Popular Organizing is the Only Way to Stop Bolsonarismo

The essence of the phenomenon tied to Jair Bolsonaro’s rise is extreme, and it is a potent force for radicalizing people towards authoritarian and violent positions.

January 12, 2023

Trespassers on the ramp of Brasília's Congress Palace on January 8 (Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / CC BY 4.0)

Sunday, January 8, is a day that will go down in Brazilian history. Ever since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's reelection in October, Bolsonaristas, the loyal wing of Jair Bolsonaro's supporters, have made claims of electoral fraud, and the most fanatical began camps in front of army headquarters to demand military intervention. With Lula's inauguration on January 1, Bolsonaristas scheduled a demonstration a week later. They marched down the large esplanade of government buildings in Brasília and managed to storm into the most important federal buildings: the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the Planalto Palace, which houses the executive powers.

What ensued was the worst display of patrimonial and moral destruction, accompanied by acts of physical violence against people and animals, that the country had ever seen. Understanding it is important to trace the changes in Bolsonarismo, the rearrangement of Brazil's right-wing in this new phase, and the challenges the Lula government faces in asserting itself.

No Such Thing as Moderate Bolsonarismo

October's election was close, with Lula winning by just a couple million votes. In the polarized race, Bolsonaro used every trick up his sleeve to attempt to be reelected. In addition to sparking the biggest wave of fake news yet, Bolsonaro released public funds indiscriminately to try to sway certain sectors of society in his favor. Investigations showed how local authorities coerced citizens dependent on social welfare to vote for Bolsonaro, claiming they would lose their benefits. Employers, especially in agribusiness, were caught devising schemes to suppress voters and telling employees that they would lose their jobs if Lula won. On the day of the second round, the chief of Brazil's Highway Police orchestrated a large operation to stall voting in regions that favored Lula and the Workers' Party.

Lula still won, thanks to an exhausting campaign, waged by the Brazilian Left and Lula's broad front allies, to take back Brazil from the far-right. Yet, the warning was clear: defeating Bolsonaro in the elections did not defeat Bolsonarismo.

As a phenomenon, Bolsonarismo is tied to the rise of Bolsonaro, but its neofascist values around ultra-nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism, racism, and neoliberal policies have become entrenched in a conservative sector of Brazilian society. They use WhatsApp and other social media to spread daily fake news, conspiracy theories, and moral panic over a supposed threat of communism and gender ideology. Fundamentalist evangelical leaders have helped to fuel fears and desires, while a section of Brazil's elite—representing sectors from agribusiness to large retail chains—has contributed to the growth of the Bolsonarista network with infrastructure and funds.

This helps contextualize the actions of not only the few thousand Bolsonaristas who began to block roads and set up camp at military headquarters after Lula’s victory, but also those members who intensified toward extremist acts. In recent weeks, investigations uncovered plans to explode bombs in parts of Brasília ahead of Lula's inauguration. Even some of the most mainstream capitalist Brazilian press networks are now referring to Bolsonaristas in the streets as criminals and terrorists.

Clearly, not everyone who voted for Bolsonaro in 2022 is a neofascist. His voters tend to subscribe to conservative values and anti-leftist sentiment, the latter fueled by many years of depoliticization over the issue of corruption, especially empowered by the Car Wash investigation. The judge on the case was Sergio Moro, who has now been penalized by the Brazilian justice system for judicial overreach in his persecution of Lula. Even though Lula was later cleared of the charges and conviction, the impact remains, and the Bolsonarista base continues to refer to him as “corrupt,” “a criminal,” and “a thief.”

However, although Bolsonaro's supporters may indeed vary from moderate to extremist in their personal actions, the essence of Bolsonarismo is extreme, and it is a potent force for radicalizing people towards authoritarian and violent positions. Only the more fanatical Bolsonaristas will camp in front of army headquarters or deface historical buildings, but support for their actions is widespread among others in Bolsonaro’s general electoral base. In fact, the first poll after January 8 shows that 38 percent of Brazilians found the destruction partially or completely justifiable, whereas 9 percent did not know what to think. While lower than the 49 percent of support for Bolsonaro in the October elections, the new poll suggests that the Bolsonarista narrative of electoral fraud has retained enough strength to soften the outlook on the January 8 attack against Brazil's state institutions. On the question of the election outcome, 56.4 percent recognized Lula’s win as legitimate. Clearly, despite Lula's beautiful inauguration, international recognition, and mainstream media affirmation that the elections were fair, public opinion is still very split.

The destruction on January 8 demonstrates Bolsonarismo's power of mobilization and ideological control if left unchecked. It is a display of force, even if Bolsonaro himself had been admitted to a hospital in Florida and no other authority actually claimed institutional power in a coup attempt. The fact that so much aggression was perpetrated by a couple thousand demonstrators reveals the complicity and omission of authorities and security forces in Brazil, leaving Lula with tough choices to make.

Brazil's Own Capitol Invasion?

There are undeniable connections between the far-right efforts in the United States to keep Donald Trump in power and the development of Bolsonarismo in Brazil. Steve Bannon, known for articulating online narratives to shift minds further and further to the right, continues to feed into the thesis that Brazil’s elections were stolen. Since Sunday, he has posted multiple times that Lula stole the election, going further than Bolsonaro, whose tweets even referred to Lula as the current chief of Brazil's executive powers.

Many Bolsonarista activists likely have no idea who Bannon is, but the “alt-right” techniques around fake news, moral panics, and the infrastructure built to spread far-right information are not isolated phenomena. Bolsonaro began to cast doubt on the electoral process months in advance, and Elon Musk has used his Twitter visibility to raise concern about the free speech of the Brazilian far-right. In Brazil, the role of WhatsApp is undeniable, and Bolsonarista groups vary. While some may contain two hundred fanatical members willing to go all the way and physically demand a military coup, others are made up of a few extreme agitators who relay content to more general subscribers.

January 8 was scheduled as Bolsonaristas’ big, unified protest against Lula. Their banners varied from calls for military intervention to panic over the new minister of the economy, former presidential candidate Fernando Haddad, and his proposal for a unified commercial currency in South America. A portion of demonstrators were already camping in Brasília and had been present during the December 12 demonstration, when Bolsonaristas set vehicles on fire to protest Lula's official certification as the winner of the election. But many others arrived by bus on January 7. While it is clear that not all of them participated directly in the destruction that ensued, there was general support and complicity. Even before the events began, online messages indicated plans to invade and destroy in hopes of setting off their desired intervention. On some occasions, Bolsonaristas used coded messages, but the fact that those breaking everything in sight made videos of their actions and showed their faces with no remorse suggests they had no fear of being identified. On the contrary, many posted photos and selfies with prideful descriptions.

Despite parallels between the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol attack and Brazil's own January 8, there are very important differences to consider. First, the U.S. alt-right has provided support for Bolsonarismo from the beginning, and it is no coincidence that Jair Bolsonaro fled to Florida one day before the end of his presidency. Second, the Brazilian attack took place on a Sunday, so the buildings invaded were empty. This, of course, diminished the deadly potential of the attack, but also empowered attackers to roam freely, especially given the massive failure by police forces to secure the premises.

Finally, unlike in the United States, the attack happened after Lula was already president and fully in charge of the country. This did not seem to make much of a difference to the Bolsonarista attackers, but it meant a completely different scenario in terms of how the federal government would respond to their chaos.

Purging Bolsonarismo Is No Easy Task

The Bolsonaristas had almost three hours to destroy the buildings before security forces began to regain control of the grounds. This delay is explained by the complicity of Bolsonarista authorities in the Federal District, responsible for the security of Brazil's capital, and what can only be seen as the Lula team's faith that such sabotage was not likely. The security secretary of the Federal District, Anderson Torres, who served as Bolsonaro’s minister of justice, was nominated secretary by the governor, Ibaneis Rocha, another Bolsonarista known for ordering violent evictions to make room for real estate investment and speculation. Leftist activists from Brasília could have told Lula these two men were not to be trusted, but the security success at the inauguration a week before may have given Lula's security and justice minister, Flávio Dino, the impression that things were finally under control. Once the destruction began, it seems that the federal authorities tried to mediate with the Federal District government only to realize that federal intervention would be needed to give the forces the necessary orders to act.

Property damage inside the National Congress building after Sunday's invasion (Jefferson Rudy / Agência Senado / CC BY 2.0)

On the other hand, Lula's minister of defense, José Múcio, has been heavily criticized by the Left for saying after the inauguration that he had Bolsonarista friends camped out by military sites and that their demands were not anti-democratic. Múcio was supposed to dialogue with the armed forces to soften the transition to the new government. Bolsonarismo is very tied to an ideological admiration of the armed forces and historical revisionism of the military dictatorship, and the Bolsonaro government integrated thousands of military members into civilian posts. If Múcio's light position towards the Bolsonarista camps was already an indication of split loyalties, after January 8, one might expect his job to be on the line. But it seems that the responsibility is going to fall solely on the shoulders of the local authorities. Supreme Court minister Alexandre de Moares, one of the most hated by the Bolsonaristas, has temporarily removed Governor Rocha over the handling of the attacks and ordered the arrest of security secretary Torres as well as the commander of Brasília's military police.

The damage perpetrated on January 8 is estimated in the millions of dollars and certain things, like pieces of art, cannot be replaced. It is also key to identify who financed the buses and other infrastructure behind the camps and attacks, and journalists and investigators have begun to pinpoint the direction of the money. In one case, one of the attackers arrested is a businessman whose company provided services to the federal government under Bolsonaro, with a contract worth millions. In another case, one owner of buses used to transport the attackers to the capital also had provided services to the ministries of health and defense during the Bolsonaro government. It is likely that more connections, direct or indirect, will arise in time.

As president, Lula was able to intervene during the attacks and bring things under control. His team is working non-stop to restore what was damaged, and he managed to convene Brazil’s 27 governors for a public meeting and display of force. Yet, the arrests and the punishment of some of the authorities involved will not be enough to stop Bolsonaristas’ thirst for disrupting the government and demanding a coup d'etat. It is essential that those who have been funding the Bolsonarista network be identified and indicted. But it is also crucial to recognize that part of this network is within the state institutions themselves. There are still thousands of military personnel within government institutions, including in the security field, and Lula cannot afford to have a minister of defense who is incapable of bringing the armed forces within full allegiance.

Bolsonarismo is everywhere, and fighting it demands strong organizing by the government and by the Left. Recently, former president Dilma Rousseff, who was removed in a parliamentary coup in 2016, stated that there is no democracy without popular organizing. After the attacks, the Left called people to the streets against the destruction and the new coup attempt. With chants of "no amnesty," the crowds called on the government to properly prosecute both the attackers and Bolsonaro, who already faces accusations of many crimes. The slogan was a clear reference to the fact that Brazil is still reaping the negative impacts of having granted amnesty to the military officers who orchestrated the 1964 coup and tortured the opposition.

Pro-democracy mobilization must be permanent to stave off the far-right—especially considering that Bolsonaristas are already planning other actions—and to pressure the government to enact the policies needed to truly improve the lives of Brazilians. Delivery workers, for example, are due to strike on January 25, and some of Lula's support base took to the internet to complain about the work stoppage as if it would create problems for Lula. This kind of perspective sees leftist political power as solely institutional and loses sight of the potential for class solidarity and having a government that builds strength from mobilization. It is up to the new government to teach people again about the value of democratic organizing to demand rights and benefits so that, with time, these victories can help to legitimize Lula's mandate and finally isolate and take away the power of Bolsonarismo.

Sabrina Fernandes is a Brazilian sociologist and postdoctoral fellow with CALAS at the University of Guadalajara. She is the coordinator of Tese Onze, a radical left education project in Brazil, and alumna of the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

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