Brazil and US January 6: Parallel attacks but not identical

Angry protesters broke into government buildings that are the symbol of their country’s democracy. Fueled by conspiracy theories about losing their candidate in the last election, they smashed windows, searched lawmakers’ desks and ransacked the country’s top offices in a killing spree that lasted hours before order could be restored.

Sunday’s attack of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s capital immediately drew parallels to that January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by former President Donald Trump’s supporters two years and two days earlier.

The two populist former presidents shared a close political alliance with an overlapping group of supporters – some of whom helped spread the word Trump’s lies above loses re-election for voter fraud and later parroted similar claims by Bolsonaro after his own re-election defeat last fall. Bolsonaro was among the last world leaders to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.

“The US example of denying elections and creating alternative facts, radicalizing law enforcement, and openly belittling democratic institutions was a template I believe Bolsonaro et al. wouldn’t have thought of it,” said Scott Hamilton, a former US diplomat in Brazil.

However, experts warn against mixing the two attacks.

There are “undeniable similarities” to Jan. 6, said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, which tracks disinformation around the globe.

“The imagery. A lot of the calls to action on social media are very, very similar,” he said. “But there is one big caveat. Democracy in Brazil is very different from democracy here in the United States. The culture, the context, even the institutions are really different and that’s really important.”

Many of the connections are open. Bolsonaro’s lawmaker son Eduardo signed in 2019 to work with Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s international populist movement. Bannon became one of the loudest supporters of Trump’s election lies in 2020 and has reinforced Bolsonaro’s claims about rigged voting machines.

Trump was one of Bolsonaro’s few foreign allies, and Bolsonaro often highlighted the leadership of his American counterpart, even posting photos of himself watching Trump’s speeches. He and his son visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago and both attended dinners at Bannon’s home.

After Sunday’s riots in Brasilia, Bannon called the protesters “Brazilian freedom fighters” in a video posted on social media.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, a major gathering of right-wing activists that has been a hotbed of pro-Trump enthusiasm, met in Sao Paulo in September. One of the participants, former Trump spokesman Jason Miller, was later arrested by Brazilian authorities before leaving the country.

“We do not advocate violence but believe peaceful protests are appropriate and that the situation in Brazil should be fully investigated,” CPAC chief organizer Matt Schlapp said in a statement to The Associated Press in response to the weekend’s unrest.

Demonstrators stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace, some calling on the military to overthrow President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Others waved banners suggesting they believe claims that voting machines had been programmed to steal Bolsonaro’s election, reminiscent of signs waved on January 6 promoting similar conspiracy theories across the US

Images of Brazilian protesters fighting with police guarding the complex, breaking into government offices and searching the desks of opposition MPs reinforced flashbacks of the attack on the US Capitol.

The attacks followed months on Bolsonaro Exploiting fears about electoral integrity without offering evidence, much like Trump did in 2020.

Bolsonaro in November blamed a software bug for his loss and called for the cancellation of most electronic votes. Independent experts dismissed his claim, and Bolsonaro’s motion to have the votes annulled fell through.

Social media was still teeming with misinformation about the election, and posts urging Brazilians to gather in their capital on Sunday to contest the election results went viral on TikTok, Facebook, Telegram and other platforms. A post has had more than 800,000 views since Friday, according to analysis by Aos Fatos, a Brazilian fact-checking organization.

Wendy Via, president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said Sunday’s riots are another example of how misinformation and rhetoric online can incite violence when deployed by a leader with a large enough audience.

“We saw this coming,” Via said. “It’s not just happening in Brazil or the United States. This is a global problem. Should we compare what happened in Brazil to January 6th? I say 100% because it’s the same playbook.”

But there are important differences between the two attacks and the forces in the two countries that pushed them.

“This was not part of an orchestrated move to overturn the election results,” said Christopher Garman, executive director of Americas for the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory group. “It’s a little bit of a different animal” than it was on Jan. 6, he said.

On Jan. 6, 2021, Trump was still president, and he urged his supporters at his rally on the Ellipse to march to the Capitol and stop Congress from ratifying Joe Biden’s victory. In Brasilia, the protest took place on a Sunday when only a few sat in government offices and Bolsonaro had already relinquished power.

Bolsonaro had even left the country — in Trump’s adopted home of Florida, where he appears to have been staying in the Orlando area. On Monday he went to a hospital there and complained of abdominal pain.

Garman said Bolsonaro’s hand may have been checked by Brazil’s Supreme Court, which has aggressively punished misinformation about the election, to the point of censoring social media accounts and news reports it found misleading. Bolsonaro knew that if he applied too much pressure, the court could rule that he could no longer run for public office.

“If he had followed the Trump trail, his political rights would have already been suspended,” Garman said.

The situation in Brazil is also more tense than in the USA. Systemic corruption is a major concern for the country, as is the stability of the relatively young democracy after decades of authoritarian rule up until the 1980s. The man who punched Bolsonaro, Lula, is a former president who was jailed on corruption charges in Bolsonaro’s first election in 2018, only to have his conviction overturned by Brazil’s Supreme Court.

Anti-establishment anger may sound familiar to those who follow US politics – a hyperpolarized political environment and a weakened center, along with growing distrust in both institutions and those on the other side.

“It’s not healthy for any democracy to have that level of distrust,” Garman said.


Associated Press writers David Biller in Rio de Janeiro and Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report. Brazil and US January 6: Parallel attacks but not identical

Sarah Y. Kim

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