Monday marks one year since thousands of right-wing protesters dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices in a violent rampage aiming to overturn the election.
Saturday marked three years since thousands of Americans did more or less the same thing.
They were two shocking attacks on the two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere, both broadcast around the world and both provoked by presidents who had questioned their legitimate electoral defeats. Each represented an extraordinary test for the country’s democracy, and each raised the question of how a deeply polarized society would move in the wake of such an assault.
Over time, the answer to this question is becoming clear: the parallel attacks had almost opposite consequences.
In the United States, support is growing for Donald J. Trump’s campaign to regain the White House, who defines his defeat in the 2020 elections as the real insurrection and January 6 as “a beautiful day”.
At the same time, his counterpart in Brazil, far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro, has quickly slipped into political irrelevance. Six months after he left office last year, election officials forced him to run again until 2030, and many right-wing leaders shunned him.
Even among citizens, opinions on the double riots – of 6 January 2021 and 8 January 2023 – are divergent. The latest polls have shown this 22% of Americans now they say they support the January 6 attack, while in Brazil, just 6%. support the January 8 rioters.
So why have there been such mixed reactions to such similar threats? Researchers and analysts point to a multitude of reasons, including countries’ different political systems, media landscapes, national stories and judicial responses, but one difference stands out above all.
Brazil’s right-wing leaders “publicly, clearly and unambiguously accepted the election results and did exactly what democratic politicians are supposed to do,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard government professor and co-author of the book “How Democracies Die” . that he studies both American and Brazilian democracy. “This is strikingly different than how Republicans have responded.”
The night after the January 8 uprising, Brazil’s left-wing president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, they marched arm in arm in the federal government’s central square with governors, congressional leaders and judges from both the left and right in a show of unity against the attack.
In the hours after the January 6 riot, some Republican members of Congress voted against certifying President Biden’s election victory, and Republicans have since increasingly sought to reframe the insurrection as a patriotic act — or even an inside job from the left.
Ciro Nogueira, a right-wing politician who was Bolsonaro’s outgoing chief of staff and now minority leader in Brazil’s Senate, said the reaction in the United States surprised him.
“There is a consensus in our country, among the political class, to condemn these acts,” he said. “I think it’s really a shame that some American politicians applaud this type of protest.”
He speculated that Brazil harshly rebuked the rioters because many Brazilians are old enough to remember the violent military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. “The United States did not experience a dictatorship, a period of authoritarianism,” he said . “We don’t want this to return to our country.”
Analysts also pointed out that Brazil’s political fragmentation – 20 different parties are represented in Congress – makes politicians more willing to engage with each other and express a wider range of opinions, while American conservatives are largely confined to the Republican Party .
At the same time, they noted that mainstream media is less fragmented in Brazil, which they say has helped a larger share of the public agree on a common set of facts. A generally centrist news network, Globo, has a major share of viewers, with ratings that often exceed those of the next four networks combined.
But there is another reason why Brazil so resolutely rejected the January 8 uprising – a factor that some fear could pose an unintended threat to the nation’s institutions. Brazil’s Supreme Court has expanded its power to investigate and prosecute people who see it as a threat to democracy.
The approach has helped dampen allegations of fraud surrounding Brazil’s 2022 election, as one Supreme Court judge in particular, Alexandre de Moraes, ordered tech companies to remove posts spreading such falsehoods. Moraes said he has seen online disinformation erode democracy in other countries and is intent on preventing that from happening in Brazil.
As a result, Brazilian courts recently ordered tech companies to shut down accounts at one of the highest rates in the world, according to revelations from Google and Meta, which owns Instagram.
Moraes also oversaw the January 8 investigation (in some cases in Brazil, the role of Supreme Court justices can resemble that of both prosecutors and judges).
A year after Brazil’s uprising, 1,350 people have been charged and 30 convicted, with sentences ranging from 3 to 17 years. After three years, some 1,240 rioters since January 6 have been charged and 880 convicted or pleaded guilty. Sentences range from a few days to 22 years.
Last week Mr. Moraes donated a series of interviews in which he lashed out at rioters charged in cases he was helping to try, calling them “cowards” and “sick” who had threatened him and his family. He also said the actions taken by the Supreme Court – a bipartisan panel of 11 justices – were crucial.
“If it hadn’t been for the strong reaction of the institutions we wouldn’t be here talking today. The Supreme Court would be closed and I, as the investigation has shown, would not be here,” he said an interviewnoting that some rioters wanted to kill him.
Thirty conservative Brazilian senators published a letter Friday condemning the Jan. 8 attacks but questioning the growing power of the Supreme Court. Legal experts across Brazil have debated whether the court’s moves are justified given the threat — or whether they constitute their new problem.
“I think there are problems with the actions of the Supreme Court,” said Emilio Peluso, a constitutional law professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. “But I think the Supreme Court needed to give a firm response to what happened on January 8.”
Moraes also led the electoral court that voted in June to bar Bolsonaro from running in the next presidential election. Five of the court’s seven judges ruled that Bolsonaro had abused his power when, ahead of the 2022 elections, he attacked Brazil’s voting systems in a speech broadcast on state television.
Levitsky, the Harvard professor, said Brazil’s approach resembles the doctrine of “militant democracy” developed in Germany after World War II to fight fascism, in which the government can ban politicians deemed a threat.
The United States has preferred to leave the choice to voters, although courts across the country are now considering Trump’s eligibility, and the US Supreme Court is expected to ultimately decide the issue.
As Bolsonaro’s political support has eroded — and as he faces a series of criminal investigations, including one related to Jan. 8 — Bolsonaro has largely stopped claiming he was the victim of election fraud.
At the same time, with the support of fellow Republicans, Trump has stepped up his lies. At a campaign rally Friday, he called those jailed over the Jan. 6 charges “hostages” and falsely claimed that the far-left Antifa movement and the FBI were “leading the charge“to the riot. “You saw the same people I saw,” he told supporters.
A survey last month proved this a quarter of Americans they now believe FBI agents “organized and encouraged” the January 6 attack.
For Levitsky, this statistic illustrates what the United States can learn from Brazil in this case: “What leaders say and what leaders do matters.”
Paolo Motoryn contributed reporting from Brasilia.