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  • Writer's pictureAmy Erica Smith

Trump’s failures could illuminate a path for Bolsonaro’s success

By Amy Erica Smith

[Note: This is the English version of an essay that appeared in the 18 January 2021 issue of the Brazilian newsmagazine Epoca.]

Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump / Source: Isac Nóbrega/PR

I was 16 years old when I saw the US Capitol for the first time. On a hot summer roadtrip, my family spent days three mosquito-bitten days among the capital’s monumental neoclassical architecture. Enormous slabs of granite and marble, carved with three-meter-high quotes from magicians of the English language, people like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. In their midst, stone statues of four-meter-tall giants, memorialized as not quite human. And the towering dome of the Capitol, the central temple of the sacred complex, an Acropolis dedicated to a goddess we call the “people’s will.” It’s enough to make teenagers feel reverent.

The 18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that a modern society needs a “civil religion”—a shared set of symbols and loyalties that cements the nation. In the United States of the late 18th century, founded as a political union with little prior sense of its own nationhood, ideas like “rights” and “liberty” became core tenets of that religion. Although its founders could not envision them applying to women or African slaves, those tenets held yet unimagined promises for the future. The monumental architecture of the US Capitol inaugurated in 1800 would become the most sacred site of the new civil religion.

This is the high temple Trump loyalists scaled and sacked on January 6, 2021. Draping “Trump 2020” flags and flags from the defeated, slaveholding Confederacy across the building, they propped dirty boots on desks and defecated—literally and physically, not just metaphorically—in its hallways. It was degrading, a humiliation of the people’s temple.

One of the most prominent points of discussion has been whether the assault constitutes an attempted “coup.” In my view, it does. The President made clear his goal of overturning the election. When efforts to enlist local politicians, judges, and the military failed, on January 6 he succeeded in martialing a ragtag band of supporters, abetted by some police officers assigned to protect the building.

The effort to wrest control of executive power was destined to fail. Even if the insurrectionists had managed to assassinate Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, they would have been killed or captured and tried. A cowardly president, a band of ruffians, and scattered police officers had not a whisper of hope against the American state. The coup’s commander-in-chief has been impeached by the US House of Representatives, and might soon be barred ever from running for office again. The insurrection looks laughable.

However, this debate misses the point. The assault was more than a foolhardy attempt to stage a coup. Where it failed in capturing state power, it succeeded as a symbol of both rage and degradation. More worrisomely, it serves as a war manual for future populist authoritarians.

The events of January 6 show Donald Trump’s power as a renegade cleric of the American civil religion. Even following the most aggressive invasion of the US Capitol since the British occupation in 1814, the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight estimates that 40.5% of Americans still approve of Trump.

What binds this worrisomely large congregation to its treasonous pastor? Loyalty to the Republican Party is part of the story. But it’s more than that. Trump has infused his own identity and personality into the civil religion of American conservatism. Personalist devotion to Trump, and to a larger-than-life caricature of his macho bluster, has become part of the social identity of his followers.

This following is built on lies: energizing, feel-good lies. Trump entered politics by spreading the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, making Obama ineligible for the presidency. He campaigned for president on the lie that he would force Mexico to pay for a wall at the US-Mexican border. These lies worked because they reaffirmed white nationalist identity against supposed brown-skinned “foreigners.”

Two falsehoods define the last year of Trump’s presidency: the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic was a minor problem inflated by the hostile media, and the claim that the 2020 election was stolen. For a base primed to defend Trump’s lies, these false narratives have become entwined in social identity. Dismayingly, it turns out that loyalty to Trump’s lies can lead people to even to do things that might kill them.

In this context, Trump’s calls to smash and humiliate elites become a symbolic language uniting him and his most ardent followers. Many Republican legislators echo these cries, hoping to capture Trump’s base for themselves. In the end, Trump may be removed from politics, but Trumpism—built on lies and what I call “performative golpismo”—will remain, waiting for the next charismatic leader who can lead the congregation.

The analogies to right-wing populist leaders such as Bolsonaro are obvious.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has built his base on a macho showmanship that attracts citizens weakly attached to democracy. And like Trump, Bolsonaro has telegraphed his intention to claim fraud if he loses the 2022 presidential election.

Can the online and offline protesters Bolsonaro promises to martial in the wake of a possible defeat keep him in power?

Trump failed because, in the end, he was unable to induce support from military and judicial elites, local politicians, or even his own vice president. A handful of senators, over a hundred members of the House of Representatives, and scattered police officers proved enough to cause mayhem, but not to keep the presidency. Historian Timothy Snyder argues that Trump’s failure owes to his inability to articulate an ideology bigger than himself. Political scientists might say Trump failed to capture control of the Republican Party in the US federal system.

Reading from the war manual of Trump’s defeat, two lessons are clear. First, would-be populist authoritarians need elite support—from the legislature, the judiciary, and above all the military. Second, the populist’s base is currency in negotiating this support.

If Bolsonaro cries fraud in October 2022, it’s unclear how much support he would get from elites. It seems unlikely the legislature or judiciary—even under new leadership—would support specious claims of fraud. And while Bolsonaro’s cabinet generals apparently came close to supporting Bolsonaro’s efforts to dismiss the Supreme Federal Tribunal in June 2020, it is far from evident he could control the military in 2022.

What Bolsonaro will have is his base. Bolsonaro’s loyal following is somewhat smaller than Trump’s as a percentage of the population, but possibly even more digitally mobilized. It may also be even more willing to support antidemocratic actions. Moreover, reporting suggests this base may be even more tightly woven into Brazil’s security forces than Trump’s.

If the day comes that Bolsonaro decides to contest the 2022 election, this base may decide Bolsonaro’s fate.

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