America exporting far-right violent extremism in Brazil and beyond

By | January 13, 2023

By Jacob Ware, Council on Foreign Relations, January 10, 2023

Just two days after Americans had marked the two-year anniversary of the horror that visited the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, an eerily familiar scene played out four thousand miles south, in Brasilia, Brazil. Angered by recent election results and perceptions of foul play, supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Brazilian presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court. “It was an attack on democracy, on the constitution. It was an attempted coup d’état, which failed to materialize,” Brazil’s communications minister Paulo Pimenta declared. Unlike January 6, in Brazil, the attack occurred after the new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had already been inaugurated—therefore there did not necessarily seem to be a coherent purpose behind the riot, beyond the destruction of Brazilian democratic institutions.

Despite piecemeal efforts of social media companies, conspiracy theories questioning the results and alleging wrongdoing had spread rapidly on social media after the election, mobilizing and angering Bolsonaro supporters from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Bolsonaro supporters gathered in a series of makeshift camps throughout the country, including protestors at military bases demanding the army step in to address electoral fraud. Those camps have now been dismantled by security forces after the riot. Bolsonaro has denounced Sunday’s attack, but helped sow the seeds by spreading conspiracy theories about the election before it was even held two months ago. “Without a doubt, former president Bolsonaro has responsibility,” Portuguese foreign minister João Gomes Cravinho said. “His voice is heard by these anti-democratic demonstrators.” This was not the first instance of violence in response to the election results: a man had previously been arrested for trying to break into the new president’s inauguration party armed with a knife and explosives—possibly part of a global trend of rising political assassination attempts—while another individual was arrested for plotting to set off a bomb, hoping to create “chaos” and “prevent the establishment of communism in Brazil.”

Although Pimenta noted that the attack was more serious than its American counterpart, January 6 seemingly provided a model for the protestors. Similarly inspired by a range of conspiracy theories mourning perceived electoral fraud and touted by their preferred candidate, the attackers overran police lines and ransacked the government buildings, causing widespread property damage and injuring over seventy people, including police officers and reporters. As the research group the Soufan Center had warned in late September, “Ironically, the United States, historically known for exporting democracy, is now associated with developing the playbook for dictators and strongmen to use to sow doubt about democratic elections, while simultaneously offering a blueprint for authoritarian leaders to seize power by force.” There was also direct support: Stephen Bannon, a former White House official, advised the Bolsonaro campaign after the defeat, helped spread electoral conspiracy theories, and on Monday called the rioters “freedom fighters.” It may be no coincidence that Brazil was the U.S. ally to suffer the most serious January 6 copycat—analysts have long discussed the similarities and close relationship between Donald Trump and Bolsonaro and their respective political playbooks.

This was, unfortunately, not the first time American far-right violent extremism and activism had provided a model for counterparts abroad. QAnon, for instance, has become a global phenomenon. Though its American variant revolves around Trump, alleging that the former president was divinely chosen to rid Washington, DC, of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controlling banks, the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party, it has been adopted in other contexts and tailored to local grievances—including, crucially for the Brazilian case study, in Portuguese. In Germany, meanwhile, police in December arrested a far-right cell that intended to overthrow the government. They had been inspired by QAnon and related conspiracy theories.

But it is not just anti-democratic movements taking their inspiration from the United States. Neo-Nazi terrorists abroad frequently cite American inspiration. The gunman who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, killing fifty-one worshippers, claimed to use firearms in his attack “for the affect it would have on social discourse, the extra media coverage they would provide, and the affect it could have on the politics of United states and thereby the political situation of the world.” An October 2022 shooting at a gay bar in Slovakia, meanwhile, cited a mass shooting targeting Buffalo’s Black community in May as inspiration. Although extremists do not always formally collaborate across borders, social media provides the common marketplace where they communicate and share ideas and methods, with many abroad taking U.S.-origin conspiracies and applying them to their own homelands.

As the United States gears up to lead its allies into a new era of global strategic competition, domestic discord and violence undermine the liberal democratic project, making the democratic model both less attractive to would-be partners as well as more vulnerable to foreign interference. Washington has failed to sufficiently protect democratic norms and values, both at home and among allies. Indeed, as terrorism expert Matthew Levitt wrote after January 6, “we have become exporters of right-wing extremism, damaging one of our best weapons in securing our international standing—our example.”

As the far-right threat to Western liberal democracy has internationalized, the U.S. response must also be global. Partners around the region and the world have loudly condemned Sunday’s events, as many did after January 6. Previously, governments have put forth initiatives such as the Christchurch Call and Delhi Declaration in an effort to counter the spread of extremist material online. And the United Nations has begun to focus on the issue, recently publishing its first report on “terrorist attacks on the basis of xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion and belief” and specifically noting the danger of its globalization. More must now be done to combat far-right violent extremism’s free rein on social media, boost prevention initiatives, undermine transnational conspiracy theories, and interdict international terrorist financing. Both Brazil and the United States must put more financial and human resources toward fighting violent extremism, while joining international efforts in this space.

And the United States needs to play a leading role in those global measures—restoring its place as leader of the free and democratic world, not as leading exporter of far-right violent extremism.

This article originally appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations. Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.

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