For two years we have debated whether the essential feature of the Jan. 6 riot, the mob stirred up to storm the Capitol in frustration over the 2020 election, was the ambition in the background or the futility and unreality up front.
The ambition, which belonged to Donald Trump and his shrunken inner circle, aimed to provoke a constitutional crisis, which was supposed to begin with Mike Pence’s intervention and culminate, somehow, with the House of Representatives voting Trump into a second term. The futility belonged to the rioters, whose violence and vandalism was an expression of dreampolitik rather than a coup — its plan for success nonexistent, its end in mass arrests and imprisonment foreordained. And the challenge of analysing Jan. 6 is that these elements existed together, in an unstable mixture that could theoretically inspire all kinds of imitations — some empty and grifting and fantastical, some destabilising and deadly serious.
Now we have the first major international imitation of our Capitol riot — the riots that took over government buildings in the Brazilian capital last weekend in the name of the defeated populist president Jair Bolsonaro. And whatever you make of the original, so far the imitation falls decisively into the unreal-and-futile category.
The rioters wanted Bolsonaro back in office as the Jan. 6 protesters wanted Trump to continue in the White House. They believed that the Brazilian presidential election had been stolen much as Trump’s supporters believed that Joe Biden had stolen the 2020 election. Their rhetoric echoed the language of American Trumpists.
But their homage to Jan. 6 was just that: an act of pure performance unmoored from the realities of power.
The timing was the tell. Instead of attempting to halt the work of government or disrupt a transfer of power, the Brazilian rioters stormed into Brasília Three Powers Square at a time when its crucial buildings — the Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace — were largely empty. The Congress wasn’t in session, the already-invested President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was away touring flood damage; Bolsonaro himself was hanging out in Florida, not hovering nearby. There was no handover of power to forestall, no government to seize, no leader to restore. The only reason to mount such a protest now, it seemed, was the date: Jan. 8 is close enough to Jan. 6 to provide the necessary imitative frisson.
Even writers who make it their business to be alarmed by the perils of populism seemed a bit baffled by all this. “Today’s riot makes more sense if the point was to create a visual echo of what happened in Washington,” wrote Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic, as opposed to actually blocking Lula “from exercising power.” In the same publication, Yascha Mounk called the scene “surreal”, featuring rioters who “seemed almost to be cosplaying American insurrectionists.”
And since the Jan. 6 experience was itself thick with forms of cosplay — the QAnon Shaman and the people snapping selfies were engaged in a lark, not a serious political intervention — the Brazilian imitation felt even more distant from reality, a LARP (live action role play) of a LARP.
Since Bolsonaro, like Trump, really was elected president, you can’t dismiss all of his populism as simple unreality, any more than you can dismiss the violence that accompanied both of the January protests. (Though the rising violence in Peru, which has been roiled by protests on behalf of a left-wing president who was forced out after attempting to rule by decree, probably deserves more attention than the Brazilian riots at the moment.)
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 FBI 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 have 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, centre-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’ 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Opinion columnist in April 2009 and was previously a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of several books, including “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery” and “The Decadent Society”.