Brazil Riots Could Mark a Sea Change in Our Politics

It was such a familiar story. The president of a country insisted that the opposition party is preparing to steal an upcoming election. After the president lost, mobs of supporters heeded their leader’s call and stormed the capital, seeking to overturn the election results. Now, the battle continues, pitting the nation’s judiciary, which aims to uphold the nation’s election results, against partisans of the defeated leader. Who will ultimately win, as is so often the case, rests with the military.


When we look at Brazil, it feels like we are looking through a window at the history of Latin America. The juntas. The coups. The assassinations. The long history of authoritarian rulers trampling nascent democratic institutions. 


But this time, it is not a window we are looking through, but rather a mirror reflecting back on ourselves. Jair Bolsonaro’s strategy of seditious insurrection was right out of Donald Trump’s playbook. Bolsonaro’s team of seditious conspirators was given aid and comfort from Donald Trump’s top tier, most notably campaign strategist Steve Bannon and communications director Jason Miller. 


A seditious conspiracy is easier to recognize from a distance. As it turned out, few, if any, national Republicans of note seized the moment to offer moral support to the rioters in Brasília. Few, if any, watched the mayhem in the capital of the largest country in South America and argued, as they did in the days following January 6th, that the rioters were peaceful protesters expressing their free speech rights. 


Only Tucker Carlson, as one might have predicted, was prepared to go full MAGA and embrace the obvious parallels between Brasília on January 8, 2023, and Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021. Carlson asserted that the November election had been rigged, and millions of Brazilians were rightfully protesting because they “know that their democracy has been hijacked.” The Big Lie had gone global.


Coming in the wake of Republican underperformance in the midterm elections, and a day after Kevin McCarthy’s abject surrender to the MAGA wing of the GOP as the price of winning the Speaker’s gavel, events in Brazil may help to bend the arc of our politics away from the downward spiral we have been on for years now. 


Although the Republican Party has had its battles over the years, such as those between progressives and conservatives in the 1920s, and between moderates and conservatives in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, today’s battle between traditional and MAGA Republicans is of a different order. 


If you are unclear about the distinction between the two groups, the dividing line is simple: you are a traditional Republican if the words “I don’t like Donald Trump, but I like his policies,” have ever crossed your lips. But if Trump speaks to you regardless of his policies, if you believe the 2020 election was stolen, and if you are sympathetic to the suggestion that leading Democrats are pedophiles and sex traffickers, you likely fall into the MAGA camp. It is a long leap from questioning the inherently messy nature of elections to buying into QAnon conspiracies made up out of whole cloth, but today’s GOP has gone a long way down that road.


Traditional Republicans in today’s GOP are akin to the proverbial frog who failed to respond as the water around it got hotter and hotter, until finally it found itself in boiling water and could not understand how it got there. For decades, the Republican coalition has in large measure comprised two groups: traditional economic conservatives primarily focused on lower taxes and less government, and social conservatives brought into the Republican coalition beginning in the 1970s with promises around social issues – guns, abortion, “religious liberty,” and the like. While for years, traditional Republicans tolerated social conservatives in their midst as the price of winning their tax cuts and business deductions, the rise of Donald Trump flipped the power dynamic in the GOP, to the point where polling now suggests that nearly half of the party consists of self-identified MAGA Republicans.


For those traditional Republicans who have turned a blind eye to the MAGAfication of their political party, hoping that the rise of Trump would be a passing annoyance, the insurrection in Brazil should be a tipping point. Images of Steve Bannon’s shock troops in the streets of Brasília are a stark reminder that they have been in common cause with seditious conspiracists and abject lunatics for years now. As evidenced by a recent Economist/YouGov poll, 70% of their GOP brethren have bought into Donald Trump’s Big Lie, and believe that Joe Biden sits illegitimately in the White House; two-thirds have a favorable view of QAnon conspiracy theories; and fully half believe that Democratic Party leaders “are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings.” Now, as Matt Gaetz flexes his power in the House, and Jair Bolsonaro spreads his own Big Lie and mimics Trump’s insurrection, those traditional Republicans who have remained silent through all that has ensued have no choice but to confront the world of their creation.


Events since the 2022 midterms appear to suggest an ebbing of the MAGA tide. Many on both sides of the aisle yearned to see the House stalemate resolved by a coalition of centrist Democrats and Republicans coming together to elect a Speaker rather than by Kevin McCarthy caving into the demands of the far right. Indeed, a CBS News poll this month suggests the GOP is split right down the middle between those who want Congressional Republicans to cooperate with Democrats and those who want Congressional Republicans to investigate Democrats with a vengeance. Nonetheless, there have been signs of successful efforts to push back against hyperpartisanship at the state level across the country. 


This month, in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Democratic and Republican legislators came together to elect a moderate Democratic and Republican speaker, respectively, undermining the power of right-wing legislators in both states. Even in deep red South Carolina, Republicans holding an overwhelming majority rejected the demands of the South Carolina Freedom Caucus and chose a more moderate course. 


Images of turmoil on the streets of Brasília could not have been more timely. Coming in the wake of the MAGA victory on the House floor, those images – not a warning of what might happen in our country at some point in the future, but rather a reminder of what has already happened here – have forced traditional Republicans to confront the damage that has been done to our country as they have sat silently by. Brazil on January 8th is what January 6th here at home looked like to the rest of the world, despite what Republicans might want to believe. 


Perhaps this moment will pass as the House investigations ramp up, Brazil fades into the rearview mirror, and Donald Trump seeks to regain his grip over the Republican Party. But the evidence is already there that Republicans are giving renewed attention to the political center. Faced with underperformance among moderates and independent voters in the midterm elections, as well as the success of state-wide votes preserving abortion rights in red states, Republicans who have long since sworn off the mainstream media have begun showing up on CNN and MSNBC. 


There has been no sea change yet, so far just ripples suggesting that the tides of our politics may be shifting. You will know that sea change has come when 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton begin to show up for interviews with Anderson Cooper or on the Rachel Maddow show.


David Alexander Paul

David is the President of Fiscal Strategies Group and was previously Managing Director of Public Financial Management, a public and project finance subsidiary of Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. He also served as the Vice Provost of Drexel University. He founded and served as CEO of Mathforum.com, a mathematics and math education Internet company and virtual community.

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