva and the PT seemingly discredited, a moderate, establishment figure from the center-left or center-right would emerge. But Brazilians made their fatigue with the centrist establishment clear: Whereas the Workers’ Party still won more seats than any other party in congressional elections, the center-right was crushed in the first round of voting. Cynicism, corruption and the pursuit of unpopular economic policies under Temer had left a vacuum on the right, and along came Bolsonaro to fill the void.

Bolsonaro wielded corruption as a cudgel against the PT from the start, turning its links to Car Wash into an all-out attack on its legitimacy and right to exist. The left, Bolsonaro suggested on his website, wanted to “import ideologies that destroy our identity” as Brazilians. That appealed to growing evangelical and conservative movements, as well as segments of the middle classes that opposed the left’s social liberalism, and played on a backlash against efforts to advance the civil rights of the poor, LGBTQ people and black Brazilians. 

That Bolsonaro had adopted an anti-corruption posture merely as a campaign tactic ― much like Trump’s promise to “Drain the Swamp” ― was evident even before he took office. Bolsonaro’s son, Flávio, is already facing questions about potential corruption, and despite pledging that his government ministries would not include anyone convicted of corruption, Bolsonaro has appointed at least seven people who have been or currently are involved in such scandals, according to The Intercept. They include his chief of staff and his finance minister, Paulo Guedes ― the University of Chicago–educated economist and free marketeer whose close ties to Bolsonaro during the campaign gave Brazil’s business elite the assurances they needed to cozy up to the supposed “populist.”

As with Trump, Bolsonaro’s attack on corruption went beyond hypocrisy. It was a Herrenvolk appeal — spoils for the dominant class, banishment or marginalization for everyone else — and the tubthumping about corruption fit into larger themes about the contamination of Brazilian identity by the country’s underclasses. 

For the whole of history, as Hannah Arendt wrote, totalitarians have depended on a coalition between the elite and the mob. In Brazil, as elsewhere, the rise of a new authoritarian required the acquiescence of a patrician class unwilling to accept any of the blame for the systemic ills the country was facing. And while so much media attention was lavished on the ordinary folks who supported Bolsonaro, it was more significant that his levels of support rose with each step up the income ladder, thanks to elites who shared his disdain for the left and were happy to empower a fascist to thwart it.

The worst ills Bolsonaro would inflict would be reserved for the most vulnerable of Brazil’s populations, anyway. The elites, as always, are exempt from the pain they cause.

If this all seems to bear a striking resemblance to what happened in the United States, that’s no coincidence. Bolsonaro has modeled his ascent to power on the rise of Trump, whose own victory was built on years of democratic erosion.

Trump, too, was merely a symptom of a larger disease, a product of declining faith among Americans in their democratic institutions. And Bolsonaro adopted many of Trump’s strategies: He, too, encouraged violence against critics, appealed to nativist and racist fears, and suggested that if he lost, it would be the result of political rivals’ shenanigans. He also called for imprisoning not just his opponent, but activists who worked on the left. He targeted civil society, suggesting that nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups would be shut down. He promised to give law enforcement even more leeway to kill on sight and decried the media as agents of fake news who were simply protecting the corrupt establishment.

Bolsonaro’s campaign, like Trump’s, also made a habit of tossing out increasingly absurd and anti-democratic ideas, often filtered through his son Flávio, a congressman who served as Bolsonaro’s de facto social media guru. Flávio and vice presidential candidate Gen. Antonio Hamilton Mourão would suggest increasingly radical ideas ― like, say, closing Congress if necessary ― only for the elder Bolsonaro to gently walk them back if a reporter asked about them or if they generated too much scrutiny.

This strategy, deliberately or not, has the effect of making Bolsonaro look more moderate than he is while shifting the very grounds on which he is being evaluated. Now, a Bolsonaro who does everything short of closing Congress, rewriting the constitution or re-establishing military rule starts to resemble a committed democrat.

A key difference between Bolsonaro and Trump, though, is that the worst version of the former will have much more damaging effects on Brazilian democracy than the latter has had, or could have, in the United States.

“Bolsonaro can do things in Brazil, potentially, that Trump can’t do,” Levitsky said, “because Brazilian institutions ... are nowhere near as strong as they are in the United States.”

Bolsonaro’s ministerial appointments include more former military officers to serve at once in a civilian government than in any since the end of the dictatorship. He has appointed ministers who wield the same paranoid, anti-“globalist” rhetoric that became commonplace in the early days of the Trump administration.

Bolsonaro and his choice to head the education ministry, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, are supporters of the Escolas sem Partido (Schools Without Party) movement, a previously fringe effort to prevent public schools and universities from “indoctrinating” students with leftist political ideologies. There were reports in the days after the election that some universities had been raided to rid them of books on fascism, and that professors and other academics who opposed the new president and had described him as a fascist were targeted and harassed.

Bolsonaro, too, has sent early signals that he will follow through on his threats to seize indigenous lands to open them to mining and agricultural interests; he has said Brazil should “integrate” its indigenous tribes ― which include those living on protected reservations, as well as uncontacted peoples ― into Brazilian society against their wishes. 

It is possible Bolsonaro will govern as a true autocrat ― that he could take advantage of any small crisis to consolidate power and sweep aside democracy in a single act. He could close Congress; he could criminalize the Workers’ Party and other leftist opposition parties and movements; he could criminalize dissent, protest and the free press.

More likely is that he will govern in a manner similar to Trump, targeting the press, political opponents and democratic institutions with a constant barrage of criticism that further erodes their credibility among his supporters and the public writ large, and has a chilling effect on legitimate opposition. Bolsonaro refers to nearly everything to his political left as “communism,” and has said his movement is meant to keep “foreign ideologies” from making their way to Brazil. Rather than outright dictatorship, Bolsonaro’s reign could come to resemble the ugliest anti-left purge in American history.

“It sounds like McCarthyism,” Alexandre Padilha, a high-ranking member of the Workers’ Party who served in da Silva’s government, told me. “He hates everything that is left in Brazil, and thinks they should be eliminated, basically.”

To the right, these fears and the rhetoric that has inspired them are a source of humor. The day before the inauguration, Carlos Bolsonaro ― a Rio councilman and another of the new president’s sons ― posted a video on Twitter of his father celebrating police killings and calling his opponents “pussies.”

“The left is crying,” he said, mockingly.

In the U.S., Trump’s continued attacks have had negative effects on how Americans view their elections, the press and other democratic institutions, and his rhetoric has emboldened racists and white nationalists and potentially contributed to rises in violent crime against racial, ethnic and religious minorities. 

Political violence is already shockingly common in Brazil: In 2018, Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco was assassinated while leaving an event, and 28 candidates were killed during 2016 election cycle alone. Bolsonaro’s insistence that his supporters take aim at Workers’ Party politicians could have deadly consequences.

His people have taken their cues: In the days before the election, Bolsonaro supporters proudly destroyed memorials to Franco in Rio, and the symbols of American white nationalism ― including a flag of Kekistan, the mythical country created and worshipped by alt-right fanboys in online forums ― began to show up at Bolsonaro rallies. The night of the election, his supporters waved banners commemorating the former Army colonel who carried out the military dictatorship’s torture program.

LGBTQ Brazilians, who are already subject to high rates of violence, are also fearful that Bolsonaro’s aggressive opposition to their rights will give his supporters license to level even more attacks against them. And Bolsonaro’s rhetoric on policing and public security has only emboldened some of the hard-line officers within Brazil’s police forces, according to locals.

In São Paulo, a young black writer who lives in a favela on the city’s outskirts told me that he had been stopped by police five times in the first three weeks after the election, usually as he was returning to the neighborhood on the way home from work. In Rio, videos circulated last month of two men lying in the street, shot to death, before the police officers who killed them threw their bodies into the back of a pickup truck. Brazil’s police already killed more than 4,200 people last year ― in Rio, they were responsible for 1 in every 5 homicides across the state. Bolsonaro will likely make police forces even more deadly.

On this, he will have allies both in and out of politics. Brazilians overwhelmingly support aggressive stances on policing, and amid the violent crime epidemic, more politicians have adopted hard-line stances. Wilson Witzel, the incoming governor of Rio de Janeiro, has said the state will “dig graves” for the bodies of alleged criminals police kill. Newly elected São Paulo Gov. João Doria, a politician who aligned himself with Bolsonaro during the campaign, has adopted similar rhetoric when it comes to protecting police accused of killing.

Brazil’s institutions may shield its democracy as a whole. But even in the best-case scenario, Bolsonaro’s Brazil will almost certainly become even less democratic for the people who already suffer the vast majority of violence and oppression there, from the state and otherwise.

A Model For ‘Really Egregious Illiberalism’

“Where are you from?” a woman in São Paulo asked me as our hotel elevator hit the ground floor.

When I told her I lived in Washington, D.C., she smiled and turned to her child. In Portuguese, she told him that I was from the same place as Trump.

“Everyone here wants to go there,” she said. “They say all bad things about him, but everyone here wants to move there.”

To many Brazilians who support Bolsonaro, the chaos Trump has sown and the threats to the tenets of American democracy he poses are nothing to worry about. The U.S. economy, after all, is doing well, and Trump is, in their view, responsible. He’s an outsider who came in and shook up the system, and the establishment just hasn’t learned to cope with that yet.

Now, there are others looking to Bolsonaro. In Uruguay, an upstart presidential candidate is already modeling himself as his country’s version of Bolsonaro; in Argentina, which faces many of the same economic and corruption issues that have plagued Brazil, similar candidates could soon emerge.

“The political right has not done well in Latin America in the last few decades,” Levitsky, of Harvard, said. “So right-wing politicians are looking around for a new formula, and illiberalism ― really egregious illiberalism ― may be that formula. If he’s perceived to be successful, it will be reproduced.”

Bolsonaro wasn’t the first right-wing authoritarian to put a major democracy under threat. Neither will he be the last.

“We have Bolsonaro because we have Trump,” Stuenkel said. “We would not have seen the same dynamic here without what happened in the U.S. in 2016. I think that inspired a lot of people who basically learned from Trump.”

“And I think that same way,” he continued, “neighboring countries in Latin America will learn from Bolsonaro.”

HuffPost Brazil’s Diego Iraheta contributed reporting.

Travis Waldron is a reporter at The Huffington Post, based in Washington D.C. He covers the intersection of sports and politics, policy and cultural issues. Previously he covered politics, economics, and sports at ThinkProgress, and his work has appeared at The Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, and various newspapers. Travis can be reached at travis.waldron@huffingtonpost.com