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Brazil Attack Latest Export of Far-Right Extremism from the US

Just two days after Americans had marked the two-year anniversary of the horror that visited the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, an eerily familiar scene played out four thousand miles south, in Brasilia, Brazil. Angered by recent election results and perceptions of foul play, supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Brazilian presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court. “It was an attack on democracy, on the constitution. It was an attempted coup d’état, which failed to materialize,” Brazil’s communications minister Paulo Pimenta declared. Unlike January 6, in Brazil, the attack occurred after the new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had already been inaugurated—therefore there did not necessarily seem to be a coherent purpose behind the riot, beyond the destruction of Brazilian democratic institutions.

Despite piecemeal efforts of social media companies, conspiracy theories questioning the results and alleging wrongdoing had spread rapidly on social media after the election, mobilizing and angering Bolsonaro supporters from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Bolsonaro supporters gathered in a series of makeshift camps throughout the country, including protestors at military bases demanding the army step in to address electoral fraud. Those camps have now been dismantled by security forces after the riot. Bolsonaro has denounced Sunday’s attack, but helped sow the seeds by spreading conspiracy theories about the election before it was even held two months ago. “Without a doubt, former president Bolsonaro has responsibility,” Portuguese foreign minister João Gomes Cravinho said. “His voice is heard by these anti-democratic demonstrators.” This was not the first instance of violence in response to the election results: a man had previously been arrested for trying to break into the new president’s inauguration party armed with a knife and explosives—possibly part of a global trend of rising political assassination attempts—while another individual was arrested for plotting to set off a bomb, hoping to create “chaos” and “prevent the establishment of communism in Brazil.”

Although Pimenta noted that the attack was more serious than its American counterpart, January 6 seemingly provided a model for the protestors. Similarly inspired by a range of conspiracy theories mourning perceived electoral fraud and touted by their preferred candidate, the attackers overran police lines and ransacked the government buildings, causing widespread property damage and injuring over seventy people, including police officers and reporters. As the research group the Soufan Center had warned in late September, “Ironically, the United States, historically known for exporting democracy, is now associated with developing the playbook for dictators and strongmen to use to sow doubt about democratic elections, while simultaneously offering a blueprint for authoritarian leaders to seize power by force.” There was also direct support: Stephen Bannon, a former White House official, advised the Bolsonaro campaign after the defeat, helped spread electoral conspiracy theories, and on Monday called the rioters “freedom fighters.” It may be no coincidence that Brazil was the U.S. ally to suffer the most serious January 6 copycat—analysts have long discussed the similarities and close relationship between Donald Trump and Bolsonaro and their respective political playbooks.

This was, unfortunately, not the first time American far-right violent extremism and activism had provided a model for counterparts abroad. QAnon, for instance, has become a global phenomenon. Though its American variant revolves around Trump, alleging that the former president was divinely chosen to rid Washington, DC, of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controlling banks, the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party, it has been adopted in other contexts and tailored to local grievances—including, crucially for the Brazilian case study, in Portuguese. In Germany, meanwhile, police in December arrested a far-right cell that intended to overthrow the government. They had been inspired by QAnon and related conspiracy theories.

Read entire article at Council on Foreign Relations