by Andreas Kluth
Before we ponder the world’s biggest news this week, America’s surprisingly narrow midterm elections, let’s pay respect to Jair Bolsonaro. That’s because the Brazilian president recently did the right thing, becoming an unlikely role model for patriots in struggling democracies everywhere — even (or especially) for honest Republicans in the U.S.
Bolsonaro is a populist leader who’s taken style pointers from former U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. And he just lost Brazil’s presidential election to his leftist challenger, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, by the narrowest of margins. For two days, Brazilians waited with bated breath for what Bolsonaro would do. Spread a Big Lie that the election was “stolen”? Nod to his goons to use violence? Refuse the orderly transition of power?
“As president and a citizen, I’ll continue to follow our constitution,” Bolsonaro declared instead, authorizing the handover to Lula. And with that gesture, democracy in Brazil, at least for the time being, was preserved and even strengthened.
Now turn to America, after bitter and ugly midterms that, as of Wednesday morning, still leave power suspended in Congress and several states. The biggest question yet to be answered is this: Come the presidential election in 2024, will the U.S. be able to reaffirm its values as Brazil just did?
It may or may not. And if that ambiguity doesn’t frighten you, you haven’t been paying attention. Depending on the count, between 253 and 291 of the MAGA Republicans on federal and state ballots across the U.S. Tuesday have, one way or another, become partisans of Donald Trump in propagating the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Many feign insouciance about the violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, denying — despite ample evidence — that it was an attempted coup d’etat. Having ridden to popularity on Trump’s coattails, most will support The Donald in his expected rematch against President Joe Biden in two years.
What will that election look like? In 2020, Trump and his minions orchestrated a sustained effort, documented with devastating precision by the Jan. 6 Committee of Congress, to use lies, intimidation, fraud and violence to flip a lawful election. If that putsch attempt failed, it was because enough officials throughout the country — and specifically enough Republicans — resisted and upheld the truth.
Next time around, that may not be the case. “Anyone who denies the results of an election is also saying that he will deny the results of another election,” says Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale and author of “On Tyranny.” And with that tension pre-programmed, America may be headed in 2024 for what can euphemistically be called a constitutional crisis, but what may in reality look like a low-grade civil war.
That nightmare isn’t inevitable yet. But a glance at history suggests it’s plausible. Republics founder all the time, and trends in the U.S. and elsewhere have been worrisome enough to cause a burst of research into “How Democracies Die.” The short answer is that their death doesn’t have to be spectacular and abrupt, like Chile’s in 1973. More often, liberty fails as marriages, companies and dams proverbially do: first gradually, then suddenly.
My favorite case studies are Republican Rome and Weimar Germany. Both shared with the U.S. today many of the telltale characteristics of institutional decline. The first was the repeated breaking of taboos, most notably the one against political violence.
In the Roman Republic, it started with the murder of the two Gracchi brothers in 133 B.C. and 121 B.C. In Weimar, it began with the serial assassinations of centrist and leftist politicians by right-wing thugs in the early 1920s. In the U.S., the taboo was broken at the latest with the sack of the Capitol in 2021. Just the other day, a man broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the intent of kneecapping her; in her absence, he settled for taking his hammer to her husband’s head. What’s next?
In parallel with this erosion of taboos and decorum, there’s a cynical abandonment of truth as a standard. The term “Big Lie” actually comes from Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Once we can no longer agree on facts — and worse, once we can no longer stipulate that truth exists at all — we can’t respect the verdicts of courts either, or the legitimacy of any institution.
In such a context, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. This quote, apocryphally attributed to the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, describes Republican Rome, Weimar and the U.S. today, among other places. Then as now, enough people — in the elite and electorate — accommodate themselves to unscrupulous wannabe Caesars until it’s too late. One excuse for apathy on Nov. 8 was that the elections weren’t really about democracy, but about “bread-and-butter issues” like inflation.
And so the citizens of sunset democracies sleep-walk into tyranny. One detail I’ve always found curious is that neither Hitler nor Octavian — better known as Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome — ever bothered to annul the constitutions of the republics they smashed. Hitler simply ignored the Weimar constitution, which was officially scrapped only after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Octavian, for his part, carefully preserved republican pageantry, with its Senate, Consuls, Praetors and Tribunes. It’s just that everybody knew it was only for show. It’s entirely conceivable that the gravediggers of the American republic will have “We the People” tattooed on their arms.
But we’re not at that point yet. Sometimes in history, good people stop doing nothing, and start doing something. They rise above partisan allegiance or resist the sedation of apathy — or the seduction of power — and heed the call of duty. Bolsonaro and many Brazilians did. Americans, no matter their party, can too.