What was January 8th?



It was not the “resilience of institutions” that saved democracy on January 8th or before the failed coup attempt

On January 8, 2023, Brazil was surprised by an attack, when self-appointed patriots invaded and vandalized the National Congress, the Planalto Palace and the Federal Supreme Court (STF).

The surprise was not, however, motivated by the attack itself. The leader of the “patriots”, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, even when elected president in 2018, cast doubt on the electoral results, arguing that he had already obtained more than half of the votes in the 1st round of the election. More directly, he converted the celebrations for independence, on September 7, 2021 and 2022, into true coup celebrations, in which thousands of his supporters called for “military intervention now”.

In other words, the reason for the surprise was the timing of the attack. In other words, Jair Bolsonaro was unable to create the conditions to carry out the coup when he was still president.

Especially because the US gave unequivocal signals that it would not tolerate democratic rupture, even sending Joe Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, to Brazil and expressing support for electronic voting machines, the fairness of which was daily questioned by Jair Bolsonaro. At the end of his mandate, the establishment economic and social situation had made it clear that it would not embark on the coup adventure, launching a “letter to Brazilians” in defense of democracy on the symbolic date of August 11, 2022. Faced with this situation, the military leadership, flattered by the retired captain in the four years in which he was at the head of the government, he preferred not to join the barracks.

Such conditions contrast with 1964. In the context of the Cold War, US support for the military coup was unequivocal, even sending, in the infamous “Operation Brother Sam”, a squadron on the Brazilian coast. The bourgeoisie also obviously conspired against the João Goulart government in the Institute for Research and Social Studies (IPES) and in the Brazilian Institute for Democratic Action (IBAD). And institutions, such as the Catholic Church, played an important role in mobilizing military intervention, helping to organize the Family Marches with God for Freedom, which brought together hundreds of thousands of people.

On the other hand, Brazilian January 8th is similar to another putsch frustrated, the American January 6th, which in 2023 had just celebrated its first anniversary. In both cases, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were unable, or perhaps, did not even want to have the support of the groups that would make it possible to achieve the rupture they seemed to seek. One even gets the impression that more than carrying out the coup, they were interested in staging it.

The similarities are so great that there was no shortage of people suggesting that the Tupiniquins, once again, imitate the Yankees. In a suggestive way, the columnist for The New York Times, Ross Douthat argued that the Brazilian January 8th would be an “act of pure performance” without major commitments to “the realities of power”.

In other words, unlike the famous reference, history would no longer repeat itself as a farce, after occurring as a tragedy, but would simply fall into a farcical spiral. If the revolutionaries of 1848, criticized by Marx, would have sought to stage the work of the revolutionaries of 1789, but without the heroism or the illusion of the heroism of the past, the Bolsonarists would have been content, in post-modern times, with posing for selfies who would emulate their Trumpist idols.

The analysis is ingenious. However, it is false. It is false mainly in what is comforting, when it suggests that phenomena such as Trumpism and Bolsonarism are pure appearance.

It thus falls, for opposite reasons, into the same error as the interpretations of the “crisis of democracy”, which imagine that democracy should return to its “normal” functioning, as if such a thing were possible or even desirable. It is not difficult, however, to see that it was not the “resilience of institutions” that saved democracy on January 8 or before the failed coup attempt.

Because, paradoxically, an “institutional anomaly” was crucial to the outcome, which until now was happy: the protagonism of the Judiciary. More specifically, certain actions taken by the minister of the Federal Supreme Court (STF), Alexandre de Moraes, had particular weight, some of them, such as the opening of the “fake news”, taken in “contrary to the law”. That is, mechanisms similar to those that contributed to destabilizing democracy with Operation Lava Jato helped, shortly afterwards, to save it.

An additional sign of the difficulty of resuming “democratic normality” is the troubled relationship between the third Lula government and Congress. It indicates that “coalition presidentialism” no longer works as it used to or, at the limit, may even stop working. In short, parliamentarians, led by the so-called Centrão, do not want to give up the prerogatives, mainly budgetary, that they accumulated, ironically, during the government of the supposed outsider Jair Bolsonaro.

Perhaps we should therefore look for the reasons for the crisis beyond appearances or institutions. Especially because, as the USA indicates, where there is a risk of Donald Trump being elected president again, it persists. In this sense, despite the defeat on January 8, we are far from having recovered “democratic stability”. But this subject is beyond the scope of this article…

 *Bernardo Ricupero He is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USP. Author, among other books, of Romanticism and the idea of ​​nation in Brazil (WMF Martins Fontes).

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