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If Brazil's democracy falls in October, it's a new threat to U.S. democracy in November

BolsonaroBrazilMilitary.jpeg
Eraldo Peres
/
AP
BARRACKS VS. BALLOTS Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (left) talking with army Gen. Edson Leal Pujol in Brasilia in 2019.

COMMENTARY Few things would embolden Trump's troops more than to see a military coup keep his buddy Bolsonaro in power should he lose Brazil's election.

This November, U.S. democracy may well have a new threat to deal with besides Donald Trump. Besides the Proud Boys. Besides all the Stop the Steal! wingnuts vying to commandeer state election systems like so many Visigoths sacking the Roman Forum.

The fresher danger just might be in Brazil — and what far right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro does this October.

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On Monday, Bolsonaro invited foreign diplomats to the Planalto presidential palace in Brasília, not for cordial caipirinhas but for cracked conspiracies. He doubled down on his delusional claim that Brazil’s voting machinery can and will be rigged against him in the upcoming presidential election — which polls project him losing grandemente. (That would be Portuguese for “bigly.”)

It wasn’t the first time Bolsonaro has warned, with no evidence, that if he loses his re-election bid in October it will be due to fraud — and not because he’s a racist, homophobic misogynist who subverts Brazil’s fledgling democracy as regularly as he changes ties, while encouraging the slash-and-burn decimation of the Amazon rainforest, when he’s not busy fiercely dismissing a COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more people in Brazil than in any country except the U.S.

Never mind that Brazil’s electronic voting system has registered few if any problems since it was set up a quarter century ago. Or that it worked muito bem for Bolsonaro when he won in 2018. (Or that if a suspected attempt by Russian hackers to screw with the system that year had worked, it almost certainly would have favored him since he was Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s favorite candidate.)

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Bolsonaro has decided, like former President Trump, that a Big Lie about votes is the best con when you need to cover up a Small Performance with voters.

But if Bolsonaro loses to his leftist rival and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, here’s why his probable denial of defeat is more likely to morph into the coup that Trump and his MAGA legions tried to pull off in the U.S. last year:

The Brazilian military.

If Brazil's military were to intervene to keep Bolsonaro in office, it wouldn't be a bunch of idiot White supremacists wearing horned moose-lodge helmets, à la Jan. 6. It would be the real deal.

Bolsonaro has set Brazil’s armed forces on a gun turret-high pedestal they haven’t enjoyed since their 21-year-long dictatorship ended in 1985. He was an army captain during the dictatorship’s final dozen years, and he waxes fondly about that brutal regime as Brazil’s golden age. He calls the late and infamous colonel who ran its torture unit “a national hero.” His closest advisors and cabinet ministers are much more familiar with barracks than ballots — including his former chief of staff and now running mate, army Gen. Walter Braga Netto.

GREEK CHORUS

That military shadow has now leached into Brazil’s electoral system. Last fall, in response to Bolsonaro’s fear-mongering, Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court created a transparency committee to monitor the presidential election more closely than a helicopter parent inspects a tween’s iPhone — and Bolsonaro had an army general appointed to it. Since then, Brazil’s military brass have become O Presidente’s Greek chorus echoing his prophecies of electoral felony. Bolsonaro has even suggested they be allowed to conduct a parallel vote count.

Jan6VikingHelmet.jpeg
Manuel Balce Ceneta
/
AP
Supporters of then President Donald Trump confront Capitol police on Jan. 6 2021 during their violent attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election that Trump lost.

Bottom line: this is not a high command that looks resolved to put country before caudillo should their patron tank in October. And if, God forbid, they decide to intervene to keep Bolsonaro in office, this won’t be a bunch of idiot White supremacists wearing horned moose-lodge helmets, à la Jan. 6, 2021. This would be the real deal — an old-fashioned South American mutiny with boots and epaulets and dark sunglasses backed by genuine artillery.

And few things would embolden the MAGA legions here more than seeing the real deal suffocate a democratic vote in favor of one of Trump’s most beloved foreign leaders. It would help affirm for them every putsch impulse they uncaged on Jan. 6 — and gift them added inspiration to carry their anti-democratic crusade to new, more militant and militarized levels.

It would lend more muscular, soldier-of-fortune justification for taking upon themselves what they bayed for the U.S. military to do last year.

If the guns of October can keep Bolsonaro in power, they’ll conclude, that’s an even louder call for them to lock and load the guns of November to make sure Trump — and all their candidates — never lose.

Even when they do.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.