The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trumpian election rejection goes global

Supporters of Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as security forces respond outside Brazil’s National Congress in Brasília on Jan. 8. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)
7 min

On Saturday evening, former president Donald Trump spoke to a group of customers at his Mar-a-Lago event space.

“Ashli Babbitt’s mother was arrested yesterday,” he said, “because she was protesting the death of her daughter being shot by a lunatic who’s got a record of not so good. … But they shot her, and there was no reason.”

“We’re not going to let this go on,” Trump added, to applause. “These people are horrible, horrible people. And what they’ve done to protesters. These were protesting; they were protesting a stolen election.”

Micki Witthoeft, Babbitt’s mother, was arrested Friday, the second anniversary of the death of her daughter at the U.S. Capitol. The arrest was a symbolic one, as is not uncommon on Capitol Hill, with Witthoeft and others blocking traffic and, according to a statement from police, Witthoeft having “asked to be arrested.”

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But where Trump is further from the mark is in his description of Babbitt’s death. You are by now certainly aware that Babbitt’s shooting resulted from her being the first member of a large, violent mob to breach an internal window near the House floor on Jan. 6, 2021. She was with a group that broke the window near where members of Congress had recently been evacuated and, immediately before she tried to step through, people nearby raised an alarm about a security officer who had drawn his weapon. Babbitt was shot once and died.

In the two years since it occurred, Babbitt’s death has been recast as an example not of the limited worst-case response to the Capitol riot but as an inexplicable overreach by bloodthirsty government responders, as Trump seems to frame it. The riot has been downplayed — and increasingly embraced — as a response that maybe was over-the-top but still aimed in the right direction. A third of Republicans now say they at least somewhat approve of the Capitol takeover, according to YouGov polling.

There are two central reasons for this, one proactive and one responsive.

The proactive reason is that there’s an ongoing interest by Trump and others in his direct and expanded orbit to elevate the idea that the 2020 election results were suspect. Trump has the added incentive of downplaying the actions of the Capitol rioters because it therefore downplays his culpability in causing the riot. And, as always, there’s a universe of people willing to amplify his arguments because he’ll amplify those people right back.

The reactive reason is more interesting. Because U.S. politics is so polarized and because there’s so much attention, praise and fundraising to be gleaned from casting the right’s opponents (not all of them on the left) as the dishonest, criminal set, responses to the Capitol attack that were more forceful than shrugs were picked apart and derided as examples of anti-right overreach.

The investigation into the riot undertaken by the House select committee over the past two years served as a perfect point of contrast for Trump’s supporters, a thing they could attack and from which they could draw real and imagined points of criticism. Even Trump skeptics on the right were empowered to hold an anti-anti-Trump position that was often functionally indistinguishable from a pro-Trump one.

Less than 24 hours after Trump waved away the actions of the rioters at the Capitol, another group of people who had been fed misinformation about the results of a presidential election stormed another set of government buildings. This time, the riot unfolded in Brazil, where supporters of the ousted president Jair Bolsonaro attacked police and pushed into the seat of parliament and the offices of Bolsonaro’s successor in a spate of violence distinguishable from Jan. 6, 2021, only in that the omnipresent red, white and blue of Trump’s supporters was replaced with green and yellow.

Bolsonaro’s response to his loss mirrored Trump’s, a close political ally when he was in office. The Brazilian president similarly primed his supporters to think that the results were suspect, despite the country’s adopting voting mechanisms designed to increase public confidence in the results. After his loss, Bolsonaro, like Trump, refused to participate in events marking the transfer of power, instead decamping, again like Trump, to Florida.

When Bolsonaro lost, the American right quickly went to work elevating baseless and unproven claims about election fraud. The mechanisms Trump had helped streamline even before 2020 went to work in support of Bolsonaro. At times, the Brazilian president benefited from direct support from Trump’s former team.

The response to the unrest in Brazil was familiar. Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who had frequently used his podcast to elevate claims about purported fraud, offered a Trumpian “they were just protesting a stolen election” defense of the unrest Monday morning. (He’s one of those who had consulted with Bolsonaro, naturally.) Ali Alexander, who turned “Stop the Steal” into a lucrative post-2020 mantra, offered the same praise for the attack in Brazil as he did Jan. 6. Many other Republicans remained silent about the violence.

The violence was boosted by activity on social media, including Twitter. In December, Twitter owner Elon Musk speculated that the platform’s Brazil team had offered unfair advantage to Bolsonaro’s competitor without offering evidence. A month before, just after the election in that country, Musk had fired a number of staffers from the Brazil office tasked with moderating content that included misinformation or incitements to violence.

It has been obvious since the first hours after the Capitol riot that a large segment of the political right is sympathetic to nondemocratic responses to transfers of power. You may recall that, a few months after the Capitol riot, there was a coup in Myanmar in which the military pointed to claims of election fraud as a necessitating factor. A number of pro-Trump voices celebrated the uprising. When the House voted to condemn the action, 14 Republicans, mostly ones closely allied with Trump, voted against it. About a third of Republicans say that American patriots “may have to resort to violence” to save America, about the same percentage as those who viewed the Capitol riot favorably in YouGov’s polling this month.

All of this overlaps. Trump hangers-on finding audiences for international conspiracy theorizing. The combination of Musk’s just-asking-questions approach to conspiracy theories as he reduced the platform’s ability to police dangerous right-wing content. The former U.S. president continuing to cast incarcerated Jan. 6 defendants as victims despite the seriousness of the charges they face. Casting Ashli Babbitt as an innocent martyr.

There were anti-democratic efforts before Trump, but the violence in Brazil was obviously heavily flavored by the American right. It’s a warning not just to other countries but to this one.

Brazilian law enforcement made hundreds of arrests of rioters, as did the federal government in the United States. In the years since Jan. 6, though, those most responsible for the violence here have avoided serious repercussions, using the same communications pathways deployed to elevate fraud claims to dilute any shared sense of their culpability. Only a portion of the mob that day, low-level participants, have paid any price — with the high-level actors like Trump now engaged in an effort to cleanse even that stain.

If you’re Bolsonaro or one of his supporters, the lesson from Jan. 6 might well have been: Why not try?