The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Bolsonaro’s rhetoric — then his silence — stoked Brazil assault

Supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro invade the congress in Brasília on Sunday. (Andre Borges/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — For more than four years, the most fundamental of questions has loomed over Brazil: Would its young democracy survive the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro?

Latin America’s largest country embarked on what amounted to a test of its democratic strength in 2018 when it elected the former army captain who openly lamented the collapse of the country’s military dictatorship, once threatened to reinstall its rule on the first day of his presidency and sought at every turn to sow doubt in elections.

During his time in office, he did little to soften his bellicosity. He warned of a government “rupture” like the military coup of 1964. If he were to lose his reelection bid, he said, it could only be through fraud, and Brazil would “have worse problems” than the United States did on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters assaulted the U.S. Capitol.

His son Eduardo, a federal congressman, once warned that “there will arrive a moment when the situation will be the same as it was in the 1960s.”

For many Brazilians, Sunday afternoon was the arrival of such a moment, when Bolsonaro supporters laid siege to the three pillars of the federal government — the presidential palace, the supreme court and the congress — bringing democracy here to a sudden standstill. The scenes of smoke and violence were at once both shocking and predictable, the tragic realization of a prophecy Bolsonaro has repeatedly uttered to mobilize his base and terrify his adversaries.

If I’m removed from power, he often hinted, violence will follow.

“Bolsonaro and the Bolsonaro family have for years talked about attacking the supreme court,” said Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of São Paulo who studies the president’s supporters. “Then, over the last year, they have said they wouldn’t respect the electoral results. And in recent months, the insurrectionist rhetoric of Bolsonaro and his family gathered even more force.”

Bolsonaro has said little publicly since his loss to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October. He declined to concede, or to discourage the supporters who have camped outside military installations calling for a coup to keep him in power.

He did ask protesters to stop disrupting commerce by blocking roads, and he condemned violence aimed at overturning the election result. But in an echo of Trump, he skipped Lula’s inauguration on Jan. 1, absconding instead to Florida to stay at the Orlando mansion of an MMA fighter.

In a teary farewell before his departure, he called the election result unfair. Now in his sudden absence, his most radical supporters have carried out his rhetoric to its logical, if violent, conclusion.

“This was expected,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political analyst in Brasília. “This was a ticking time bomb. Bolsonaro’s supporters have decided to repeat the lamentable image for the entire world of the Capitol invasion.”

Bolsonaro condemned the violence in Brasília on Sunday — and found a way to criticize his adversaries.

“Peaceful demonstrations, by law, are part of democracy,” he tweeted, hours after the assault began. “However, depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, were outside of the law.”

From the earliest days of his presidency, he flirted with the most extreme members of his base — a segment of the population that sees such decrepitude in Brazilian society and political structures that it can only be cleansed with the blunt instrument of military force. They view the years of the military dictatorship, which tortured and killed opponents, as a golden era in Brazil — when society was free of corruption and crime.

They found a champion in Bolsonaro, who had hung photos of the regime’s leaders in his congressional office and bemoaned the fact that it hadn’t killed more people when it had the chance. After his rise to power, they repeatedly called on him to clear away all constraints on his authority and bring back military rule. He encouraged and inflamed their protests by attending them.

As his administration accumulated problems — corruption, a crippling coronavirus outbreak that killed nearly 700,000 Brazilians, supreme court investigations into his closest allies — he repeatedly returned to the embrace of his fringe supporters. He threatened the other branches of government and conjured the specter of military intervention if others threatened his grip on power.

“We have the people on our side, and the armed forces are on the side of the people,” he said in March 2020.

And then, he set the stakes.

“The patience of the people has run out,” he declared in September 2021. “I want to tell those who want to make me unelectable in Brazil: Only God removes me from power. There are three options for me: jail, death or victory. And I’m telling the scoundrels, I will never be imprisoned!”

As the election neared, and with polls showing him badly trailing Lula, Bolsonaro again turned to violent rhetoric. He described the election as an epochal struggle between good and evil. He warned that malevolent forces were ready to steal the election from the Brazilian people. He said Lula would bring about the ruin of the country.

“There’s a new type of thief, the ones who want to steal our liberty,” Bolsonaro said in June. “If necessary, we will go to war.”

Then, when the election was over and Lula declared the winner, the endlessly loquacious Bolsonaro did something surprising: He kept his mouth shut. He did little to contest the results of the elections. He made a brief appearance two days after the vote, acknowledging disappointment but declining to concede. His chief of staff then stepped forward to say the president had authorized him to oversee a transition.

Bolsonaro then holed up inside the presidential palace for weeks, reportedly despondent over his loss, before leaving the country as Lula was set to take power.

In that silence, analysts say, the most radical members of Bolsonaro’s base have gained a foothold. They closed down highways. They camped in front of military bases, calling on commanders to stage a coup to keep him in power.

Radical backers of far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro breached and vandalized Brazil’s presidential office building, Congress and Supreme Court on Jan. 8. (Video: AP)

In Brasília, they attacked a police station after the arrest of one of their members. One radicalized bolsonarista, named George Washington de Oliveira, was arrested and accused of planting an armed bomb beneath a bus at the Brasília airport. In a statement to police, he said he wanted to “begin chaos” that would lead to a military intervention.

Through it all, Bolsonaro was largely silent.

“His silence was terrible,” said Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist at the research institute Fundação Getulio Vargas. “It signaled to a part of his followers that are more ideological that he is supporting them, that they are doing what their big boss can’t do.

“His silence was the major spark that lit the protests that are now happening.”