What’s happening with MAGA and Bolsonaro in Brazil?
Bannonites may not help Bolsonaro cling to power, but they are seizing the chance to feed their audience the same election denial talking points. Remember, successful propaganda requires repetition.
On October 2 and 30, 2022, Brazilians went to the polls for the first and second round of presidential elections respectively. The first-round saw leftist Lula da Silva (commonly referred to simply as "Lula") take 48.43% of the vote with far-right president Jair Bolsonaro receiving 43.20% of the vote from a slate that included eleven candidates. Lacking the 50% vote total needed to avoid a runoff election, Lula and Bolsonaro's tallies were much closer in the subsequent head to head matchup in which Lula received 50.9% of the vote to Bolsonaro's 49.10% tally. By any objective analysis, as of today, the election is over. Lula won.
Despite rampant accusations of fraud, corruption and deception from the Bolsonaro camp leading up to election day, his supporters have presented no evidence of fraud. However, some continue to falsely present the election results as fraudulent in the hopes that Bolsonaro will contest the results, refuse to leave office and perhaps even stage a coup with the help of Bolsonaro’s allies in the Brazilian military. Sound familiar? This attempt to retain power based on nothing is something we’ve all seen before. Trump did it in 2020, and it’s perhaps unsurprising to find out that some of the very same people who urged Trump to contest his election results are urging Bolsonaro to do the same in Brazil today.
While Bolsonaro has given hints that he will cooperate with the transition of power to Lula, he has so far refused to officially concede. The atmosphere in Brazil remains tense, and while hopefully the situation calms down on its own, it’s too early to know whether or not that will happen with any certainty.
Let’s talk about what’s being said and why certain pro-Trump factions are involved in this election denial operation.
As Dan Friedman writes for Mother Jones:
“Bolsonaro can’t concede,” Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who in 2020 helped Trump carry out a plan to convince backers that he had not lost, said on Sunday. Bannon spoke shortly after Brazil’s electoral authority announced that voters had narrowly elected leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, ousting Bolsonaro after one term.
A populist sometimes called the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro offered Trump his endorsement in 2020 and received Trump’s support this year. Like Trump in 2020, the Brazilian president has worked to lay the groundwork for contesting an election defeat by questioning the validity of voting machines in Brazil, which has a fully electronic voting system. He has insisted that he could only lose through fraud and suggested he would not concede, ominously declaring in August: “I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed, or victory.”
As Friedman also notes in his article, the Biden administration's efforts to ensure free and fair elections in Brazil have been portrayed by Bannon, the self-styled leader of the 2020 “Stop the Steal” election denial movement Ali Alexander and others in their orbit as evidence that Biden was helping Lula fraudulently steal the election from Bolsonaro. The evidence presented on this is so far about as reliable as a QAnon post on 8chan—this is to say, not at all—but neither was Trump’s evidence any better in 2020. This time around they’re not even really trying that hard though, but they don’t need to succeed at keeping Bolsonaro in power to claim a victory here.
What Bannon, Ali Alexander and their associates like Matthew Tyrmand are doing is repeating the same talking points that Trump supporters clung to prior to the January 6th insurrection. They’ve blamed the lack of paper ballots for helping facilitate fraud. They also point to the large number of supporters at Bolsonaro’s rallies as a sign of his massive support that surely indicates he won somehow! Tyrmand also recently highlighted the fact that Bolsonaro’s party did better than the presidential candidate himself, which again, was used to “prove” some sort of fraud had occurred. We saw this happen to Trump in 2020 as well. The Republican Party outperformed their own Presidential candidate, which might seem odd at first glance. What Bannon and his ilk fail to mention is that both Trump and Bolsonaro were historically bad candidates whose divisiveness earned them hardcore fans but also made them unappealing to moderate voters—you know, the ones you need to win close elections.
This Brazilian operation isn’t a surprise to the people who have been paying attention to the growing ties between Bolsonaristas and the MAGA faithful. As The New Republic (TNR) reported, Bannon attended My Pillow CEO and 2020 election denier Mike Lindell's "cyber symposium" in August 2021 with Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo. They used their platform to seed the narrative that the 2022 election in Brazil would be stolen from Bolsonaro and have fanned these flames ever since. As Andre Pagliarini wrote for TNR:
Bannon was echoing the hyperbolic rhetoric that Brazilian conservatives have long used to describe Lula, a former union leader who became the first working-class president in Brazilian history upon his election in 2002. Even before Bolsonaro’s election, center-right politics in Brazil were becoming defined by the dangerously misguided notion that Lula and his party were not simply democratic opponents to be defeated at the ballot box but criminal conspirators to be extirpated by any means necessary.
Eduardo Bolsonaro’s appearance at Lindell’s event appears to be the next step in this strategy. Bolsonaro is now attempting to link events in Brazil to the broader network of fantastical delusions, resentments, and outrages that fuel the Trump base and, by extension, much of the Republican Party. Bolsonaro—with Bannon apparently on his side—wants to make Brazil the next MAGA battleground.
So much of what we’re seeing in Brazil confirms this is a repeat of the 2020 “Big Lie” with few real updates.
Consider too how similarly Bannon has described Joe Biden and now president-elect Lula.
They’re training their audience to immediately recognize their “enemies”. How? Repetition, repetition, repetition.
Realistically, there’s little practical impact Bannon, Alexander, Tyrmand and their allies can have on what happens in Brazil from now until January 1, 2023 when Lula is scheduled to assume the Presidency once again (after previously serving as president from 2003-2010). They’re not on the ground, and they’re not locals. Any actions in Brazil here require organic support from its own citizens, but these MAGA faithful are clearly willing to help any way they can.
Lula’s first stint as president was controversial to say the least. He was indicted on corruption charges related to Operation Car Wash, a money laundering scandal that evolved into investigations of South American politicians taking bribes for favorable construction projects in their respective countries. Without going too deep into the weeds here, Lula’s conviction was later overturned in a technicality by a Brazilian court which cleared the way for him to participate in this year’s election after being barred from the 2018 election because of his conviction.
Rather unsurprisingly then, Bolsonaro has made it a point of echoing Trump’s own criticisms of judges who issue unfavorable rulings. As Mauricio Savarese and Debora Álvares wrote for the AP earlier this year:
The far-right president has long accused court justices — most of whom were confirmed during past leftist administrations — of trying improperly to frustrate his policies, and he has tried to stir up public opposition to them.
He rallied nationwide demonstrations in September in which protesters shouting “Let’s invade!” pushed past police containment barriers at the Supreme Court, prompting justices to beef up their personal security.
Bolsonaro has been especially resentful of de Moraes, who will assume the presidency of the nation’s top electoral court later this year — overseeing the upcoming presidential election. Last September, he threatened to ignore rulings by the justice, though he never did so.
As you can see from this clips from Bannon’s recent shows, he and his allies continue to highlight Lula’s connections to the Chinese Communist Party and transnational crime. (In fairness, there’s significantly more evidence against Lula here than they’ve been able to produce with Joe or Hunter Biden.)
As Stella Chen wrote for the South China Morning Post:
During Lula's administration from 2003 to 2010, Brazil saw China as a key partner in helping to restructure the international order. In 2004, Lula drew closer to Beijing, leading a delegation of more than 450 business leaders to China to lay the foundations for a partnership that intertwined the economies of both countries. During Lula's presidency, he met former Chinese president Hu Jintao eight times.
Jorge Heine, a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and a former Chilean ambassador to China, told the Post earlier that Lula put Brazil's relationship with China front and centre, and did much to cement it, including establishing BRICS.
Lula would continue to do so once he won in the second round, he said.
Lula’s election doesn’t appear to be a positive development—in fact it appears to be quite the opposite—to the geopolitical interests of the United States. Nevertheless, President Biden chose to congratulate Lula on his victory almost as soon as he was officially declared the winner. Why do this? Because the United States has been aware of the possibility of a Bolsonaro coup attempt in Brazil for some time now. This seems to be an effort by the White House to ensure the results of the election were honored by Bolsonaro and his supporters. Helping prevent a violent coup in the most populous country in South America took precedent over anything else, and personally, I’m glad it did.
While there are some indications that events in Brazil won’t reach the potential flashpoint some feared, there have been large scale protests ongoing since election day with many major highways in the country blockaded by Bolsonaro supporters. As Diane Jeantet and Carla Bridi wrote for the AP after Bolsonaro broke his two-day silence after losing the election:
Bolsonaro also thanked the 58 million people who voted for him and said he supports ongoing protests by truckers who have erected nationwide roadblocks, as long as they don’t become violent.
“Current popular movements are the result of indignation and a feeling of injustice regarding how the electoral process occurred,” he said.
The AP added, “Highway police said late Tuesday that they had removed 358 blockades, but more than 200 were still in place.”
Uncertainty about the outcome of all these machinations persists. As Jeantet and Savarese's Wednesday follow-up coverage for the AP highlighted ongoing reasons for concern. As they wrote:
Thousands of President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters called on the military Wednesday to keep the far-right leader in power, even as his administration signaled a willingess to hand over the reins to leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The president’s defenders gathered in the rain outside the Eastern Military Command in Rio de Janeiro, one of the army’s eight regional headquarters, many of them raising clenched fists in the air as they brandished Brazil’s green-yellow-and-blue flags and sang the national anthem. Some chanted, “Armed forces, save Brazil!” and “United, the people will never be defeated!”
Meanwhile, truck drivers who for days have maintained roadblocks across the country to protest Bolsonaro’s defeat were still out in force, despite a Supreme Court order to dismantle them.
Though they also added this helpful context:
The military has taken on an ample role under Bolsonaro, but has remained silent in the month since the first round of the election, a sign it is likely distancing itself from the ex-army captain, experts told The Associated Press.
“In a democracy, the armed forces do not have a say in the electoral process,” said Eduardo Munhoz Svartman, president of the Brazilian Association for Defense Studies. “This silence is desirable.”
Even if, as we should all hope, these demonstrations end with as little violence or escalation as possible and Lula’s transition occurs as smoothly as possible, it’s worth pointing out that the MAGA faithful viewed Brazil as a testing ground for Trump 2024. They may not help Bolsonaro cling to power, but they are seizing the chance to feed their audience the same election denial talking points. Remember, successful propaganda requires repetition.
The Bannonites want their viewers to believe Bolsonaro’s election was stolen in much the same way they falsely claim Trump’s election was stolen. It’s a reminder of what they claimed already happened, is continuing to happen and what they want their listeners believe will happen in 2022, 2024 and beyond. The hope seems to be that this momentum will swell their ranks of election deniers immersed in a grievance culture that demands revenge against their political opponents.
Steve Bannon may be the most high-profile member of this group, but it includes an intertwined cast of characters, several of which are planned speakers at an upcoming event for the New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC). The NYYRC is led by Gavin Wax, who recently urged Bolsonaro to “send in the tanks”. NYYRC Vice President Vish Burra also claimed that the Brazilian election “was stolen from Bolsonaro”. Burra has promoted #BrazilianSpring in support of Bolsonaro on Twitter in an apparent reference to the “Arab Spring” pro-Democracy movement that led to the overthrow of governments in several Middle Eastern countries. Longtime Bannon ally Raheem Kassam has used his website, The National Pulse, to amplify Burra's inflammatory rhetoric in Brazil as well. There’s also the looming presence of (Twitter knock-off) Gettr CEO Jason Miller, who met privately with President Bolsonaro in Brazil last year after Miller spoke at the CPAC Brazil conference—where Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo also gave a speech. Miller was accompanied on this trip by Matthew Tyrmand, who as of late has spearheaded much of Bannon’s coverage of events in Brazil.
Whatever happens next, this cast of characters are building an ecosystem here. This information infrastructure is going to be deployed again, and we had best be as prepared as possible for what comes next.