Two Capitol Riots. Two Very Different Results.

Two Capitol Riots. Two Very Different Results.

Monday marks one year since thousands of right-wing protesters draped in the colors of the Brazilian flag stormed into Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices with a violent fury and the goal of overturning an election.

Saturday marked three years since thousands of Americans did just about the same thing.

They were two shocking attacks on the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies, both broadcast around the world and both prompted by presidents who had questioned their legitimate election losses. Each posed an extraordinary test of the country’s democracy, and each raised the question of how a deeply polarized society would move forward in the wake of such an assault.

With time, the answer to that question is becoming clear: The parallel attacks have had nearly opposite aftermaths.

In the United States, support is soaring for Donald J. Trump’s campaign to retake the White House, as he frames his 2020 election loss as the real insurrection and Jan. 6 as “a beautiful day.”

At the same time, his counterpart in Brazil, the far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro, has quickly faded into political irrelevance. Six months after he left office last year, electoral officials barred him from running again until 2030, and many right-wing leaders have shunned him.

Among citizens, views on the dual riots — on Jan. 6, 2021, and Jan. 8, 2023 — have also diverged. Recent polls showed that 22 percent of Americans now say they support the Jan. 6 attack, while in Brazil, just 6 percent support the Jan. 8 rioters.

So why have there been such contrasting reactions to such similar threats? Researchers and analysts point to a multitude of reasons, including the countries’ differing political systems, media landscapes, national histories and judicial responses, but one difference especially stands out.

Leaders on Brazil’s right “publicly, clearly, unambiguously accepted the results of the election and did exactly what democratic politicians are supposed to do,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard professor of government and co-author of the book “How Democracies Die,” who studies both the American and Brazilian democracies. “That is strikingly different from how Republicans responded.”

On the night after the Jan. 8 riot, Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, marched arm-in-arm across the federal government’s central plaza with governors, congressional leaders and judges from both the left and right in a show of unity against the attack.

In the hours after the Jan. 6 riot, some Republican members of Congress voted against certifying President Biden’s election victory, and since then, Republicans have increasingly sought to recast the insurrection as a patriotic act — or even an inside job by the left.

Ciro Nogueira, a right-wing politician who was Mr. Bolsonaro’s outgoing chief of staff and is now Brazil’s Senate minority leader, said the reaction in the United States surprised him.

“There is a consensus in our country, among the political class, to condemn these acts,” he said. “I think it’s really unfortunate that a portion of American politicians applaud this type of protest.”

He speculated that Brazil strongly rebuked the rioters because many Brazilians are old enough to remember the violent military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. “The United States hasn’t lived through a dictatorship, a period of authoritarianism,” he said. “We never want that to return in our country.”

Analysts also pointed out that Brazil’s political fragmentation — 20 different parties are represented in Congress — makes politicians more willing to confront one another and express a wider range of views, while American conservatives are largely confined to the Republican Party.

At the same time, they noted that mainstream media is less fragmented in Brazil, which they say has helped a wider share of the public agree on a common set of facts. One generally centrist news network, Globo, has a commanding share of viewers, with ratings often surpassing those of the next four networks combined.

But there is another reason Brazil has so resolutely rejected the Jan. 8 riot — a factor that some fear could pose its own unintended threat to the nation’s institutions. Brazil’s Supreme Court has expanded its power to investigate and prosecute people it sees as threats to democracy.

The approach helped muffle claims of fraud around Brazil’s 2022 election, as one Supreme Court justice in particular, Alexandre de Moraes, ordered tech companies to take down posts spreading such falsehoods. Mr. Moraes has said he has watched online disinformation erode democracy in other countries and is intent on not letting that happen in Brazil.

As a result, Brazilian courts have recently ordered tech companies to take down accounts at one of the highest rates in the world, according to disclosures by Google and Meta, which owns Instagram.

Mr. Moraes has also overseen the investigation into Jan. 8. (In some cases in Brazil, the role of Supreme Court justices can resemble that of both prosecutors and judges.)

One year after the Brazil riot, 1,350 people have been charged and 30 people have been convicted, with sentences ranging from 3 to 17 years. After three years, about 1,240 rioters from Jan. 6 have been charged and 880 convicted or plead guilty. Sentences have ranged from a few days to 22 years.

Last week, Mr. Moraes gave a series of interviews in which he lashed out at rioters who were defendants in cases he was helping to judge, calling them “cowards” and “sick people” who had threatened him and his family. He also said the actions that had been taken by the Supreme Court — a bipartisan group of 11 justices — were crucial.

“If it hadn’t been for the strong reaction from the institutions, we wouldn’t be talking here today. The Supreme Court would be closed and I, as the investigations have shown, would not be here,” he said in one interview, noting that some rioters had wanted to kill him.

Thirty conservative senators in Brazil released a letter on Friday that condemned the Jan. 8 attacks but questioned the Supreme Court’s growing power. Legal experts across Brazil have debated whether the court’s moves are justified given the threat — or whether they constitute their own new problem.

“I think there are problems with the Supreme Court’s actions,” said Emilio Peluso, a constitutional law professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. “But I think the Supreme Court had to give a firm response to what happened on Jan. 8.”

Mr. Moraes also led the electoral court that voted in June to bar Mr. Bolsonaro from running in the next presidential election. Five of the court’s seven judges ruled that Mr. Bolsonaro had abused his power when, ahead of the 2022 election, he attacked Brazil’s voting systems in a speech broadcast on state television.

Mr. Levitsky, the Harvard professor, said Brazil’s approach resembles the “militant democracy” doctrine developed in Germany after World War II to combat fascism, in which the government can ban politicians deemed a threat.

The United States has preferred to leave it to voters, though courts across the country are now weighing in on Mr. Trump’s eligibility, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to eventually decide the matter.

As Mr. Bolsonaro’s political support has fizzled — and as he faces a series of criminal investigations, including one related to Jan. 8 — he has largely stopped claiming to have been the victim of voter fraud.

At the same time, with backing from fellow Republicans, Mr. Trump has escalated his lies. At a campaign rally on Friday, he called those imprisoned on Jan. 6 charges “hostages” and falsely claimed that the far-left antifa movement and the F.B.I. were “leading the charge” at the riot. “You saw the same people that I did,” he told supporters.

A poll last month showed that a quarter of Americans now believe that F.B.I. operatives “organized and encouraged” the Jan. 6 attack.

To Mr. Levitsky, that statistic illustrates what the United States can learn from Brazil in this case: “What leaders say and what leaders do matters.”

Paulo Motoryn contributed reporting from Brasília.

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Kyle C. Garrison

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