Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and it's good to have you with us.
On Sunday, in Brazil's capital Brasilia, thousands of far-right supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro attacked the nation's highest seats of power to protest what they falsely claimed was a stolen election. Cloaked in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, some wearing the national soccer team's jersey, the so-called Bolsonaroisters broke through police barriers, used metal barricades to break windows, and then stormed into the buildings which housed Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace.
Once they gained access, protestors vandalized the buildings, ransacking furniture and art, some reportedly stole hard drives, documents, and weapons. They set fire to a carpet in the Congress building, activating the sprinkler system and flooding the floors. Several journalists and police officers were reportedly attacked along the way and some protestors live-streamed their crimes throughout the entire incident.
This all happened just a week after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's inauguration, who unceded Bolsonaro in elections held in October. As of Monday, at least 1,200 protestors have reportedly been detained and in the aftermath, Bolsonaro who has yet to concede defeat in the election tried to distance himself from the protests. Tweeting, "Peaceful demonstrations in the form of the law are part of democracy."
However, depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, escaped the rule. Bolsonaro was reportedly hospitalized in Florida yesterday with his wife citing abdominal discomfort. Brazil's duly elected President Lula, meanwhile pointed blame to Bolsonaro calling protestors, vandals and fascists and he vowed accountability.
Speaker: We're going to find the financiers and they will pay with the force of the law for this irresponsible, undemocratic gesture.
Speaker: This gesture of vandals and fascists
Melissa Harris-Perry: With me now is Yascha Mounk Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, and author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. Thanks for being here, Yascha.
Yascha Mounk: Of course, it's my pleasure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say this feels eerily similar to what happened two years ago at the US Capitol, are they connected in any way?
Yascha Mounk: They are connected. That's an observation that a lot of people in the United States have made but also a number of people in Brazil. Tabata Amaral, a young congresswoman in Brazil said on Instagram as the events were going on that Brazil had a number of years to learn from the United States to see the same danger and prepare itself for it and that tragically had failed to do that. In some pieces, at some moments it nearly felt like Brazilian protestors were cosplaying at being American insurrectionists.
The iconography of the images was so similar. There is for one important difference, which is that the insurrectionists in the United States never had a realistic plan for a coup, but they did have a very specific purpose. They were deliberately trying to disrupt the certification of the election that was going on in Congress at the time. Of course, Joe Biden had been legitimately elected but he had not yet taken power. All of this was taking place before his inauguration.
As you pointed out in the intro, that was different in Brazil. Lula has already been inaugurated as president on January 1st, Congress was frankly not in session in Brazil, the Supreme Court which was ransacked, was not in session. Lula himself was many hundreds of miles away. The whole proceeding had an even more absurdist feel because it lacked even that specific purpose which had motivated the attack on the Capitol in the United States
Melissa Harris-Perry: Without that specific purpose, and that language of cosplay is really a fascinating one. Does that suggest to you that this is simply performative or that there is something more insidious around the question of governance and the threat to democracy that underlies it?
Yascha Mounk: Some people have called this a coup d'état, it feels more like a tantrum. It shows that there is a significant portion of the Brazilian population, a country that is very polarized, very divided at least as much as the United States that does not see Lula as the legitimately elected president and is going to continue to resist his rule in any way they can. That poses an immediate danger, as we saw on Sunday, with these horrific images of the heart of democracy being attacked, being disrespected in that way.
The ultimate danger, both from the United States and in Brazil and in other democracies that are under strain, is not from those kinds of mass violent attacks or protests. It comes from the ballot box. One thing that I know as a scholar of populism around the world is that these populist movements often prove to have surprising longevity. In countries from Italy to Thailand to Peru, populist movements have been able to retain a very strong foothold in the political system and sometimes to surge back and to win back political power even after they lose democratic elections.
To me, what's most important about the events on Sunday is the omen for what could happen in Brazil if Lula's government happens to make any missteps, if there's another corruption scandal, or simply if Lula gets unlucky and suffers a serious economic crisis, then we could see Bolsonaro or perhaps one of his sons or perhaps some other far-right demagogue take a successful run of a presidency in five years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yascha, I want to bring in another voice to join our conversation right now. Joining us from Brazil is Mac Margolis. He's a contributing columnist focusing on Brazil and Latin America for The Washington Post and he's the author of the Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier. Mac, thanks for being here.
Mac Margolis: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've been hearing my conversation here with Yascha. I want to just give you an opportunity first to weigh in on this question of the underlying emotions or political motivations behind what Yascha described in part as feeling almost more like a tantrum.
Mac Margolis: I heard that and I was rolling that word around in my head. It's a very compelling image. Frankly, for many weeks that's the way it looked to me and to many people here in Brazil. These people were eccentric. They wrapped themselves in the Brazilian flag and the yellow and green soccer jersey. They prayed to the armed forces. They prayed for divine intervention, even flashing their cell phone lights to the heavens as if beseeching some sort of intervention. The fact is that helped people underestimate these crowds. The fact is these crowds, which became mobs streamed into Brasilia the capital over weeks.
They came on convoys of buses. Someone paid for those buses. They set up encampments in the Brazilian capital, which were very real well structured. They had canteens and people supplying toilet paper and hot meals. This went on for weeks. These were not just yahoos throwing a hissy fit about the outcome of an election that they didn't like as exotic as they looked and as farfetched as their claims would be. In fact, opposed they numbered in the thousands by the end. When the police escorted them, they didn't impede them.
They escorted them from their encampments to the three headquarters of the Brazilian government. They quickly became rabble. There was very much like the January 6th uprising in Washington. The security was incredibly thin. They had been encouraged by the armed forces who either tacitly or reserve officers generals coming out and giving rousing speeches to these protestors. This has a little more sinister tanner than it might have looked at first.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mac, how has Lula's government responded?
Mac Margolis: Lulu's government has responded in probably the only way it could. They were over-cautious. In fact Lula I think his government in a way was sleepwalking into this crisis. His own defense minister was trying to placate the armed forces which was worried about Lula's takeover and they're not particularly fond of him as a political figure although he had really no problems in his relationship with the armed forces when he ruled in Brazil from 2003 to 2010.
There was a real attempt to downplay the crisis and his defense minister had said these are democratic protestors. They are orderly. All of a sudden, neither the Lula government nor the city government of Brasilia, the federal district in Brazil were prepared. They had skeleton crews. Now, what does this mean I guess is your question for Lula going forward, right? A big question. In the first moment, this has played to his favor.
He has won incredible sympathy from around the country. 27 governors; all the Brazilian governors flew into Brasilia yesterday for a meeting and pledged support to him. Surveys have shown the overwhelming rejection of these actions by the mob. However, this is the vibe of the moment. As Yascha was saying, Brazil is an incredibly divided country as are so many countries in the region where populism has taken hold.
It won't take much for just an accident or a miscalculation or bundling which has happened. Lula sits stride a very unwieldy coalition that stretches from the hard left to the center-right and he's having a lot of trouble keeping them on message.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to talk more about the attack on Brazil's capital when we return. It's The Takeaway. I'm talking with Yascha Mounk and Mac Margolis about the attack on Brazil's capital by thousands of protestors on Sunday who falsely claim that the election last October was stolen from former President Jair Bolsonaro. Yascha, I want to come to where Mac brought us about the fragility. Sitting a stride this moment that with the slightest piece could be undone.
You wrote in a recent Atlantic article you warned about populous leaders being able to hold on to a certain presence in the political system even when they're out of power. Talk to me about Bolsonaro and his potential to be this continuing staying presence.
Yascha Mounk: Let's take a step back if we go to 2015, 2016 when we all started to worry about the rise of these populist politicians from the United States and around the world. There was this assumption. It's difficult to remember now that there would never be able to hold power. There was a lot of speculation in the American media that if Donald Trump really got elected he would resign after a few months because he just wouldn't be able to govern.
That turned out to be wrong and in fact, research shows that these kinds of populist governments often stay in power for much longer than non-populist governments. Now, that brings us to a piece of very good news which is that it's actually surprising and in my opinion heartening that both Brazil and the United States managed to throw these governments out of office after their first term through democratic means.
That is not what had happened in countries like Hungary and Turkey and Venezuela.
That is a really big and heartening success but there's a big asterisk to this because rather than having seen these overwhelming victories in which a huge majority of the population rejected Trump in the United States and Bolsonaro in Brazil, we saw very narrow electoral victories. In the Brazilian case, Lula got about 51% of the vote, and Bolsonaro about 49% of the vote.
We see that a few percentages of the vote have shifted but these leaders retain this very deep base of support. In Brazil, it's a regionally divided country between the richer regions in the south and the poor regions in the north. It is increasingly a culturally and religiously divided country. One of the amazing transformations of the country is that 20 or 30 years ago you would afford of it as one of the most Catholic nations in the world.
Now about 40% of its population is evangelical but maybe a majority of evangelical Christians in Brazil within the coming years that has changed its culture significantly. Bolsonaro and these right-wing forces have strong support in the richer regions of Brazil, in the traditional Brazilian upper class but also increasingly among a multiracial coalition of DP religious people often [inaudible 00:15:47] often in the poorer parts of Brazil as well.
That coalition is going to wait for the next figurehead to oppose Lula whom they mistrust on ideological grounds and whom they also mistrust because of the corruption scandals of his governments in the past. We are going to see whether it's Bolsonaro, whether it's one of his sons, whether it's some other figure that can reassemble that coalition. If that figure is somebody who has less baggage than Bolsonaro, somebody who perhaps is a little bit ruder than Bolsonaro that coalition will pose a significant electoral challenge to Lula in the next elections.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mac, I want to bring you in here as well to think about not only the population but more specifically about police and security forces which we know have often been critical to the question of whether or not democracies remain stable. What do we know about those loyalties during and after this event?
Mac Margolis: One of the hallmarks of the Bolsonaro government over the last four years in fact his whole career as a politician has been his appeal to men and women in uniform. He spent some time in the army but most of his time in Congress being a union representative if you will to people in uniform mostly the mid-level officers. He left the army under a cloud. He was called a bad soldier by the former Brazilian General Geisel but he won the sympathies of the police.
He will always hope to take hold of the federal police and he put more army officers active and retired in government jobs than any government before him perhaps even more than the military regime. I think the elephant in the room here for Brazil is the armed forces which would've been at the center of the political conversation even if they weren't overtly involved in politics. They came back in full force under Bolsonaro and they're reluctant to leave the scene I believe so that's going to be a problem going forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mac, what do you make of Bolsonaro taking refuge in Florida and what this may mean in terms of the possibility of extradition or simply setting a precedent?
Mac Margolis: I guess there's an even debate on how he entered the country whether it was with a diplomatic visa. He entered the US I think a day before his term was to expire. There's a whole lot of speculation of why he went and what he's doing there. I think the simplest one is that his distaste for his successor Lula whom he does not recognize and he did not want to be on hand to pass the presidential sash.
He wanted to check out early if you will essentially abdicating his government. The other is maybe more existential. I think he has genuine fears of being jailed even if only temporarily because of the many complaints that have been filed against him. He had something like 150 impeachments in Congress waiting for him. Maybe it's a bit of a safe house and a bit of just some sanitary distance if you will from Lula and his government and his moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mac Margolis is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier Yascha Mounk, is the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure. Thank you both for joining us.
Yascha Mounk: Thank you so much.
Mac Margolis: Thank you.
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