Right-wing revolt in Brazil: Army of madness

In Brazil, the storming of parliament has failed. As in 2021 in Washington, populist poison has incited the population.

A Bolsonaro supporter with the Brazilian flag acts in a bubble, two other activists are in their bubble

The anger of the masses stems from the poison of populism Illustration: Katja Gendikova

Brasília, January 9: A group holding hands marches down the ramp of the Presidential Palace. They are Brazil’s head of state Lula, constitutional judges and the governors of the 27 states. A media-effective appearance and an announcement: We will not be intimidated! Less than 24 hours earlier, hooded rioters were still running around there, some breaking into Congress and the Supreme Court. They set fires, destroyed works of art, urinated in offices and beat journalists. The attack by ex-President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters came as a shock to Brazil’s fledgling democracy.

A lot will have to be worked out in the next few weeks. Despite the warning signs, why was it not possible to stop the attackers? What complicity do the security forces have? Who funded the riots? What is striking are the parallels to the events in the USA in January 2021. At that time, too, completely radicalized supporters of a president who had been voted out gained access to the heart of democracy. Even then, they left a trail of destruction in their wake. And even then, the riots put a country in shock.

Neither the storming of the Capitol nor the attack on Brazil’s government district came as a surprise. During their terms of office, Trump and Bolsonaro regularly agitated against democratic institutions, insulted journalists and launched disinformation campaigns. Although neither succeeded in provoking an open rupture, the institutions of both countries proved to be resilient. But both Trump and Bolsonaro caused great damage in many small steps. Both have left a lasting mark on their countries and their poison has contaminated part of the population.

Similar to the Trump disciples in the USA, the Bolsonarians in Brazil are also firmly convinced that not everything went right in last year’s election. Bolsonaro elaborately prepared the myth of the great fraud. Again and again he had sowed doubts about the electoral system and allowed himself to be celebrated at putsch protests. Considering his tenure, it is almost logical that part of his entourage now dared to revolt. And Bolsonaro continues to ignite. Two days after the storming of Brasília, he again expressed doubts about the election results: Lula had not been elected by the people at all, but had been put into office by a court.

Storm with announcement

It had been clear for weeks that Bolsonaro’s foot soldiers would be ready to go to the extreme. Since the election in October, his fans have been holding out in protest camps in all weathers and calling for resistance against the new government. They blocked freeways and even planned bomb attacks.

The storming of the government district may not have been the last action of this army of madness. The critical coverage of the events confirms many people’s belief that a conspiracy is underway against them. And they see themselves as part of a final battle of epic proportions: a valiant vanguard against the fake news media! The people against the establishment!

Bolsonarism and Trumpism are sectarian movements driven by conspiracy myths, fascist habitus and religious fanaticism. And for a long time these self-declared resistance fighters have not been receptive to information from outside and are drifting more and more into right-wing extremist parallel universes. There is now a threat of further radicalization.

Their appearances with war paint and horned headdresses may at times seem grotesque, almost clown-like. But that’s no laughing matter. Because Bolsonaro and Trump have managed to turn politics into a feeling. It’s the feeling of being part of something bigger, of being heard and helping to shape the country’s fortunes.

This was also made possible by the triumph of social media. In his book “Engineers of Chaos”, the Italian journalist Giuliano da Empoli writes about the power of networks: “Viewers become actors; Income or level of education don’t matter for a while. The opinion of the first person who comes along is worth as much as that of the expert, maybe even more.”

The international of the conspiracy believers

Social media are also the places where the right wing connects internationally. They cheer each other on and learn from each other. Stephen Bannon, former Trump chief adviser, celebrated the riots in Brasília and called the intruders “freedom fighters”. The role played by US right-wing strategists in the storming of Brasília has yet to be examined. But there is no question that the Brazilian putschists took at least some inspiration from their brothers and sisters from the north.

In any case, similarities cannot be dismissed out of hand. Just as the iconic images of the storming of the capital are similar, so are the previous narratives and discourses: a “globalist left” is reaching for world domination. Trump and Bolsonaro are the ones standing in their way. It is the classic conspiracy ideology that drives these people and thus also explains their vehemence and readiness to use violence. Anyone who thinks they are in the cosmic final battle of good against evil has nothing to lose.

The networking of the extreme right has been transnational for many years. This means that, as a matter of course, we work together across national and language borders. The phenomenologies are similar worldwide because the protagonists experience and create the same realities every day. And especially on social media.

National peculiarities recede into the background, and the extreme right standardizes in language and demeanor. The arena in which this imagined final battle is fought is no longer “just” one’s own country, but the whole (western) world. So there is neither a lack of pathos nor megalomania. However, the network itself is not a big conspiracy either, but the logical consequence of an extreme right that has long been internationalizing and transnationalizing itself, which has given up the ideal and battlefield concept of “nation” in favor of “culture” and has thus discovered larger imagined fields of war for itself.

This development was already announced in the Europe ideology of the Identitarians (and then the New Right) and is now having a larger impact. Russia, Brazil or Israel are further projection surfaces in the battle of “globalism” vs. traditionalism. Globalism is suspected above all in the World Economic Forum, in George Soros and his Open Society or in the WHO and in every non-right-wing extremist government. Instead of formulating concrete criticism of the situation, a latent malaise with the crisis-ridden present is transferred into an idealistic culture war. This is happening in Brasília as well as in Washington or Europe.

How conservatism radicalized

The interesting thing is that both Bolsonaro and Trump are, on paper at least, representatives of conservative parties. In addition to the ethnic extreme right, which has a tradition above all in Europe, there is a slipping away from conservative forces. They no longer want to maintain the status quo, but strive for an authoritarian overcoming of the crisis(s).

It is irrelevant whether this is done for deeply ideological reasons or out of pure cynicism to retain power, because the result is the same. It is also not a question of whether the coup attempts really succeed, because they usually don’t. It’s about doing the most damage possible. Ideal and very physical holes are torn in democracy and the rule of law.

These parties have many more resources than small right-wing extremist parties could ever have. Former state-supporting parties are becoming destructive actors. This phenomenon can also be observed on a smaller scale in Great Britain or Austria, where both the Tories and the ÖVP use the state as a stage for authoritarianism and, as the governing party, came into conflict with the judiciary. This form of conservatism radicalizes to the right.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro supporters failed to launch a coup d’état. Some security forces made a pact with the far-right demonstrators, allowed them to advance into the government district and even posed in a good mood with the right-wing fanatics. But the army did not intervene on the side of the invaders. Even if fears of a coup are raging these days, it is unlikely that the military will embark on an authoritarian experiment.

The rule of law also hit back with full force, and several rioters were arrested. And civil society rose up in nationwide protests against the coup threats. Despite everything, the Bolsonarians have achieved their goal: They have pushed the erosion of democratic structures a little further. And the images from Brasília could be used as a blueprint for the next storming of a capital anywhere in the world.

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