Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro live in parallel universes, professor says

Below is an interview with Anthony Pereira, PhD, new director of the Kimberly Green Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACC) about the upcoming presidential elections in Brazil in October of this year.

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SFMN: The rhetoric of Trump and his supporters is remarkably similar to that of Bolsonaro and his supporters. For example, a Bolsonaro supporter at a political rally on September 7 (Brazilian independence from Portugal day), said that if Lula is declared the winner, there will be an uprising and “if necessary, we will go to war.” This sounds like Lindsay Graham when he said there will be violence in the streets if Trump is indicted for illegally bringing government documents to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s residence and golf club in Palm Beach, Fl. What do you think of the similarities? Are Bolsonaro and Trump clear and present dangers to the respective democracies of their countries? Many people are worried about what is happening in Brazil and the United States.

Anthony Pereira (Photo from FIU News)

Pereira: “I am worried too!” Dr. Pereira exclaimed. He mentioned that this situation reflects what Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in their book How Democracies Die, that is, “that democracies depend on a certain amount of self-control and deference on the part of political actors.” Some of the restrictions are legal, that is, written in the Constitution, but some are informal, that is, how political actors view other actors in the system. “One of the problems with Trump and Bolsonaro is that they tend not to see opposition candidates as legitimate political rivals. They divide politics into friends or enemies”,  Pereira said.

Professor Pereira thinks that Trump and Bolsonaro believe that it is okay for them to go beyond established political norms to achieve their personal political ambitions and that if they cannot win legitimately, they will do so “in the streets.” In their speeches, instead of unifying rhetoric, they use “the language of war.”

SFMN: Given that military rule ended in Brazil only recently (1985), how much worse could that danger be in Brazil than in the US?

Pereira:  As for the military, Pereira has his doubts that they will attempt a violent overthrow of the government if Bolsonaro loses. “They have a good budget under Bolsonaro, and they will probably have a good budget under whomever is the next president. They have quite a few privileges. They were excluded from the pension reform that was carried out in 2019. They have access to the weapons programs they have always wanted”, Dr. Pereira affirmed.

Dr. Pereira also mentioned that military officers are doing well financially because when they are on active duty they receive not only their military salary but also their civil service salary since they work for the federal government. Pereira believes that whomever the new president is, that person would not “throw [the military] out en masse.” Therefore, the military will be cautious because the stakes are high, and it would be too much for them to risk if they attempted a coup.

However, Dr. Pereira does not rule out the possibility that Bolsonaro will attempt to overturn the election, should he lose, by stopping the counting of electoral votes, Trumpian-style. Pereira recalled that Trump and his allies drafted an executive order, which was never issued, for the military to stop counting electoral college votes on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021.

On a more positive note, Pereira feels that the more Brazilian civil society mobilizes against such threats and in support of democratic institutions, the less likely these intimidations are to happen.

SFMN:  Vinicius de Carvalho, your former colleague at King’s College London, says a coup is unlikely because the military has evolved since the last coup in 1964 and would work with whoever wins the presidential election. What is your opinion on this assumption?

Pereira: “I have confidence in Vinicius on that. He was in the army and has close contacts with them,” Pereira said.

Dr. Pereira’s view is that the self-image of the Brazilian military is that they serve the State, not the president in office (although they do not always follow this image of themselves). He is encouraged by Carvalho’s statement because their professional background is that they are at the service of the Constitution and their loyalties are with the State.

SFMN: Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of the online magazine Americas Quarterly and vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. In an article in AQ dated 08/31/22, Mr. Winter said that “I’m pretty sure we won’t see a traditional coup on September 7 (Brazil’s Independence Day from Portugal).” Turns out he was right. Based on Bolsonaro’s military record, why do you think he did not attempt a violent coup on September 7, as Trump did on January 6?

Pereira: According to Dr. Pereira, Bolsonaro, although he knows that he is behind the other presidential candidate and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) in the polls, he is not entirely convinced that he will be out of the picture in the October elections, so he has a two-way strategy. Since 1989, all candidates who placed first in the first round have won the presidency in the second round. However, Pereira says, Bolsonaro believes he can make it to the second round, and if so, “he thinks he is a special person” and will be the first candidate since 1989 to win the presidency in the second round, even if he comes in second place in the first round.

According to Pereira, Bolsonaro is thinking that if he does not come first in the first round, all the voters who voted for candidates other than Lula and Bolsonaro will vote for Bolsonaro in the second round. For this reason, and until now, Bolsonaro has not attempted a “traditional” coup because he still believes he can win in a second round.

Convincingly, if Bolsonaro were to lose both the first and second rounds, Pereira believes he “will not be a gracious loser” and, unlike other candidates in democracies, will not budge, but rather, like Trump, engage in a series of maneuvers to challenge the results of the election, such as claiming there was voter fraud. These legal and political schemes, like Trump’s, will sow chaos, doubt, and confusion. Bolsonaro could insist that the military do its own count, or Bolsonaro could say “I’m not going to accept the election result.” He could even take government documents and refuse to return them. Pereira believes the biggest unknown is not the result of the elections, but what could Bolsonaro do if he does not like said result.

SFMN: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Pereira: “I share the concern about the [Brazilian] election because elections in Brazil and elections in the US tend to influence each other. When Trump was elected in 2016, that galvanized Bolsonaro’s resolve. I think [Bolsonaro] thought that if Trump can do it, I can do it.”  Pereira summed up by saying that when Trump lost in 2020, Bolsonaro realized that he did not have a relationship with the US government, but with the Trump administration. That is why it took a relatively long time for Bolsonaro to officially recognize that Joe Biden won the election. According to Dr. Pereira, “[T]hese are worrying times.”

Ed Kennedy tiene una licenciatura en economía de la Universidad de Nueva Orleans. Obtuvo una MBA de FIU en 2008 y una Maestría en Estudios de América Latina y el Caribe de FIU en 2019. En 2018, Kennedy se retiró de una carrera en seguro comercial y ahora trabaja para Miami-Dade College como tutor de escritura en inglés. También está estudiando para una maestría en Periodismo en Lengua Española en FIU.