RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro was in Florida this month as his supporters tried – but failed – to overthrow the country’s fledgling democracy. It was a sign that many in Latin America’s largest country believe so strongly in his movement that it can continue to exist without its namesake.
While Bolsonarismo seems disoriented at the moment, the broader trend will continue. So say academics who study the movement and participants in the trend themselves, from far-right radicals who stormed the capital to more ordinary Brazilian social conservatives. Many believe that the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was such a threat to their country that his victory required the military to prevent him from taking office.
Daniel Bressan, 35, traveled 300 miles from the interior of Parana state to join protesters in the capital, Brasilia. He was taken into custody on January 9, the morning after he and thousands of others invaded Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace.
“Bolsonaro brought back the spirit of patriotism and family values to the people, and now we must unite to keep fighting,” Bressan, who denies destroying the buildings, said by phone Jan. 10 from the federal police temporary detention center. “We don’t expect anything from Bolsonaro himself.”
On the 2018 campaign trail, Bolsonaro tapped into outrage sparked by an extensive corruption probe into public figures. The seven-year-old legislator cast himself as an outsider to sections of society that felt undeservedly sidelined.
Some quietly shared his taboo nostalgia for military dictatorship. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, supported torture and said the regime should have killed even more communists than it did. Other hardcore supporters were drawn to his exaltation of conservative values, his full embrace of Christianity, and his drive to arm the general public. According to anthropologist Isabela Kalil, coordinator of the Far-Right Observatory, Bolsonaro became the “symbolic glue” that held these groups together.
“It’s more about how supporters mobilize Bolsonaro’s image than his actions themselves,” Kalil said. “Those images are separate from the figure of Bolsonaro. He controls them partially, but not completely.”
Radicalism deepened in the encampments that mushroomed across the country after Bolsonaro’s loss, with die-hard supporters demanding the military intervene to fight the closest race since the country’s return to democracy. than three decades ago. Bolsonaro had repeatedly characterized Lula as a thief who would plunge the nation into communism.
Bolsonaro has been virtually invisible since the election, surprising many who expected a show of genuine outrage after months of casting doubt over electronic voting machines. While he did not admit defeat and requested the annulment of millions of ballots, he also abstained from howling fraud.
Two days before Lula’s inauguration, Bolsonaro went to Florida. A week after the inauguration, rioters sprang into action with no clear signal from Bolsonaro or the military. The horde smashed windows, destroyed works of art, sprayed fire extinguishers and fire hoses. On a wooden table in the Supreme Court, someone carved, “Supreme are the people.”
Insofar as Bolsonaro commented on the uprising, it was to say that destroying public property was a step over the line. Many of his supporters were disappointed.
“By trying to distance himself from what happened, he loses his connection to the base that coordinated these attacks,” said Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university and think tank. “The attack in Brasilia hit the mark and weakened Bolsonarismo as a personalist, radical movement, its two fundamental characteristics.”
Bolsonaro’s party had intended him to be a leading voice in the opposition, but it remains unclear when he will return from Florida. At home, various investigations aimed at him could rob him of his ability to run for office.
His far-right allies elected to office have the opportunity to claim his political spoils for themselves and vocally defend arrested rioters. Paulo Baía, a sociologist and political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said he believes “the term ‘Bolsonarismo’ will disappear in the coming months,” even as the movement continues, diluted among other actors.
Unlike Bolsonaro, US President Donald Trump was present just before the attack on the Capitol on January 6 and urged his followers to enter the building. He has since continued to defend their behavior and has sought to support the election lies that fueled the attack into a defining issue in November’s election. However, the Republican Party underperformed, making Trump’s position in it more precarious than at any time since 2016.
Thomas Carothers, co-director of the Democracy, Conflict and Governance program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the riots in the US and Brazil have no real precedents elsewhere and it’s hard to predict what will happen next, but they may have been high. points for the political power of their respective populist sources of inspiration.
“We have to stop thinking only about Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is not the main leader,” Alberdan Souza, 28, who runs a Telegram channel on geopolitics, said by phone from Juazeiro do Norte in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, where he said he is the rare educator who is proudly right-wing. “He is the man who has created the right and the sense of Brazilian patriotism, but the movement is much bigger than Bolsonaro’s.”
Radicals have remained active on social media, first brushing their hands off responsibility for the destruction by blaming alleged left-wing infiltrators.
And they continue to make calls to remain mobilized so the army can act, announcing general strikes and the closure of refineries and gas stations to bring Brazil to a standstill, according to Marie Santini, coordinator of NetLab, a research group at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that monitors social media. So far further aggression in the real world has been limited. At least 12 cell towers have been attacked, several of which have been toppled, according to the energy regulator.
“It’s not that these calls were successful, but it shows that the coup drive remains strong,” Santini said. “Bolsonaristas don’t seem to be stopping any time soon.”
Three days after the uprising, a so-called “mega-protest to regain power” was finally a dud. On Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, police and journalists outnumbered the few demonstrators. It was in stark contrast to the scene in the same place weeks before the election, with flyovers, paratroopers, warships and Bolsonaro giving a mute speech to a cheering crowd in his thrall.
“I lost my joie de vivre,” said 65-year-old demonstrator Léia Marques, crying. Like other Bolsonaro supporters interviewed, Marques fears the crackdown on their movement.
Still, she doesn’t give up.
“People are being mobilized on social networks and that has a lot of power,” she said with tears in her eyes. “We will remain strong on the street.”
UK Time News writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.