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Understanding Brazil’s Insurrection

The insurrection in Brazil's capital shows what can happen when democracy is understood merely as a process, rather than as a core value. While Brazilian democracy is not immediately at risk, its long-term future now depends on how its warring political camps navigate the fallout of January 8.

SÃO PAULO – The January 8 insurrection in Brazil’s capital was driven by a mix of factors. Participants’ delirium, passion, obstinacy, and resentment, as well as their lack of education and political literacy, all played a part. While none of these factors justifies what happened, they can help us understand why it happened.

Like his role model, former US President Donald Trump, Brazil’s defeated president, Jair Bolsonaro, spun the narrative and created the conditions that led his followers to attack the seat of democratic governance. Well before losing his re-election bid in 2020, Trump had sowed doubts about the process, telling his supporters that fraud was likely. Bolsonaro followed suit, suggesting to his followers that if he lost the 2022 election, they should conclude that it was rigged against him.

In both cases, the incumbents had prepared the ground for challenging the election results and fomenting outrage among their supporters. And once they had indeed lost, their followers had a clear target. While Trump ultimately mobilized his supporters to challenge the vote-certification process in the US Senate, where Vice President Mike Pence was the presiding officer, Bolsonaro focused on the issue of electronic voting machines, which are managed by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) under the leadership of Justice Alexandre de Moraes.