Trumpism is a domestic phenomenon. But it is aligned with a global movement. The cult of personality that has developed around Donald Trump and transformed the Republican Party into an antidemocratic cabal that rejects election results and embraces conspiracy theories is closely linked with neofascist, nationalist, and extreme right-wing movements in Europe and Latin America. And nowhere has that linkage been more pronounced than in Republican enthusiasm for the authoritarian strongman Jair Messias Bolsonaro, whose viciously bigoted, conspiratorial, and destructive tenure as president of Brazil has echoed the worst of Trump’s tenure as president of the United States.
But Bolsonaro lost his reelection bid on Sunday, in voting that saw a clear majority win for leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. If Trump were still in the White House—and taking advice from Steve Bannon, his counselor on international right-wing movements—the reaction of the United States to Bolsonaro’s defeat would undoubtedly have been ugly, and very probably encouraging to antidemocratic forces in Brazil and globally. But Trump’s not the president anymore. Joe Biden is. And Biden immediately recognized Brazil’s new president as the victor in a “free, fair and credible” election.
That was an essential move by the United States, which has a bitter history of taking the wrong side as democratic movements of the left have risen in Latin America. On Sunday, however, Biden signaled as soon as the election results were announced that he would work closely with Lula as the elected leader of a country with the largest economy in South America and the third-largest economy in the Western Hemisphere.
That was a clear rebuke to Bolsonaro, who refused to concede on Sunday night. It was also a rebuke to the authoritarian worldview that has been embraced by Trump, Bolsonaro, and right-wing heroes of the American right such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
Bolsonaro ran for reelection this year in the worst of ways, suggesting throughout the campaign that he—and his friends in the military—could reject results that did not favor the president and his allies. Trump’s reaction, as the former president of the United States and a highly influential figure with the emerging global coalition of extreme right-wing parties, was to issue a full-throated endorsement of a candidate who even The Wall Street Journal acknowledges “has been labeled a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a fascist, an advocate of torture and an aspiring dictator.”
“To the people of Brazil, you have a great opportunity to reelect a fantastic leader, a fantastic man, one of the great presidents of any country in the world. President Bolsonaro,” declared Trump in a video circulated by the Bolsonaro campaign. “He’s done an absolutely incredible job with your economy, with your country. He is respected by everybody all throughout the world. So I strongly endorse President Bolsonaro. He will be your leader for hopefully a long time. He is taking your country to great heights and again, your country is now respected because of him all over the world. So go out and vote for Bolsonaro.”
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Bannon, who has organized The Movement, a global coalition of right-wing parties that “support populist nationalism and reject the influence of globalism,” announced before Sunday’s election is Brazil that the defeat of Bolsonaro was “mathematically impossible.”
Bannon was wrong.
Bolsonaro lost by more than 2 million votes in an election that saw a broad coalition of Brazilians support Lula, a veteran trade union leader and left-wing political figure who campaigned on an economic, social, racial, environmental justice platform. As president-elect, Lula declared, “The majority of the Brazilian people have made it clear that they want more democracy, not less. They want more and not less social inclusion and opportunities for all. They want more and not less respect and understanding among Brazilians. In short, they want more and not less freedom, equality, and fraternity in our country.”
The election of Lula, who was jailed and denied an opportunity to run in the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro to power, was part of a regional turn to the left—precisely what Trump and Bannon and many other conservatives in the US fear. Indeed, as Reuters noted Monday morning, Lula’s win “means the left will govern all the region’s major economies after a string of electoral successes from Mexico to Argentina in recent years.”
Immediately after the election, Bannon claimed that Bolsonaro “cannot concede,” amid speculation that the Brazilian right could react violently to the result. But there was no lack of clarity from the Biden administration.
“I send my congratulations to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on his election to be the next president of Brazil following free, fair, and credible elections,” said Biden. “I look forward to working together to continue the cooperation between our two countries in the months and years ahead.”
An even more robust statement came from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has for months been urging both the administration and Congress to send clear signals regarding the defense of democracy in Brazil. “Today,” announced Sanders, “the people of Brazil have voted for democracy, workers’ rights and environmental sanity. I congratulate Lula on his hard-fought victory and look forward to a strong and prosperous relationship between the United States and Brazil.” Representative Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added, “Congratulations to Lula da Silva on your election victory and to all Brazilians who voted against authoritarianism and for a more hopeful, peaceful Brazil!”
Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, a key Democrat on the Senate and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made another vital connection—to the climate crisis. Bolsonaro was an enthusiastic ally of industries that have been destroying the Amazon. “Lula’s win is a victory for global climate action,” Schatz observed. “The importance of the Amazon as a carbon sink cannot be overstated, and its preservation is critical to preventing the most destructive climate change scenarios. Lula significantly curbed deforestation during his previous tenure in office, and I am eager to work with him to restore environmental protections in the Amazon, support indigenous communities, and drive international progress on climate.”
Statements from the president of the United States and key members of Congress will not ease all the tensions in Brazil. But they do put the United States on the right side of the global struggle against the threats to democracy—and to the planet—that come from Trump and his autocratic allies.