Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro resembled former U.S. president Donald Trump in so many respects that he became known as the “Trump of the tropics.” Bolsonaro’s brand of right-wing populism certainly paralleled much of what Trump exhibited in terms of policies, ideology, and rhetoric. But the resemblance became especially marked in the way each man threatened his country’s system of democracy and respect for free elections.
Fearing defeat in his re-election bid last autumn, Bolsonaro—just like Trump—made unfounded accusations of widespread voting irregularities and suggested that if he did not win then it must be because the election was rigged. He even made some of the same assertions as some Trump supporters did about supposedly rigged voting machines. After his election loss, Bolsonaro, like Trump, refused to accept the outcome of the vote as legitimate.
Bolsonaro’s inculcation among his followers of his lie about a supposedly rigged election led to a violent riot and ransacking of government offices in Brasilia, two years and two days after Trump’s corresponding election lie led his supporters to attack and ransack the U.S. Capitol. Similarly to how Trump later would sometimes talk about the Capitol rioters as “loving,” “great,” and “peaceful” people, Bolsonaro described the Brasilia rioters as “little old women and little old men, with Brazilian flags on their back and Bibles under their arms.”
Like Trump, Bolsonaro did not attend his successor’s inauguration—which in Brazil’s case meant not participating in the traditional transfer of the presidential sash from the outgoing to the incoming president. Like Trump, Bolsonaro instead flew to Florida.
But there the stories diverge. Trump is still a major and active political factor in the United States and currently is the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. But Bolsonaro has just been barred by Brazil’s electoral court from running for any public office until at least 2030, because of his election lies. Specifically, the court determined that Bolsonaro had violated election laws when during last year’s campaign he held a televised meeting with foreign diplomats in which he made some of his baseless claims about the voting system being rigged against him.
The United States does not have any institution comparable to Brazil’s electoral court, with the power that the court has under Brazil’s constitution to sideline offender candidates. The U.S. Federal Election Commission has only a limited mandate to investigate violations of campaign finance law, and much of the time in recent years the commission has been crippled anyway by partisan division or lack of a quorum. The U.S. judicial system is geared more toward achieving justice between private parties than toward holding politicians accountable for offenses against democracy. The one determination in a U.S. court of law about the lies concerning supposedly rigged voting machines was in a case involving two private parties, with Fox News—the principal mass media purveyor of Trumpist election lies—paying a $787.5 million settlement to a manufacturer of voting machines.
None of this is to say that Brazilian judicial or political mechanisms can or should be installed in the United States. The establishment of a body comparable to Brazil’s electoral court would require an improbable constitutional change. Given how much the composition, and to a large extent the conduct, of the U.S. Supreme Court has become wrapped in partisanship, it is questionable whether even if such a constitutional provision existed, the resulting court would function the way the one in Brazil has. Moreover, giving a court such powers over politicians would lead to accusations that the court itself was undemocratic. Such accusations have been heard in Brazil, as they are heard today in Israel as a rationale for the Netanyahu government’s plan to curb the judiciary’s role in reviewing legislation.
Not just in Brazil, however, but in many Western democracies, a centralized role for courts and/or commissions to oversee elections in a fair and nonpartisan manner works rather well. For example, in the United Kingdom—the original source of much of American political culture—an electoral commission and independent boundary commissions that draw constituency lines perform those functions, not entirely without controversy but generally in a way that is widely accepted as democratic and unbiased.
An argument is sometimes made that a decentralized system of election administration, as prevails in the United States, is less vulnerable to serious corruption. But in practice, that decentralized system has seen parties that control state legislatures indulging in extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression laws. Such partisan manipulation is a major reason that in the Freedom House scorecard on political rights, the United States currently ranks behind 64 other countries—not only Western democracies such as the United Kingdom but many others worldwide, from Micronesia to Mongolia.
The Trump part of the story is not over, and more accountability regarding the attempt to overturn the 2020 election result may follow from special counsel Jack Smith’s ongoing investigation and a parallel inquiry by the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia. But even criminal convictions of Trump in these cases would not bar him from running for office.
The story in Brazil is not over, either, and not only because Bolsonaro is also subject to further criminal investigations. Much will depend on the direction set by other politicians on the Brazilian Right. Some of them are already moving on to leaders other than Bolsonaro, although there also is talk of Bolsonaro’s wife or one of his sons running for president.
For Brazil, or any other country, to be a healthy democracy requires major parties both left of center and right of center that respect democratic norms. A Brazilian voter who values democracy but disagrees with the economic or social policies of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—or who consider Lula, who served time in prison on corruption charges, unfit for office—needs someplace to turn.
The United States also, to be a healthy democracy, needs responsible, democracy-respecting parties on both the Left and the Right, something it does not now have. A democracy cannot survive if the task of maintaining democratic norms falls on only one side of the political spectrum, whether that is the Left or the Right.
The different turns taken by the stories of the Trump of the tropics and the Trump of Mar-a-Lago may reflect not only the different constitutional mechanisms in Brazil and the United States but also how the national histories of the two countries lead its citizens to think about democracy and threats to democracy. Especially during the Independence Day season—and probably even more so as the nation approaches its semiquincentennial—Americans have a tendency toward smugness about their polity, notwithstanding that mediocre score from Freedom House. “World’s oldest democracy” and all that. Many Americans tend to take for granted their nation’s democracy and political stability, and they should not.
Brazil has not been as historically blessed. As recently as 1985 it was under a military dictatorship. Perhaps this has made Brazilians more conscious of how fragile democracy can be and of threats to it. Too many citizens of the United States are insufficiently conscious of how immediate is the threat to their own democracy.
Paul Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.