What Bolsonaro's loss means for the broader fight against right-wing authoritarianism
It's great news for democracy and for the climate.
By Thor Benson
Once seen as Brazil’s Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro followed Trump’s footsteps by getting rejected by voters after just one term in office. There was much concern that Bolsonaro might pull a Trump and try to install himself in office despite his loss last Sunday, but he’s reportedly authorized his staff to start preparing for his departure, even if he still hasn’t explicitly conceded.
The incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has promised to protect the Amazon rainforest after Boslonaro did an incredible amount of damage to it, and move the country to the left in multiple other ways. This election was a victory for both democracy and the fight against climate change. As the US grapples with both of those hugely important issues, there are some broader lessons to be learned from the result.
I decided to talk to Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Washington Post who recently wrote about Brazil’s presidential election, about what we can take away from Boslonaro’s defeat heading into next week’s high stakes midterm elections, which could return Trump’s party to power in one or both chambers of Congress.
“Unfortunately, the American right doesn’t seem to be as committed to democracy as elites in Brazil,” Sargent said, noting at another point that Bolsonaro might have fought harder to overturn his loss “if Donald Trump had been reelected as president of the United States.”
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
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It looks like Bolsonaro is going to go quietly. Does that surprise you?
Sort of and sort of not. It was absolutely reasonable for people like Bernie Sanders and many others to fear that Bolsonaro might try to pull off a coup. He was sending all kinds of signals to that effect. Civil society in Brazil was loudly warning that this could happen. It’s one of the reasons Bernie Sanders put out his resolution in the Senate declaring that the US wouldn’t recognize an illegitimate government after the election.
I think they all did the right things in planning for the worst. It’s definitely a much better outcome than it otherwise would have been, but it’s worth noting this might have not been as easy if Donald Trump had been reelected as president of the United States. That’s a point that Ryan Cooper has made effectively.
We’re obviously worried about our own democracy. Do you think there are lessons we can learn from this?
Unfortunately, the American right doesn’t seem to be as committed to democracy as elites in Brazil.
Right now, scores and scores of Republicans are running for positions of control over elections across the country on an implicit and sometimes explicit promise to be willing to subvert future election losses. Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, is still out there insisting that he actually won and making adherence to this lie a loyalty test among Republicans.
Brazil makes voting compulsory. Do you think that’s helpful when it comes to defending democracy?
I think the more important lesson to be drawn might be that if we had direct elections of presidents, you’d avoid some of the pitfalls we face. In 2020, the electoral college made the race seem much closer than it actually was if you take the popular vote as your metric. To me, that’s the most important lesson.
This election was also important when it comes to fighting climate change. How big of a deal do you think this is in that regard?
You need to look at the Brazilian election in a larger, global context. Bolsonaro had been deforesting the Amazon at a furious rate. Lula is coming in having promised to reverse Bolsonaro’s policies and to redouble efforts on climate. One of his first acts as president-elect was to let it be known that he’s attending the upcoming UN climate conference, which I think is meant to send a powerful signal to the world that Brazil is going to try and really step up in a way that it didn’t under Bolsonaro.
What happens in the Amazon could have a palpable effect on our climate future. That all said, I think if you look at it in this larger context, it becomes even more interesting. In the United States, Congress just passed the biggest response to climate change ever. In Europe, many of the Western allies who are rallying behind Ukraine have rebuffed Vladimir Putin’s efforts to use energy as a weapon against them, and the European Union has responded by vowing to redouble its efforts to transition to a clean energy future.
When you take those three things: A new direction for the Amazon, the US Congress rebuffing its own home-grown climate denialist and authoritarian movement to pass a huge response on climate change, and the western alliance rebuffing Putin’s energy blackmail, then you’ve got the makings of real progress.
Based on what we’ve seen in the polls in America, it seems like people are mostly worried about economic issues and not so much bigger, long-term ones like the future of democracy and climate change. Do you think there’s a way for us to get out the message that people need to care more about those things?
I think, probably, the future of democracy unfortunately ranks even lower on people’s list of concerns than climate change. What happened with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was a bit of a sea change in how the climate movement approaches the politics of this long-term battle. Instead of looking to place a price on carbon, it incentivizes the transition to clean energy, and that seemed to enable a political breakthrough that had eluded the US for a very long time.
That transition in how the climate movement approaches the politics of this struggle shows how a majority might get behind actually doing something ambitious. What you might end up seeing is people starting to see economic opportunity in the transition to green energy and starting to see green energy manufacturing as the manufacturing jobs of the future.
Democracy is a little tougher. People just don’t seem to accept that the system is under immense strain and one party is really radicalizing against democracy in a way that the other simply isn’t. I’m unfortunately a bit more pessimistic on the democracy front than I am on climate.
Aaron’s clip room
There is no bottom
Trump held a rally Thursday evening in Sioux City, Iowa. For the most part it was quite dull. I concluded my Twitter thread about it by noting that aside from adding QAnon music to the end of his speeches, Trump’s 2022 rallies are pretty much just old grievances and recycled material. He’s not generating a lot of news on the stump these days.
But one clip did stand out.
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