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Foreign capitals fetishize American democracy. It is not uncommon for party leaders and community organizers in other countries to seek out American political strategists to consult on their races, often pitting long-standing rivals based in the United States against each other as opportunities for revenge for the last race. A marked rise in hard-fought primaries followed the global phenomenon that was the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton contest in 2008; if that intra-party race could help Democrats to build a political infrastructure, the argument went, then leaders abroad were eager to ditch the smoke-filled back rooms for data-collection bonanzas of their own. And such an unwavering embrace of liberal democracy—lowercase “d,” to be sure—seemed to help usher in economic prosperity and political stability for much of the post-World War II era.
Here’s the thing: America’s leading intellectual export may also be its most combustible, if not dangerous. After all, there is no quality control for an idea, and once it crosses U.S. borders, Americans ostensibly cede any fail-safe controls for ideas. Democracy can carry great risk if it is sparked in a place with insufficient ventilation.
Just witness the recent developments in Brazil, where more than a few echoes of America’s darkest day for democracy itself rumbled over the weekend. Both Jan. 6, 2021, and Jan. 8, 2023, featured a seeming victory for democracy in an autumn election, only to have it threatened with malice from the losers.
On Sunday, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, often referred to as the Donald Trump of Brazil, stormed Brazil’s National Congress, Supreme Federal Court, and the presidential offices in the hopes of restoring him to power. At the National Congress, so-called “Bolsominions” overtook the police and raised a flag demanding “Intervention,” a call for the military to depose current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who defeated Bolsonaro in October and took back an office he had earlier held on Jan. 1. The rioters even posed for photographs in the legislative chamber in a throwback to Jan. 6 here in the states.
It’s tough to argue that this was impossible to predict. Bolsonaro refused to concede or attend Lula’s inauguration, much as Trump refused to attend Joe Biden’s festivities. Bolsonaro riled up his people with the same fervor as Trump and with the same tactics beset in grievance. A huge basecamp of Bolsonaro supporters had formed in plain sight over the last two months to prepare for the assault, fueled with the false belief that the election had been rigged. It was as if Brazil watched the Jan. 6 mob and copied it with impunity, right down to having its own “shaman.” (Although, to be fair, the “shaman” featured in many photographs from Brazil was not necessarily on site for the actual assault on Sunday but rather was present at an early protest.)
Bolsonaro emulated Trump for years, adopting his burn-it-to-the-ground mentality, his fact-deficit approach to Covid-19, his antagonism toward political rivals and embrace of bullying. Even in criticizing the violence unfolding over the weekend, Bolsonaro issued a tepid statement saying protests are part of democracy, and this weekend was not that dissimilar to those that his critics staged in 2013 and 2017. Steve Bannon and other members of Trump’s inner circle even egged on the protests in Brazil from afar.
The consequences for the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol have mostly hit individual rioters while Trump, to this point at least, has been spared any real consequences; why would Bolsonaro make out any differently? The country’s highest court accused Brasilla’s governor and head of security of ignoring—if not aiding—the attackers, and more than 1,200 individuals were detained. That sure sounds familiar to the findings from a U.S. report on the Jan. 6 events that is sure to be chucked in the garbage now that House Republicans have the gavels and ditched the committee investigating the attacks. At present, Bolsonaro also shares another commonality with Trump: both are calling Florida home these days in what one Palm Beach Post columnist worries may become a launching pad for “wannabe despots” and their comebacks.
It seems like everyone wants a piece of the American political consultancy world. Several of my friends in politics have purchased condos, beach houses, or boats with cash collected from foreign heads of state. But the flaws of American hubris in exporting its liberal democratic world order are manifest. Overreach in Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, and Cuba hampered those nations for decades—some, into today. Afghanistan and Iraq alike have held elections but are hardly the successes once predicted in Washington.
Political intervention has long been a source of diplomatic objection in foreign capitals, until the leaders themselves land a bold-faced name who takes a break from their cable contracts for a few months to advise efforts abroad. Many U.S. officials recognize the folly while in academia only to see a workable win once they’re in policymaking positions. (After all, Japan and West Germany turned out as American victories, right?) So it’s worth considering if America’s most significant—and, for a few, the most profitable—export might also be its most dangerous.
The professionalization of the violent protests with the help from Americans—wittingly or not—changes the game in a major way, and could foretell troubles ahead for other nations where a Trumpist rejection of a democratic loss could come with dire consequences for democracy itself.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com