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Organized Lie and the Keys of the Bolsonarist Coup d’État Mentality 

Just as it happened with the failed Trumpist coup of January 6, 2021, in Brazil the manufactured lies from above were incredibly taken as true, and motivated actions from below. For leaders like Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump, politics is part of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “organized lie”. In this context, politicians use “deliberate falsehood as a weapon against the truth”. In this revisionist world, the most irrational, messianic, and paranoid visions are falsely presented as history and present, motivating the most extremist actions such as the failed and pathetic coup d’état of January 8, 2023. 

The attacks against the institutional past and the continuous lies about them constitute the model of an anti-democratic future, but also a guide to terrorism for the present. These lies are not concrete guidelines, but mandates and ideological premises that encourage anti-democratic action.

The violent occupation of the buildings of the three branches of the state in Brazil last January 8, leaves us with at least five first historical lessons to understand the morphology of the armed lie that motivated the coup plotters actions.

Let’s start with the first lesson: the appropriate vocabulary to understand what happened. Let us use the right words: attempted coup d’état, an attack against democracy, terrorism, fascist groups, and fascist aim of destroying democracy. Confronting these events, it is necessary to make their practical and ideological perpetrators pay, with the full force of the law.

Wrong words and misconceptions: protests, demonstrators, and the idea of two extremist camps struggling. This last version of the mentality of always thinking that every political issue has two legitimate positions leads to downplaying the seriousness of the events. In particular, Brazil experienced an attack against democracy by Bolsonarist sectors that do not recognize its functioning. Therefore, in Brazil there continues to be, on the one hand, a conflict between sectors lacking legitimacy because of their anti-democratic positions and, on the other hand, a democratic political arc (left, center, and right) which includes, and to some extent leads, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

On the other hand, to understand what happened we must not forget a central key to the history of fascism: its legal repression becomes necessary when it tries to destroy democracy. This is the second lesson. Its criminal acts of terrorism against democratic institutions must be stopped with full legal force before it is too late. This is what should have happened from the moment these extremist sectors, the fascist vanguard of bolsonarist populism, amassed in Brasília to claim something constitutionally irreclaimable: not acknowledge the election results and reinstate by dictatorial acclamation the outgoing president.

Another key lesson from the history of fascism and also from the Trumpist coup of January 6 is that the responsibility of leaders cannot be ignored or minimized. Bolsonaro’s ideological responsibility is clear, as was Donald Trump’s, or Benito Mussolini’s for having been the ideological instigator of the assassination of the main opposition leader in 1924. The socialist congressman Giacomo Matteotti was assassinated after having denounced the illegality and fascist violence by a gang of henchmen who had proven links with Mussolini’s government.

The dictator acknowledged his “political, moral and historical responsibility”, but continued to rule as if nothing had happened. Despite a mini-crisis and widespread rejection that eventually proved to be short-lived, the fact that Mussolini paid no price for his actions paved the way for fascism to become a full-fledged dictatorship. Or to put it another way, fascist totalitarianism became fully entrenched when its crimes had no consequences.

A fourth lesson relates to the distortion of the past and the present. Like Mussolini, Bolsonaro, whose lies about the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccines helped normalize, and even drive death and disease in his country, has made propaganda and myth the predominant form of politics.  

Currently, the same mechanism is being used to distort the reality of recent events. There is already talk of “infiltrators” or similar responsibilities of the left, and these blatant lies are articulated by Steve Bannon in the United States and by other ultra-right populist leaders such as the Argentine Javier Milei. Milei has not denounced the coup d’état as such and relies on a statement by the Madrid Forum which, in an amorphous way, “condemns in the most categorical way the violence exercised by those who stormed the Planalto Palace”, but above all denounces those who denounced the violence, emphasizing, in turn, the “double standards” of the left and progressivism.

This entity is an initiative of the Disenso Foundation, presided over by the post-fascist leader Santiago Abascal, of Vox, and whose “Madrid Charter” was signed in 2020 by Milei, Eduardo Bolsonaro, Giorgia Meloni (Prime Minister of Italy) and the failed candidate for the Presidency of Chile and admirer of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, José Antonio Kast.

It is remarkable how these characters insist on their fantasies and lies. Like their idols Trump and Bolsonaro, these far-right populist politicians constantly lie about democracies and dictatorships and represent in different ways some dangers to democracy.

A final and fifth lesson is how these kinds of lies generate events whose projection is global. In the same way that Mussolini’s dictatorship in the 1920s influenced Hitler’s path in the following decade, the Trumpist coup marked Bolsonarism. In fact, the day after the seizure of the Capitol, Bolsonaro threatened that Brazil was “going to have a worse problem” if it did not change its electoral systems, that is, if it lost the elections.

Now, after denying any participation in the seizure of the three branches of power, Bolsonaro posted on his Facebook account a text saying that Lula was not elected by the people but by the courts of justice. If Bolsonaro is not held accountable for his continued instigation of crime against democracy, other similar actions will be seen again.

This way of managing lies to replace reality motivated Trump’s supporters to take over Congress and continues to motivate the conspiratorial fantasies of American extremism. The similarity between the two actions and factions is a product of mutual ideological influences. In both cases, fascism is just around the corner.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Otros artículos del autor

Profesor de Historia de New School for Social Research (Nueva York). Fue profesor en Brown University. Doctor por Cornell Univ. Autor de varios libros sobre fascismo, populismo, dictaduras y el Holocausto. Su último libro es "Brief History of Fascist Lies" (2020).


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