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The Bolsonaro-Trump connection threatening Brazil's elections

Fresh from their assault on the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former President Donald Trump and his allies are exporting their strategy to Latin America's largest democracy, helping sow doubt in the electoral process in the event that he loses

By Jack Nicas
Published: Nov 13, 2021

The Bolsonaro-Trump connection threatening Brazil's electionsSupporters of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil during a demonstration on Independence Day in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sept. 7, 2021. With his poll numbers falling, President Bolsonaro is already questioning the legitimacy of next year’s election. He has help from former President Donald Trump and his allies.

Image: Victor Moriyama/The New York Times

BRASÍLIA, Brazil — The conference hall was packed, with a crowd of more than 1,000 cheering attacks on the press, the liberals and the politically correct. There was Donald Trump Jr. warning that the Chinese could meddle in the election, a Tennessee congressman who voted against certifying the 2020 vote, and the president complaining about voter fraud.

In many ways, the September gathering looked like just another CPAC, the annual conservative political conference. But it was happening in Brazil, most of it was in Portuguese and the president at the lectern was Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s right-wing leader.

Fresh from their assault on the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former President Donald Trump and his allies are exporting their strategy to Latin America’s largest democracy, working to support Bolsonaro’s bid for reelection next year — and helping sow doubt in the electoral process in the event that he loses.

They are branding his political rivals as criminals and communists, building new social networks where he can avoid Silicon Valley’s rules against misinformation and amplifying his claims that the election in Brazil will be rigged.

For the American ideologues pushing a right-wing, nationalist movement, Brazil is one of the most important pieces on the global chess board. With 212 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest nation, the dominant force in South America, and home to an overwhelmingly Christian population that continues to shift to the right.

Brazil also presents a rich economic opportunity, with abundant natural resources made more available by Bolsonaro’s rollback of regulations, and a captive market for the new right-wing social networks run by Trump and others.

For the Brazilian president, who finds himself increasingly isolated on the world stage and unpopular at home, the American support is a welcome boost. The Trump name is a rallying cry for Brazil’s new right and his efforts to undermine the U.S. electoral system appear to have emboldened Bolsonaro and his supporters.

But Brazil is a deeply divided nation where the institutions safeguarding democracy are more vulnerable to attack. The adoption of Trump’s methods could prove destabilizing in a country with a history of political violence and military rule.

“Bolsonaro is already putting it into people’s heads that he won’t accept the election if he loses,” said David Nemer, a University of Virginia professor from Brazil who studies the country’s far right.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has said Bolsonaro will only lose if “the machines” steal the election. Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., who has pushed laws combating voter fraud, met with lawmakers in Brazil to discuss “voting integrity policies.”

And Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, gave perhaps his most elaborate presentation on what he said were manipulated Brazilian elections in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was at an August event hosted by Mike Lindell, the pillow executive being sued for defaming voting-machine makers.

Authorities, including academics, Brazil’s electoral officials and the U.S. government, all have said that there has not been fraud in Brazil’s elections.

Trump’s circle has cozied up to other far-right leaders, including in Hungary, Poland and the Philippines, and tried to boost rising nationalist politicians elsewhere. But the ties are the strongest in Brazil.

WhatsApp groups for Jair Bolsonaro supporters recently began circulating the trailer for a new series from Fox News host Tucker Carlson that sympathizes with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Nemer said. The United States, which has been a democracy for 245 years, withstood that attack. Brazil passed its constitution in 1988 after two decades under a military dictatorship.

“What concerns me is how fragile our democratic institutions are,” Nemer said.

The U.S. interest in Brazil is not only political. Two conservative social networks run by allies of Trump, Gettr and Parler, are growing rapidly here by leaning into fears of Big Tech censorship and by persuading Bolsonaro to post on their sites — the only world leader to do so. Trump’s own new social network, announced last month, is partially financed by a Brazilian congressman aligned with Bolsonaro.

The Trumps, the Bolsonaros, Green and Bannon did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bolsonaro’s fraud claims have worried officials in the Biden administration, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In August, Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, traveled to Brazil and advised Bolsonaro to respect the democratic process.

In October, 64 members of Congress asked Biden for a reset in the United States’ relationship with Brazil, citing Bolsonaro’s pursuit of policies that threaten democratic rule.

For Bolsonaro, the Republicans’ support comes at a crucial moment. The pandemic has killed more than 610,000 Brazilians, second only to the 758,000 deaths in the United States. Unemployment and inflation have risen. And Brazil’s Supreme Court and Congress are closing in on investigations into him, his sons and his allies.

Late last month, a Brazil congressional panel recommended that Bolsonaro be charged with “crimes against humanity,” asserting that he intentionally let the coronavirus tear through Brazil in a bid for herd immunity. The panel blamed his administration for more than 100,000 deaths.

Minutes after the panel voted, Trump issued his endorsement. “Brazil is lucky to have a man such as Jair Bolsonaro working for them,” he said in a statement. “He is a great president and will never let the people of his great country down!”

In 2018, Bolsonaro was carried to victory by the same populist wave that buoyed Trump.

The comparisons between Bolsonaro, a former army paratrooper with a penchant for insults and off-the-cuff tweets, and Trump were instant.

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Trump said in 2019. “I like him.”
To many others, Bolsonaro was alarming. As a congressman and candidate, he had waxed poetic about Brazil’s military dictatorship, which tortured its political rivals. He said he would be incapable of loving a gay son. And he said a rival congresswoman was too ugly to be raped.

Before the pandemic, Bolsonaro had been good for U.S. business.

The Trump and Bolsonaro administrations signed pacts to increase commerce. U.S. investors plowed billions of dollars into Brazilian companies. And Brazil spent more on U.S. imports, including fuel, plastics and aircraft.

Now a new class of companies is salivating over Brazil: conservative social networks.

Gettr and Parler, two Twitter clones, have grown rapidly in Brazil by promising a hands-off approach to people who believe Silicon Valley is censoring conservative voices. One of their most high-profile recruits is Bolsonaro.

Gettr’s CEO, Jason Miller, is Trump’s former spokesperson. He said that Bolsonaro and his sons’ activity on his site has been a major boost for business. The 4-month-old app already has nearly 500,000 users in Brazil, or 15% of its user base, its second-largest market after the United States. Gettr is now advertising on conservative Brazilian YouTube channels. “I had Brazil identified from day one,” Miller said.

Parler said Brazil is also its No. 2 market. Both companies sponsored CPAC in Brazil.

Bolsonaro will likely soon have another option. Last month, Trump announced he was starting his own social network. The company financing his new venture is partly led by Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Bragança, a Brazilian congressman and Bolsonaro ally.

The first week of September was a critical moment for the Bolsonaro presidency. Facing political crises, he called for nationwide demonstrations on Sept. 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, to protest his enemies in the Supreme Court and on the left.

The weekend before, just down the road from the presidential palace, Bolsonaro’s closest allies gathered at CPAC.

During the conference, the head of Project Veritas, the conservative group that secretly records journalists to try to expose liberal bias, told the audience that he aimed to expand to Brazil.

Afterward, Eduardo Bolsonaro brought several Americans to the presidential palace. Miller of Gettr and two men connected to Project Veritas sat outside with Jair Bolsonaro and his sons. They talked for more than an hour, Miller said. The Brazilians wanted to “kick the tires” on Gettr, he said.

The next day, Brazil’s federal police detained Miller at the airport. A Supreme Court judge had ordered police to question him about how Gettr might be used to spread misinformation in Brazil. “It was just farcical,” Miller said.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters in yellow and green were filling the national esplanade in Brasília. Pro-Bolsonaro banners hung from government buildings.

Bolsonaro gave a fiery speech. Then he flew to Sao Paulo, where he used Miller’s detainment as evidence of judicial overreach. He told the crowd he would no longer recognize decisions from a Supreme Court judge.

He then turned to the election.

“We have three alternatives for me: Prison, death or victory,” he said. “Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.”

©2019 New York Times News Service