“As president and as a citizen, I will continue to follow our constitution,” Bolsonaro announced instead, authorizing the transition to Lula. And with that sign, democracy in Brazil, at least for the time being, was preserved and even strengthened.
Now turn to America, after a bitter and ugly mid-term that, this morning, leaves power still suspended in Congress and in several states. The biggest question yet to be answered is this: After the presidential election in 2024, will the United States be able to reaffirm its values as Brazil did?
It may or may not. And if that ambiguity doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention. Depending on the count, between 253 and 291 MAGA Republicans on federal and state ballots across the US yesterday are, in one way or another, partisans of Donald Trump as he propagates the Big Lie that a presidential election was stolen 2020. Many people report a violent uprising on January 6, 2021, denying – despite a lot of evidence – that it was an attempted coup d’etat. After riding Trump’s coattails, most of them will support The Donald in his potential rematch against President Joe Biden in two years.
What will that election look like? In 2020, Trump and his minions made a sustained effort, documented with shocking accuracy by the January 6th Congressional Committee, to use lies, intimidation, fraud and violence to make a legitimate election. If that putsch attempt failed, it was because enough officials across the country – and especially enough Republicans – were against the truth and stood by the truth.
Next time around, maybe not. “Anyone who denies the results of an election is also saying that he will deny the results of other elections,” says Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale and author of “On Tyranny.” With that pre-programmed tension, America could be headed in 2024 for what could be called a constitutional crisis, but which could actually resemble a low-grade civil war.
That nightmare is not yet inevitable. But a glance at history suggests that it is plausible. Republics founder all the time, and trends in the United States and elsewhere have been disturbing enough to cause a burst of research on “How Democracies Die.” The short answer is that their death does not have to be spectacular and sudden, like that of Chile in 1973. More often than not, freedom fails like marriages, companies and dams proverbially do: first gradually, then suddenly.
My favorite case studies are Republican Rome and Weimar Germany. Both shared many of the characteristics of institutional decay with the US today. The first was to repeatedly break the taboos, especially the one against political violence.
In the Roman Republic, it began with the murder of the two Gracchi brothers in 133 BC. and 121 BC In the United States, the latest taboo was broken with the sack of the Capitol in 2021. Just the other day, a man broke into the house of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with the intention of kneeling her; in his absence, he decided to take her hammer to her husband’s head. What lies ahead?
At the same time as this erosion of taboo and decorum, there is a cynical abandonment of truth as standard. The term “Big Lie” comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. When we can no longer agree on facts — and worse, once we can no longer say that truth exists at all — we cannot respect the verdicts of the courts, nor the legitimacy of any institution.
In such a context, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. This passage, attributed to the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, describes Republican Rome, Weimar and the USA today, among other places. Then, as now, enough people — in the elite and the electorate — are able to serve themselves to unscrupulous Caesars until it is too late. One excuse for apathy on November 8 is that the elections were not really about democracy, but about “bread and butter issues” like inflation.
And so the citizens of democracies sleep the sunset into tyranny. One detail that I have always been curious about is that neither Hitler nor Octavian – better known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor – was prevented from annulling the constitutions of the republics they broke. Hitler ignored the Weimar constitution, which was not officially achieved until after the defeat of Germany in 1945. Octavian, for his part, carefully preserved a republican pageantry, with its Senate, Consuls, Praetors and Tribunes. It’s just that everyone knew it was just for show. It is entirely conceivable that the gravediggers of the American Republic will have “We the People” tattooed on their arms.
But we are not at that point yet. Sometimes in history, good people stop doing nothing, and start doing something. They rise above partisan loyalty or resist the sedation of apathy – or the seduction of power – and heed the call of duty. Bolsonaro and many Brazilians did. Americans, regardless of party, can too.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
Borgen Shows USA and UK How to Do Democracy Right: Andreas Kluth
The Race to Quit: Are Brexiteers or Republicans ahead?: Martin Ivens
January 6 Panel Proves Again Trump Must Be Accountable: Timothy L. O’Brien
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. He is a former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, and the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion