Brazil riots demonstrate democracy’s resilience not vulnerability

World View: Failure of mob actions linked to Trump and Bolsonaro prove totalitarian alternatives may not be viable as the tide is turning

The January 6th attack on the US Congress and the assault on Brazil’s parliament and supreme court last week have indeed much in common. History repeating itself, as our correspondent in Brazil Tom Hennigan reminded us, “first as tragedy, second as farce”. But Marx’s aphorism hardly does justice to these two events – first “as farce”, perhaps, and second as grand guignol or puppet show.

It would be wrong to minimise or understate the severity of either event. Mobs bent on vandalism and physical harm to politicians and their guards crashed around the institutions representing democracy and the rule of law, and, most importantly, the peaceful transfer of power. Outnumbered, retreating police officers fired pepper spray and tear-gas canisters. Mobs, in both cases, in the name of lying, discredited former presidents Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (once called the Trump of the Tropics), disputed the legitimacy of fair elections and, significantly, demanded that others, opposition politicians or the army, intervene to push aside new presidents in their name.

In that respect these were not even unsuccessful coups. The difference between a riot and a coup or insurrection is crucial – in both of the latter the question of power is raised, whether successfully or not. Both riots were largely demonstration events, sparks that, notionally, would ignite a wider real uprising or military intervention. There was never any possibility that power could pass to the mobs. “It was an expression of frustration and outrage,” Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University, wrote of the Brazil events. “But without the possibility of stopping anything, because the inauguration already happened.”

Fanatical and delusional

That much even Bolsonaro, perhaps unlike Trump, understood. He had grudgingly acknowledged defeat and removed himself ahead of time to Florida. “When Mr Bolsonaro said there were only three alternatives for his future – prison, death or victory – he did not mention a fourth option,” New York Times Brazil observer Vanessa Barbara wrote. “Go eat fried chicken in the United States, which he was photographed doing in December.”


The more fanatical and delusional of his supporters remained convinced that the army was ready to join them, some even interpreting the drumming of his fingers on the table at his last press conference as a Morse-coded message to them to persevere.

Crucially there was never the shift in the balance of power that any successful coup requires. Other attempts to topple governments across Latin America’s history, ordered by a strongman ruler or a general, or classic coups like the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, succeeded, often with little or no violence, because the authority of regimes, their support bases in society and the armed forces, had already evaporated. They were no longer capable of exercising power and the rebels were simply pushing on an open door.

Alternatively they succeeded, as in the overthrow of Allende in Chile, by sheer brute force, overwhelming democratic forces with naked violence.

Democratic recession

Neither scenario applied in Brazil or the US. Trump’s failed attempts to order officials to break the law were farcical. Bolsonaro recognised as much. His army support had long since made clear that it would not follow where he led. A few of his acolytes had clearly not read the runes.

Some argue that Brazil’s relatively young democracy – only 38 years since the days of army rule – makes it more vulnerable to anti-democratic forces. “The events also demonstrate the fragility of democracy,” one commentator typically observes. “The world has been in a democratic recession for years: The share of the world’s population living in truly free democracies has declined. The January 6th and Brazil riots fit into that broader trend.”

But Brazil’s parliamentary system, although riddled with corruption and bitter factionalism, is solidly embedded. It has shown itself capable of dealing both with serious corruption scandals, including one that temporarily landed re-elected president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in jail, and with the transition after elections to profoundly new leaders.

What the pathetic failure of the far-right in both the January 6th and the Brazil riots demonstrates is not so much the vulnerability of democracy in the western hemisphere’s two most populous democracies but its very resilience. And that at a time when the rise and success of the populist, authoritarian right in recent years, from Trump to Bolsonaro, to Orban, Modhi and Erdogan, had appeared to many unstoppable.

Electoral defeat for the first two has been followed by resounding demonstrations that old totalitarian alternatives may not any more be viable. The tide is turning.

“Hopefully, that was the last act for the Bolsonaristas,” columnist Barbara writes. She could well be right.