Opinion | Brazil’s Jan. 6 Imitation and the Futility of Populism

But you can look at Brazil’s Jan. 8 and see two tendencies of contemporary populism confirmed. First is the way that today’s populist movements and politicians tend to alienate and alarm the stakeholder groups whose support they would need for any true regime change or revolution. This was clearly true on Jan. 6 in the United States, where every major institution was against the Trumpists, leading to populist philippics against not only the news media and the courts but also the F.B.I. and the military.

Yet even in Brazil, with a history of military rule and an armed forces clearly favorable to Bolsonaro’s populism, the movement to overturn Lula’s election has ended up isolated and impotent.

Second, in Brasília as in America, you can see the reliable tendency of today’s populists to ‌seek the showy confrontation, the grand and futile act of protest, over the grinding work of politics and policy. This is a quality they have in common with right-wing radicals (and other radicals) of the past. But cable news and the internet has magnified the opportunities for unreal gestures, pure performativity, fan bases built on an unremitting series of glorious defeats. It doesn’t matter if the revolution is ever real; so long as it’s on television, that’s enough.

For populism’s enemies, center-left and liberal, this combination of attributes has saved them more than once from the consequences of their own hubris or mistakes. Blunder as our elite institutions might, the populist rebels and their avatars are usually ready with a greater fecklessness, a stumblebum anti-politics, a toxic mix of the authoritarian and the incompetent — and then, as in the new Republican House of Representatives or Liz Truss’s ill-fated Tory government, a cycling back to the unpopular agendas that provoked populist rebellion in the first place.

This leaves those who can’t rally to liberalism, who are stuck for one reason or another on the right (or on the left-wing fringe), with two main options. They can look hopefully in the chaos for hints of a more constructive populism — the sort that exists in theory but not in Trumpian or Bolsonaran practice, the sort that various intellectuals spent the Trump era trying to import into his movement, the sort of new right or even newer left-right fusion that’s always just around the corner.

Alternatively, they can try to look beyond populism entirely, treating it as a failed experiment, as fundamentally unreal in both its plans and its effects as Jan. 8’s bizarre Latin-American imitation of America’s Jan. 6.

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