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The root causes of Brazil’s violent protest, explained by an expert

Understanding Bolsonarismo, the red-pilled protest movement that sieged Brasilia.

A Brazilian flag is reflected in a broken window at the presidential palace in Brasilia following attacks on government buildings by supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on January 9.
Arthur Menescal/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

In Brazil’s capital on Sunday, thousands of protesters attacked government institutions in a dangerous echo of the United States’s January 6 insurrection.

It comes in response to the election of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and the leftist Workers’ Party (known by the acronym PT), which ousted Jair Bolsonaro this fall. Lula may be the most skilled politician in recent memory, but he and PT come with baggage from previous administrations in the 2000s and having been caught up in corruption scandals.

Within a sea of angry right-wing demonstrators waving the Brazilian flag and galvanized by antagonistic online influencers, there was a sense of familiarity for Americans watching the attack on democracy unfold. Is this part of a rising informal movement of authoritarians worldwide or something different?

To answer that question and understand the dynamics of Brazilian politics and the complexity of the coalition that continues to support Bolsonaro, I reached out to Rodrigo Nunes, a Brazilian philosophy scholar who teaches at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and the University of Essex. He’s written widely on Bolsonarismo, the former president’s movement, including in a recent book published in Portuguese, From Trance to Vertigo: Essays on Bolsonarismo and a World in Transition.

Bolsonaro is currently in Florida and has communicated little publicly with the protesters, lightly rebuking the violence, yet his authority endures on the sidelines. “People like Bolsonaro and Trump can lead even by not talking or by writing very little, or by only expressing themselves in the vaguest of terms, because they know that their followers are going to read all sorts of different meanings into whatever it is that they’re saying,” Nunes told me.

But that doesn’t mean the risks of Bolsonarismo have ended with his tenure in office. “It’s always important for us to think of Bolsonaro as a symptom more than cause,” Nunes added.

The group that stormed Brasilia has global and local roots, and one proximate cause of Bolsonaro’s popularity is the widespread corruption scandal in 2014 that cascaded across political life and in response to the 2008 financial crisis that torpedoed the technocratic liberal policymaking of centrist politicians. “His own brand of militarism and strong man politics — that’s been in Brazilian society for a long time,” Nunes says, but “suddenly they had a leader onto which they could be projected, and that could offer a political outlet to them.”

Nunes discussed the drivers of the violent attack on the Brazilian capital, situated political currents within the history of right-wing and military history in Brazil, and analyzed how Lula is handling the crisis so far. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was the impetus for these protests? That these protesters feel the election was rigged, that it was illegitimate, that they are entitled to the seat of power?

It’s all those things. This is always one of the questions when discussing far-right politics — what Theodor Adorno called the phoniness of the far right.

It’s never entirely clear to what extent they believe what they’re saying. Even if they don’t quite believe that the elections were rigged, they don’t believe that PT are the legitimate representatives of Brazilian society. So in their heads, what they’re doing is justified in the sense that, “Well, we’re defending our country from going in a very bad, in a very wrong, direction.” What they really believe in is that that is defending the country and defending themselves from going downhill toward totalitarian communism, or whatever it is, they believe we’re heading toward.

Workers with a ladder stand in front of a large painting.
Employees look at a painting by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti destroyed by radical supporters of Bolsonaro following a riot the previous day at the presidential palace on January 9, 2023 in Brasilia, Brazil.
Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Tell me about how they’re mobilized and organized. It seems like it was their social media and YouTube accounts and such has had a real influence in bringing people to Brasilia.

In the past you had a leader with a strong paramilitary movement backing him. Nowadays, the leader often doesn’t really have a [institutionally organized] movement, the leader doesn’t even have a party, properly speaking.

But, the leader rides on the back of a swarm of what you could describe as political entrepreneurs who are social-media influences, who are YouTubers, commentators in legacy media, etc., to whom the leader outsources much of the work of agitation and mobilization and organization. While on the other hand, these people see the leader as expanding the reach of what they do and providing both political and even economic opportunities for them. Your YouTube channel is your politics, but it’s also the way you make money.

Something that’s happened since Bolsonaro’s defeat in the elections unlike Trump in the US, he has — publicly at least — abdicated from being the leader of the movement contesting the results of the elections. This seems to arise from the fact that he’s basically very afraid of all the legal complications that are expecting him now that he’s out of power, and he doesn’t want to create any further complications. This is why he’s actually disappeared. He’s gone AWOL for most of the last few months.

Even though — and this is another thing that’s quite characteristic of the kind of media environment that the new far right thrives on nowadays — people like Bolsonaro and Trump can lead even by not talking or by writing very little, or by only expressing themselves in the vaguest of terms, because they know that their followers are going to read all sorts of different meanings into whatever it is that they’re saying. It’s perfectly possible and I wouldn’t be surprised if also Bolsonaro and his sons have been communicating with the people who’ve mobilized and who’ve organized these protests.

But my impression is that the machine is kind of running on its own now. The top of the pyramid has just withdrawn. And it’s the intermediary layer of this pyramidal structure that was built very efficiently during Bolsonaro’s years in power.

It’s the lieutenants of Bolsonarismo who are leading this movement now, to a large extent, because as political entrepreneurs themselves, it’s in their interest to retain some of this space and milk it for as long as they can, because they don’t know how long this is going to last.

Could you situate for us where this fits into the recent history of Brazil? Where does this new coalition emerge from? Is it similar to these kinds of global authoritarians and the new right movement we’ve seen worldwide?

It’s always important for us to think of Bolsonaro as a symptom more than cause.

His own brand of militarism and strong-man politics — that’s been in Brazilian society for a long time. The fact that the security apparatus is very heavily infiltrated by Bolsonarismo is not a consequence of the fact that Bolsonaro created this support, but the fact that these tendencies were there, and suddenly they had a leader onto which they could be projected, and that could offer a political outlet to them. Some of these tendencies you could trace as far back as the formation of the country in colonial times, but which suddenly in the presidential campaign of 2018 found political cohesion and political leadership in the figure of Bolsonaro.

Now, why does this happen in 2018? There’s basically two stories there.

One, which is more specific to Brazil, maybe there wouldn’t be any other elections that Bolsonaro could have won apart from 2018 — 2018 were the most singular elections in Brazilian history and the most anti-systemic election in Brazilian history. The election came at a moment when the entire political establishment, and not just PT, was discredited by the Operation Car Wash scandal.

Operation Car Wash was a judicial investigation, which has been largely overruled since then, because it committed several abuses of procedure. It started as an investigation into corruption in Petrobras, the state oil company, but eventually started branching out in all directions. It basically discovered this extensive network of endemic corruption that involved pretty much anyone who was anyone in Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro, up to that point being a nobody, wasn’t really directly involved. So there is a national story that you can tell about how that happens, which is basically, there’s a moment of huge institutional demoralization, the entire political establishment is discredited, and Bolsonaro is the person who has the best shot at presenting himself as an outsider, even though he’d been in the Brazilian Congress for three decades at that point.

A photo of two portraits of men, each with slashes through the canvas and across the men’s faces.
Damaged portraits of former Senate Presidents José Sarney and Renan Calheiros are seen at the Brazilian National Congress following a riot the previous day led by radical supporters of Bolsonaro on January 9, 2023 in Brasilia, Brazil.
Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Obviously, there’s also a global story to be told, which is the same story that applies to places like the US, the UK, Italy, France, etc., which is the story of the 2008 financial crisis, which only really starts producing its effects in Brazil after 2014. But the crisis that we in Brazil start going through from 2014-15 is in part a consequence of the slowing down of the Chinese economy, which is also a delayed consequence of the 2008 crisis.

The 2008 crisis creates a crisis of legitimacy of the new liberal consensus of the 1990s and the early 2000s, which basically discredits centrist political actors, and makes politics all over the world move toward the extremes, farther to the right and farther to the left. But then, for several reasons, the far right is in a much better position to inherit the anti-systemic sentiments that arise from the crisis, and the crisis of legitimacy of neoliberalism that it opens.

There’s obviously a very recent history of military dictatorship. And how would you think about the military’s role in politics here? You say the military is not likely to intervene, but is that something that people would want? Is that something that there’s precedent for?

Certainly Bolsonaristas would want that, and not even just the more extremist elements who are out in the streets on Sunday, but lots of people who wouldn’t necessarily go out to the streets, but still would support the military.

They feel they have this completely bizarre interpretation of the Brazilian constitution, according to which it would be constitutional for the military to intervene. It’s completely absurd. Bolsonaro represents very strongly the return of the military to Brazilian politics.

The military had been silent since the end of the military regime — I was born still under the military dictatorship, but I grew up in the period of democratization.

There’s a bitter joke that people often make, every now and then when we read headlines about this-or-that general’s opinion on something that happened: “Oh, remember when we didn’t have to care what a general’s opinion was on anything.” And suddenly, it became a thing you had to worry about, what the general’s opinion was. Because obviously, once the military becomes political agents explicitly, they are never going to be political agents like any other, because they have the monopoly of force. The process of the military coming back into Brazilian politics actually starts before the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff [in 2015-2016], but then clearly becomes completely consolidated with Bolsonaro.

There was actually more military personnel in Bolsonaro’s government than in the last government of the military dictatorship.

A photo showing a sculpture. The sculpture is of the head of a woman with a blindfold over her eyes. It is upside-down on a floor littered with trash.
Damage is seen to the Supreme Federal Tribunal of Brazil following a riot the previous day led by radical supporters of Bolsonaro on January 9, 2023 in Brasilia, Brazil.
Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

They have used this fear. But all conditions remaining equal, the threats of the use of force, the threats of military intervention, is to remain a bluff. A bluff that they’ve used very intelligently, a bluff that they used to secure political influence, a bluff that they’ve used to try and secure impunity for themselves after Bolsonaro is gone, and a bluff that they’ve used to secure privileges for themselves, particularly pensions.

But what I mean by all things remaining equal is that of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if, had the movement after Bolsonaro’s defeat been much bigger and much stronger, had there been much more intense destabilization of the Brazilian political system, had there seem to be international conditions, or something like a military intervention — had this been possible, I wouldn’t be surprised if several people in the upper echelons of the Brazilian military wanted to embark on that particular adventure. But the conditions just aren’t there, and they have a lot to lose.

Are these protests singular or do they tell us something new about global authoritarianism in 2023? What might be the reverberations across Latin America?

In light of the fact that we’re already comparing this to what happened in the US two years ago, and we could also compare it to instances of political violence, say, in India, or in other places, where the far right is strong nowadays, and it’s clearly not something that’s isolated. It’s clearly not something that’s singular to the Brazilian case.

The pattern in recent years in South America has been lawfare — [that is, the use of the legal system to attack political opponents] — against democratically elected governments and through corruption accusations, which may or may not be true.

Tell me more about Lula’s response. You described him recently as “the most talented politician of his generation” and someone who’s perhaps uniquely suited to deal with the multiple crises he’s facing. How is he dealing with this crisis? And how is he likely to address it going forward?

The situation is still unfolding. It’s still early to say that he’s dealt with it very well.

Lula will have to be a lot more rigorous. Until now, the police and the military were trying to stay in the good books of the Bolsonarista base, and they were playing the same game with issuing very vague statements and not really committing to anything. I think this will have to change now. The way it happened may make it easier to Lula to push people against the wall and to say, “Look, we’re going to need a different police command, we’re going to need different military command, we’re going to need the people who come in to be very clear on where they stand, etc., etc.,” to move to retire a bunch of generals, so on and so forth.

The other thing is, now he won’t be dealing with it alone. A week ago, there were campaigns happening and a lot of people were talking on social media and publicly that there should be no amnesty for whatever crimes were committed under Bolsonaro. Particularly, the big thing here is, of course, the management of Covid, because it was absolutely disastrous in a really deliberate way, and the military were very heavily involved. So there were lots of people saying that there cannot be an amnesty again, because there was an amnesty at the end of the military regime in the early ’80s.

And then the media’s response — sensible commentators and sensible moderate centrist politicians were like, “This is a very bad sign because it shows that this new government begins in a spirit of revanchism.” The mainstream was going, “Let bygones be bygones.”

Now, you have the president of Bolsonaro’s party condemning Sunday’s actions, you have the Supreme Court, which has been verbally attacked by Bolsonaristas regularly for the last four years, its building was being physically attacked. So this completely changes the situation.

Now, it’s a bunch of people realizing, “Oh, this could be serious. And it’s also our political survival that’s on the line.” And a line has been crossed now. If there were any doubts, that there was a credible reason to act, now there isn’t.

I wouldn’t be surprised if even people in the Bolsonarista camp would say [about Sunday’s violence against the capital], “No, this is too much. This is going too far.” Which means that now there would be a lot more support, both in the political establishment and among society more broadly, to act more energetically.