Barack Obama didn’t speak out about the recent coup in Brazil. The State Department was sure that Brazil’s democratic “institutions” were resilient enough to withstand the “legal” ouster of President Dilma Rousseff. “The Brazilian Senate, in accordance with Brazil’s constitutional framework, has voted to remove President Rousseff from office,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We’re confident that we will continue the strong bilateral relationship that exists between our two countries as the two largest democracies and economies in the hemisphere.”
Likewise, in 2012, Obama didn’t join with other Latin American countries to denounce a similar “soft,” or constitutional, coup—that is, the overthrow of a democratically elected government through formally legal or procedural mechanisms, such as impeachment proceedings—in Paraguay, which removed another center-leftist from power. Obama’s State Department, then run by Hillary Clinton, only urged that “democratic principles” be respected. In Honduras in 2009, after a few initial criticisms of yet another constitutional coup, Obama largely ceded the issue to Secretary Clinton, who worked to legitimize Honduras’s new regime.
In all three cases, center-left governments, representing center-left majority coalitions, were driven out by neoliberal authoritarians, using dubious legal procedures validated by the Obama administration. In the case of Honduras, one of the reasons Obama and Clinton moved to support the coup government was to appease domestic conservatives: Right-wing noise-makers were using the White House’s initial qualms about the coup to shore up a narrative that equated Obama with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, while Clinton bowed down before Senate Republicans, such as South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Florida’s George Lemieux, who threatened to block key State Department appointments and appropriations were the department to label events in Honduras a “coup.”
So the irony is bitter. After helping normalize the transition to neoliberal authoritarian rule abroad, Obama, in the last weeks of his presidency, now finds himself doing the same at home. The terms he has used to describe the impending Trump presidency are pretty much exactly the same terms his State Department just used to condone Brazil’s putsch: the resiliency of democratic institutions… the need to accept the ups and downs of electoral competition… the rule of law… and so on. On Brazil’s coup, a White House spokesperson said that Obama “has faith in the capabilities of the democratic institutions of Brazil to hold up against political turbulence.” “That’s the way politics work sometimes,” said Obama, certifying the legitimacy of Trump’s election (which, considering the Electoral College, voter suppression, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, is as genuine an expression of democratic will as was the overthrow of Brazil’s Rousseff or Honduras’s Manuel Zelaya).