Bolsonaro, Trump, and Authoritarian Learning
Brazil just had its own version of January 6th. This was no accident or coincidence—and it teaches us about how authoritarian networks spread despotic chaos, all while sharing tactics and strategies.
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You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to deduce the parallels between January 6th in Washington and the storming of government buildings in Brazil yesterday.
Two defeated presidents who refuse to accept reality; two sets of lies aimed at discrediting elections they lost; two violent mobs on a doomed quest to put a loser in power. The similarities even extended to rioters in each mob stealing furniture from the government buildings they stormed, as though they were collecting trophies.
This tale of two insurrections is no coincidence. Instead, it’s a classic case of what political scientists refer to as “authoritarian learning,” the diffusion of autocratic tactics across borders. Part of the explanation lies in copycat dynamics, in which a high-profile effort to overturn an election is likely to spur others to do the same. But part of the explanation lies with a more insidious strategy, in which Trump’s political advisers actively sought to replicate January 6th in Brasilia.
What is “Authoritarian Learning?”
Authoritarian movements learn from one another. Populist demagogues and despots pay attention to their peers, because they share similar problems. To stay in power, they must muzzle or attack the press, neutralize judges and the rule of law, weaken or eliminate political opponents, rig or discredit elections, and find innovative strategies to cheat, lie, and steal. As a result, they have their political antennae tuned to regimes and politicians most similar to themselves, hoping to glean a bit of wisdom from another authoritarian playbook.
But, believe it or not, they also directly share information with each other, too. It’s not quite the case that there are dictator conferences in which people give PowerPoint presentations about “How to Crush Protests” or “Torture: When To Use It,” but that’s not that far off from reality.
There’s a long history of dictators getting together and swapping strategies, including a notable summit in 1958, in which Mao Zedong gracefully nattered away in the deep end of a pool while the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, who couldn’t swim, wore water wings in the shallow end. Quite the mental image.
There are more formal venues for authoritarian learning, too, including international organizations that only have autocracies as members.
In one area that I’ve long studied—election rigging—it’s often the case that you see a successful tactic cascade across vast distances, as a dictator who gets away with a winning strategy becomes the forerunner for everyone else. They have even developed fake election monitoring organizations, known as “zombie monitors,” where they rubber-stamp each other’s elections to confuse international watchers.
But, as with January 6th, even the unsuccessful tactics can spread.
How Did Bolsonaro Learn from Trump?
It's no secret that there’s a mutual admiration between Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, but the links between their closest advisers is less well known.
Steve Bannon, the disgraced former chief strategist Trump’s White House, and Jason Miller, the disgraced former spokesperson for Trump, both have strong links to Bolsonaro’s political movement.
In fact, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, even had a front row seat to January 6th; he was in Washington for the insurrection, a prime vantage point to learn some lessons on behalf of his Dad. On the wall in his office, Eduardo has framed a printed off copy of his own Wikipedia page, which Trump signed for him. “Eduardo, you are great. Big statement on your wonderful father will be coming soon — best wishes, Donald.”
Late last year, Eduardo met directly with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, spoke with Bannon by phone (while Bannon was advising another election denier, the now-defeated gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake of Arizona) and had lunch with Miller.
For the last several months, Bannon has devoted significant chunks of his incendiary podcast to discrediting Brazil’s elections, using nearly identical rhetoric that he deployed in advance of January 6th, 2021.
A guest on Bannon’s show, Matthew Tyrmand, suggested the use of military force in Brazil to put Bolsonaro back in power. Protesters in Brazil have held signs that say “Brazilian Spring,” a term that Bannon coined to suggest that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian thugs were carrying the torch of pro-democracy protesters in places like Tunisia during the Arab Spring. Yesterday, Bannon referred to the mob seeking to overturn the election in Brazil as “freedom fighters.”
Now, it is true that Trump certainly didn’t invent the art of storming government buildings, which has long been a hallmark of dysfunctional regimes during political crises throughout history, so it’s possible that Brazil would have experienced the dying violent gasps of Bolsonaro’s regime regardless.
And, of course, there are key differences between the two events, as there always are during flashes of authoritarian learning. Similar tactics unfold differently in new contexts. Most importantly, January 6th occurred while Trump was still president, whereas Bolsonaro is hunkered down in Florida, where he’s been spotted wandering around grocery stores (though presumably still involved in plenty of strategic conversations with operatives in Brazil and the United States alike).
Additionally, while the January 6th protesters mostly went home or went to Happy Hour at Applebees after the insurrection, many of Brazil’s insurrectionists were immediately arrested.
Authoritarian Networks Must Be Disrupted
But it would be a mistake to think that the striking similarities between January 6th in Washington and January 8th in Brazil were produced by chance. There are networks of authoritarian political movements across the globe, populated by like-minded individuals, who will eagerly smash democracy in pursuit of seizing or retaining power.
They work together.
For the last several decades, democracies have been under attack in every political region of the world. We too often make the mistake as seeing the erosion of democracy and the resurgence of autocracy as separate, rather than connected events.
But until we disrupt these networks—and hold the architects of January 6th accountable so they can no longer spread their authoritarian chaos—then we should expect countries beyond Brazil to mimic Trump’s playbook.
We’re stuck with a startling fact: the world’s most powerful democracy has become an exporter of autocratic innovation.
In his farewell speech, Ronald Reagan spoke of America as a “shining city upon a hill,” a beacon of democracy that could guide the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Bolsonaro was guided by America—by Trump’s mob, following our darkest moment in recent history, rather than our brightest.
For now, Brazil and the United States are hanging on as fragile democracies. But, at some point, a Trumpian copycat elsewhere in the world is going to successfully retain power or topple a government after taking a page from the autocrat’s playbook.
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Excellent article. Thank you!
Brian, good thoughts on these linkages between authoritarian regimes. In so many ways this is so obvious. Yet, most in the US do not see or think about those linkages and exchanges of information be they formal or informal. But this kind of information transfer happens much easier and faster in a world of 24 hour news cycles, social media, and increasing international reach of all the above. This makes it easier to spread disinformation and lies to suit the need.
In economics we call these network externalities in that when all people use the same platforms, it makes it easier to work together and transfer information more easily. Hence the reason the prevalence of windows software and applications. Normally we think of these as positive.
But in this case, they are negative...similar platforms make it easier to do harm. Think of it as a “political virus” infecting the software and hardware platform of news and social media.
A solution is a set of continuous patches. In this case changing the rules of the game to prevent or deter the spread of disinformation, gerrymandering, and even changes to legislative bodies such as the Senate being tilted toward a minority of the population in the US. But sometimes governments move slow...too slow to keep up.
In the meantime, sunshine, data, facts, are the best disinfectant we have to these problems. But we are fighting an asymmetric battle in this regard. Those arguing the data and facts need to use the same propaganda techniques used by those spreading disinformation and authoritarian ideas. Fighting fire with fire as it were. But that said seems unwilling to go down that road for reasons I cannot comprehend. That needs to change before it is too late.