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Brazil's Insurrection Reminds Us of the Power of Strongman Personality Cults
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What happens when an authoritarian leader with a personality cult loses an election and leaves office, and his cult lingers on? Sunday's insurrection in Brazil, during which hard-core supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress and other government buildings to demand that the military restore their idol to power, is the latest example of how such cults can endure, especially when the cult leader plays the victim and claims the election was stolen from him.
While the insurrection was promptly quelled, and over 1,400 rioters have so far been arrested, the atmosphere was tense as Brazilian troops disbanded their main encampment in Brasilia, which served as a staging area for the operation. The camp was built close to Brazilian military headquarters because the Bolsonaristas hoped to convince the Brazilian armed forces to intervene to remove President Lula da Silva (whose inauguration was just over a week ago) and install their hero as the head of an authoritarian state. For some, that might mean another round of military dictatorship, given that former army officer Bolsonaro often praised the murderous junta that governed from 1964 to 1985.
In the Brazilian case, as in the U.S. of Donald Trump, the leader and his allies invested in years-long relentless disinformation campaigns designed to discredit their country's electoral systems in the public mind. Personality cults create images of the leader as infallible, and preparing followers to see any setback to their hero as the result of nefarious external forces rigging the system against him is part of preserving his competency in their eyes. Having someone or something to blame - President Joe Biden or Lula as it may be--also keeps the personality cult alive by letting followers avoid acknowledging that their hero is a loser.
Whether they blindly believe the lies fed to them or they know the truth and just want to keep their man in office, hard-core followers of an authoritarian simply won't accept the new leader and the democratic political order he represents. The Texas GOP's June 2022 resolution that Biden is not a legitimate president, but only an "acting" leader, is in this vein and a big red flag for American democracy. The trashing of the interiors of Brazilian Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace and lawmakers' offices at the U.S. Capitol express a common desire to annihilate a political reality that does not include the cult leader at its helm.
Personality cults require regular maintenance through rallies and propaganda, and both Bolsonaro's and Trump's are more unstable than their creators would like them to be. The American's lawless glamour only increased in the eyes of his devotees after Jan. 6 (the coup's failure merely cemented his victim status) but Trump's cult of omnipotence suffered a blow from the losses of the candidates he endorsed for the midterm elections. Now even newbie politicians such as Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) feel empowered to ignore Trump's calls, as this image taken in the midst of the drama of the House Speaker election shows.
Kevin McCarthy, long the keeper of Trump's personality cult flame, made sure to address this dangerous situation for his leader through a much-mocked performance of loyalty upon being declared House Speaker. "I don't think anyone should doubt his influence," McCarthy stated for an audience of one.
In the Brazilian case, Lula was already in office, and Bolsonaro out of the country, when the Brazilian insurrection happened. Bolsonaro's flight from Brazil to Florida left some of his most fervent supporters feeling abandoned. Followers of leader cults eventually reach this emotional state when they realize that their beloved has used them. "It feels as though my boyfriend has left me" said Deise Casela, a 57-year-old widow. "I am mourning again."
That doesn't bother Bolsonaro, who has lost his presidential immunity and is a subject of several Brazilian investigations --meaning he had no intention of hanging around. The sight of his politician sons Eduardo and Flavio Bolsonaro at the Italian Embassy in Brasilia, applying for Italian citizenship, suggests they may want to leave Brazil as well.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro had already done a good job of reminding his devotees of his victimhood and keeping them in a state of agitation so they would be open to avenge him if necessary. Yet Bolsonaro likely had the example of Trump's Feb. 2021 House impeachment for incitement of insurrection and Trump's continuing sticky legal situation in mind as he balanced fueling his followers' desire to save him with plausible deniability.
As the world discovered on Sunday, Bolsonaro's version of a concession statement, given the day he left for Florida ("within the laws, respecting the Constitution, I search for a way out of this. We live in a democracy or we don't. No one wants an adventure") did not deter the Bolsonaristas. They instead acted on his June 2022 promise to them if he lost: "If necessary, we will go to war."
The legacy of the bloody military dictatorship likely factored into the stern and immediate reaction to the insurrection by Lula's government. Lula knows well that this operation, carried out when lawmakers and judges were in recess, could be a testing ground for an authoritarian takeover. That's why Ibaneis Rocha, the powerful Governor of Brasilia who had oversight of the police, was immediately suspended for 90 days - a move without parallel in the American case.
Prosecution has always been an effective means of deflating personality cults. Prosecution destroys the aura of impunity that authoritarians depend on, and it shows their followers that the leaders they worship are not omnipotent or protected by God but ordinary mortals who are accountable to the law just like everyone else. Whatever the fates of Bolsonaro and Trump may be, we have seen the power and durability of their personality cults and how destructive this tool of the authoritarian playbook can be for democracy.