Bolsonaro and Trump in an Offensive against Democracy

As the 2022 elections in Brazil and the United States approach, the threat of political sabotage looms.

The damage caused by Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump in their respective countries and elsewhere will be on Joe Biden’s radar during his first international mission. The trip to Europe that he began this week, in his own words, “is about America rallying the world’s democracies” and renewing U.S. commitment to its allies and partners, demonstrating the will to hone “the ability of democracies to compete and protect our people against the unforeseen threats” of the new era.

If any of you doubted that Bolsonaro and Trump’s scientific denialism and neglect regarding the pandemic would contribute to the death of more than 1 million Brazilian and American citizens, consider the possibility of Brazil and the United States ending next year with their democracies disfigured by the actions of these same leaders. And let’s not forget former Chancellor Ernesto Araújo, who mimics both of them, who was installed as Brazil’s general consul in Washington. If the political forces supporting Bolsonaro and Trump succeed in their ongoing campaign to discredit their countries’ voting systems in the elections to be held next year, it is not about speculation, but probability.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro has reiterated that he will not recognize the result of the next presidential election (in which he will run for reelection) if the vote does not include physical proof of voting. The president of the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court (TSE), Luís Roberto Barroso, who is also a minister of the Supreme Court, ruled out this possibility. Barroso recalled, in a video posted on the court’s website, that 15 elections were held since 2006 using the electronic ballot box developed by the TSE with no cases of irregularity or dispute over the results. The minister recalled that the system is regularly tested in the presence of party representatives and international hackers hired to try to break it: “The system is transparent, secure and auditable,” he said. Its continued use in every election held over the past 25 years has resulted in the victory of candidates of all political hues. However, the proven quality of the system in collecting and counting the votes does not guarantee the choice of good rulers. That is a problem related to political party regulation and not with the electronic ballot box, which is considered trustworthy by voters.

In the United States, voting is optional, the voting system is decentralized, elections are organized by the states and there is no federal supervisory body like the TSE. In contrast to Brazil, there is no popular acceptance of voting in an electronic ballot box without physical proof. If Bolsonaro loses, it is likely that he will evoke this aspect of the U.S. electoral system as an argument to try disrupting next year’s October election. He is following Trump’s example.

The vulnerabilities of the American system have been in evidence since the 2000 election. In that election, Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to Republican candidate George W. Bush in the Electoral College, a body which reflects the size of the states’ populations and decides the outcome. The inverse proportion between the results of the Electoral College and the popular vote was repeated in the 2016 election, which Trump won. However, Trump did not accept Biden’s victory last November.

On Jan. 6, Trump allegedly urged his supporters to invade the Capitol during the certification of state elections results as provided for in the Constitution. Five people died in the confrontation; thousands were arrested and hundreds await trial. But Trump’s denial of his defeat has paid off well. Since then, his position has won the support of nearly three-quarters of Republican voters. Why? Aware that demographic changes will make white Americans a numerical minority in the total population over the next decade, Republicans loyal to Trump are now committed to changing the rules of the game. This year, Republicans presented more than 400 proposals to change electoral laws in the states where they control the legislative assemblies.

The changes aim to create voting obstacles for the growing participation of women, youth and members of racial minorities — Blacks, Latinos and Asians. These groups have been altering the demographic profile of the electorate in favor of Democrats, as happened last November in Georgia. The conservative state of Georgia elected a Jewish man and a Black man to the Senate and gave the Democrats command of the House, despite intimidation tactics used to scare voters, including the physical presence of loud mobs near polling stations and police brutality against Black people in street confrontations.

Historically, the party that controls the White House does poorly in the midterm elections. Therefore, it is plausible that Democrats will lose their meager majority in Congress next year — a fact that, if it does happen, will help Trump and, by extension, also Bolsonaro. The hypothesis of armed militias present at polling stations is no longer unthinkable in Brazil. Even less so in a context where elections in both countries are to be held closely to one another, with the campaign in the United States inevitably reverberating in Brazil.

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