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Jair Bolsonaro’s Plan to Burn Brazil to the Ground

The authoritarian demagogue, who is lagging in polls ahead of October’s election, has been laying the groundwork for a threat to democracy that could make January 6 look tame.

Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Liberal Party national convention
Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Liberal Party national convention on July 24 in Rio de Janeiro.

Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right extremist who has governed Brazil since 2018, on Sunday officially accepted his party’s nomination for president—and made some of his most menacing comments yet about the potential for chaos and even mass violence if he were to lose reelection later this year. “The army is on our side,” he told his supporters in Rio de Janeiro, where he launched his political career as a city councilman from 1989 to 1991. “It’s an army that doesn’t accept corruption, doesn’t accept fraud. This is an army that wants transparency.” He also pleaded for a show of force from his supporters on September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day. “We are the majority,” he declared, “we are good, and we are willing to fight for freedom and homeland. I call on you all now to take to the streets on the seventh of September for the last time. Let’s take to the streets for the last time.”

One can only wonder what he meant by “the last time,” but it’s just the latest implicit threat from a leader with an unfathomably bleak record. He has presided over one of the world’s worst responses to Covid-19, a staggering assault on the Amazon rain forest and its inhabitants, corruption allegation after allegation, and an escalation of political violence that is difficult to disentangle from his own belligerent rhetoric. He has consistently threatened Brazil’s democratic institutions, constructed in the late 1980s after two decades of military dictatorship. He has not led a single poll taken this year, trailing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party by double digits.

And yet Bolsonaro remains a contender. This fall, Latin America’s largest nation faces the prospect of either a Bolsonaro victory (as of this moment, an unlikely scenario) or a dramatic Bolsonaro meltdown in the face of defeat (a near certainty). While the U.S. midterm elections will present an important test for the ability of liberals in power to withstand a conservative tidal wave that could presage the return of Donald Trump, no genuinely democratic system in the world faces the kind of danger Brazil does this year as voters decide whether to cast Bolsonaro from power—and, to its credit, the Biden administration seems to realize as much. “Credible deterrence demands military and security forces that are ready, capable, and under firm civilian control,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday in Brasília ahead of bilateral talks. “The more we deepen our democracies, the more we deepen our security.” Furthermore, last week, the U.S. Embassy in Brazil called the country’s voting system a “model for the world,” a clear signal to Bolsonaro that Washington does not accept Bolsonaro’s hysterical alarmism.

Bolsonaro is all but announcing his intentions to subvert Brazilian democracy in real time, and has resorted to openly debasing his own country in the eyes of the world in the hopes that there will be real questions about who won in October. On July 18, he convened foreign diplomats stationed in Brazil and expounded on absurd and already debunked conspiracy theories about vulnerabilities in Brazil’s voting system. The president claims, without evidence, that he would have won the 2018 election more easily if not for a Russian hack. But the federal agency tasked with overseeing elections has shown that while the hackers broke into the system in 2018 to “change information about candidates and parties for one municipal election that year,” as André Spigariol and Jack Nicas wrote in The New York Times,they did not change votes or interfere with the electronic voting machines, which are not connected to the internet.” In Brazil, like the United States, the idea that the voting system is routinely manipulated by corrupt officials and unscrupulous partisans has become a delusion of the febrile right-wing hive mind. Voter fraud is simply not a real problem in either country, which doesn’t mean politicians intent on holding onto power at all costs won’t make it an issue.

Bolsonaro is frantically kicking up dust to throw a race that does not currently favor him into disarray. Maybe then he can reach into the fray and salvage something that works to his political advantage. This strategy has produced actual violence and could well lead to more. Earlier this month, Marcelo Arruda, a member of the Workers’ Party who had run for local office in southern Brazil, was celebrating his fiftieth birthday with family and friends. The theme of the party was Lula and the Workers’ Party, whose colors and iconography were splashed across banners, balloons, and cake. Arruda’s celebration reportedly was brought to a tragic end by an armed Bolsonaro supporter. The alleged shooter, a penal officer, drove by the party with his wife and infant child in the car, shouting curses at the partygoers, and said he was going to return with a gun and kill everyone. Arruda, a local law enforcement officer, retrieved his own gun in case the man came back. The man did, shooting Arruda in the leg and back. Arruda managed to fire at his assailant five times, likely saving the lives of other partygoers, then died.

Bolsonaro has spent years dismissing opponents in violent terms, describing the stakes of Brazilian politics as life and death, good versus evil. Most infamously, he declared on the campaign trail in 2018 that he and his followers would “machine-gun the petralhada,” a pejorative nickname for Workers’ Party supporters. To the cheers of his fan base, he brandished a large camera tripod like a firearm. Lula expressed solidarity with the families of Arruda and his killer, calling “for understanding and solidarity with the relatives of [the shooter], who lost a father and a husband to hate speech stimulated by an irresponsible president.” Bolsonaro reached out to Arruda’s brother—reportedly a Bolsonaro supporter—to come to Brasília to assert that the president had no role in the sad episode.

The argument that Bolsonaro’s martial language and his drive to make it easier for Brazilians to purchase and carry guns is exacting a bloody toll seems to have taken hold among much of the electorate. According to the most recent poll, Lula leads Bolsonaro among male voters by 42 percent to 39 percent. Among women, the difference is even more striking—46 percent to 24 percent. Bolsonaro’s campaign has made moves to appeal to women voters. First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, a telegenic evangelical who is almost three decades younger than her husband but has not played a major role in the government’s public relations, figured prominently in Sunday’s ceremony.

The prospect of further violence cannot be discounted. In 2021, Bolsonaro urged his supporters to publicly challenge the Supreme Court, a show of strength that largely fell flat. But his plea on Sunday for supporters to take to the streets for “the last time” may inspire a more forceful response from them, now that his grip on power appears seriously in doubt. (That, after all, is precisely what happened with Trump’s supporters on January 6, 2021.) And Bolsonaro is right, to a point, that the army is on his side: He has stuffed his administration with men in uniform who have so far proved willing to back his authoritarian designs.

Crucially, however, the active-duty heads of every military branch insist they will not support anything other than the proper constitutional order. Perhaps the most immediate threat comes from lower-level military police types of the kind who allegedly took the life of Marcelo Arruda. Bolsonaro retains a strong core of support among the law-and-order crowd, a segment of the population more likely than most to be armed in a country where, compared to the U.S., it is still relatively difficult to purchase guns. One can only hope that the military and the police stay out of the election and that Bolsonaro’s fate is the same as Trump’s: to crawl unceremoniously out of the presidential palace and await possible criminal indictments.