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No Impunity for Insurrectionists

When aspiring dictators are not held accountable for attempting to overthrow democratic governments, they tend to return, emboldened. Brazil, currently reeling from an attack on its Supreme Court and National Congress, may be showing that a credible threat of accountability can restrain would-be autocrats.

CHICAGO – Brazil now has its own version of the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol by supporters of the defeated president, Donald Trump. Two years and two days later, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the National Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace in Brasília, solidifying Bolsonaro’s credentials as the “Trump of the Tropics.”

The uncanny similarity between Brazil’s failed insurrection and the attack on the US Capitol highlights the many parallels between Bolsonaro and Trump. Both are far-right, antidemocratic one-term presidents who offered only disinformation and bravado during the COVID-19 pandemic, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Both harangued the press and challenged their judiciaries’ independence. Both claimed that only massive fraud and rigged voting machines could defeat their re-election bids. Their legacies are the millions of citizens who doubt the integrity of their countries’ elections and the thousands who sacked their own capitals and brutalized police officers in a futile effort to overthrow democracy.

But the subtle differences between the post-presidencies of Bolsonaro and Trump underscore the importance of prosecuting antidemocratic former leaders. Many Americans fear that indicting Trump for inciting an insurrection would produce a tit-for-tat dynamic in which each succeeding administration used the courts to settle political scores. But Brazil’s history since the restoration of democracy in 1989 suggests otherwise.