On 8 January 2023, the Brazilian extreme right achieved international prominence. In Brasilia, the national capital, thousands of people dressed in patriotic colours with the national flag and attacked federal government buildings, seeking to violently overthrow the newly-elected President Lula da Silva. Although these scenes resembled the US Capitol attack two years prior, it would be inaccurate to reduce the Brazilian event to a reproduction of what occurred in the USA. In Brazil, the attempted coup is a further illustration of a lengthy process of democratic crisis, along with the advance of challenges to the electoral system and the presence of extremist groups in the daily political sphere.
The institutional deterioration, particularly the relationship with the Brazilian Army, paints an even more critical and complex scenario. To understand the scope of this phenomenon and the political impacts at regional and global levels, it is important to consider that the Brazilian extreme right – notably, Bolsonarism – reconciles historical mobilisation myths, mainly anti-communism and militarisation bias, and contemporary features largely due to the prolific use of information technologies and social media by these groups.
The Brazilian extreme right is expanding and diversifying. Since the 2010s, groups and individuals have organised themselves via social media. The ‘new right’ has been shaped both by the demands for formal spaces and informal spheres for these groups to act and by the possibility of integrating individuals through platforms such as Orkut. The extreme right has since manifested in both the formal political sector and in what we can effectively consider to be a more militant and street-based formation.
This Insight provides a historical overview of Brazil’s far-right and the characteristics that distinguish the events of 8 January in Brasilia from the US’ January 6th insurrection in 2021. I also highlight where the contemporary far-right movement in Brazil has borrowed from their US counterparts, especially ideas and strategies that became prominent during Trump’s presidency. Throughout, I highlight how Bolsanarists, especially the more radical factions, leveraged social media to mobilise and coordinate their followers.
History of the Brazilian Far Right
With regard to the political viewpoints of the Brazilian extreme right, there are many characteristics which align with the extreme right globally: the rejection of progressive left-wing tendencies; the struggle against ‘cultural Marxism’, multiculturalism and ‘globalism’; anti-feminism; an opposition to quota politics, and a Christian nationalist agenda. While these components connect the Brazilian extreme right to their international counterparts, the more localised features act as a kind of catalyst with gradations between them. Two key features should be mentioned: references to historical fascism and military extremism. Contemporary extreme right groups in Brazil are increasingly seen to incorporate historical fascist political imagery in their messaging, mainly coming from Ação Integralista Brasileira, the largest extra-European fascist organisation, whose motto was “God, Fatherland and Family”. In the domain of the military extreme right, the resurgence occurred around the praise of the last military dictatorship (1964-1985) and the idolatry of people linked to the regime such as torturers, which was largely evoked by Jair Bolsonaro.
Elements of the two historical waves have been adopted by the Brazilian extreme right today, with calls for increased militarisation and authoritarian measures. In addition, the far-right references the defence of nationalism with a moralising tone and combines anti-communist rhetoric with conspiracy theories to incite mobilisation. These are the main components that are unique to the Brazilian case. From Jair Bolsonaro’s most recent presidential campaign slogan (“God, Fatherland, Family and Freedom”, an updated reference to the integralist motto) to the proposals for a military coup justified in a fallacious reading of the Brazilian Constitution, there is a clear tie between past and present far-right movements.
In recent years, Jair Bolsonaro has employed these characteristics to mobilise the electorate and his most radical base. Bolsonaro has supported a structured campaign of disinformation and dissemination of fake news. In parallel, Bolsonaro’s government had greater military involvement than the previous military dictatorship, using the possibilities of democratic ruptures to appeal to the army.
In addition to drawing on the historical characteristics of the far-right in Brazil, Bolsonaro and his followers also drew on contemporary, transnational activities of the far-right, especially those ideas that gained prominence under Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States. In Brazil, Trump’s America was used as a template to challenge chancellery and mobilise digital activism. Christian nationalism and the defence of proposals such as homeschooling were other elements of Bolsonarism that were imported from the United States. In terms of aesthetics and language, the influence of the most radical figures in the movement has been growing. In 2019, the vaporwave aesthetic took considerable space in the field of online Bolsonarism. In 2020, the interface between conspiracies of the alt-right and the QAnon grew in intensity.
The Path to January 8th
The constant tension between Jair Bolsonaro and democratic institutions, especially the Judiciary, has resulted in legal battles and modulations in the Bolsonarist discourse. In the 2018 election, the main electoral disinformation strategy occurred on encrypted instant messaging apps and groups. Judicial restrictions, as well as the companies’ own content moderation strategies, led to the increased use of less regulated apps such as Telegram, as well as the use of social media with a markedly conservative focus, such as Gettr.
In the months preceding the electoral process that culminated in Bolsonaro’s defeat, the established mobilising myths were activated with greater intensity. The fable of electoral fraud linked the repertoires of Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, but in the Brazilian case, once again, it was strengthened by the solid appeal to the participation of the militaries, who were in favour of monitoring the elections and sought to protect them.
After Bolsonaro’s defeat, social media was used to mobilise these groups for putschist initiatives. Strategically, the groups began to demand a military takeover. Some conspiracy theorists predicted that military personnel, such as General Augusto Heleno (then-commander of the Institutional Security Cabinet of the Presidency) was the genuine President of the Republic.
These far-right groups promptly took to the streets. First, there was a nationwide occupation of highways. The digital platforms were an important tool to coordinate the groups’ actions. After the occupation of the highways, camps were established in military locations throughout the country. The discourse of the opposition was aimed exclusively towards a violent solution, with military ambitions and the end of democratic norms. It should be noted, however, that the apparent decentralisation of the groups in apps did not necessarily mean that there were no leaders or organisers., as would become clear later on.
On 12 December 2022, the certification ceremony of Lula da Silva, the elected president, took place. In practical terms, the purpose of this event was to confirm the results of the polls and define the process for the investiture ceremony. During the ceremony, Bolsonarist militants attacked the headquarters of the Federal Police, setting buses and cars on fire. On December 24, a bombing plan was thwarted. The explosive artefact was installed in a fuel transport truck, near Brasília airport. Despite these events, there had been no initiative on the part of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, nor of the Army Forces, to dismantle the camps in military zones.
The mobilisation of those that attacked government buildings can be connected to Jair Bolsonaro’s pronouncements during his presidency. On September 7 2021, Independence Day in Brazil, Bolsonaro led a solemnity that directly attacked the institutions, especially the Judiciary. In his words: “I will only leave in jail, dead or victorious. I want to tell the scoundrels that I will never be arrested”.
During the electoral process, and especially after the victory of Lula da Silva, the mobilisation of the most radical groups was intense. Groups utilised social media and messenger services using coded language to coordinate their mobilisation For the orchestration of the attempted coup on January 8, a call with ‘Selma’s Party’ was organised. Selma, in this case, is not a proper name, but a coded use of ‘Selva!’, an interjection common in military circles, and a slogan widely appropriated by Bolsonarists. On one hand, the term worked as an appeal to the military and the proposed coup, and on the other, it provided a sense of community among militants and their ‘battle’ against enemies.
Strategically, digital map apps were used to organise the buses leaving from all over the country bound for Brasilia. With the title ‘Viagem para a Praia’ (Trip to the Beach), the trip to ‘Festa da Selma’ included a dress code with the national colours.
Between January 8 and 9, the occupation and destruction of government buildings contrasted with the complacency of police forces and the leniency of members of the Brazilian Army. After the intervention of the Federal Government over the Federal District city, the instruction was to dismantle the campsites in Brasília. The event was surrounded by tension, as the Army refused to comply with the order immediately. Moreover, camps were protected, as well as people involved in the invasion of the buildings, with armoured vehicles.
The days following the coup attempt were days of diversification in extreme right-wing circles. Groups with more conservative religious bias sought to disseminate the thesis of ‘infiltrated communist militants’. On the other hand, several extreme-right groups, not exclusively Bolsonarists, voiced support for violent acts intending to deepen the political crisis. Neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups, including accelerationists, expressed interest in radicalising Bolsonaro’s fanbase further.
The Bolsonarist phenomenon, in articulation since the 2010s, cannot be seen as a monolithic group. The diversity of trends is related to the demands of numerous social groups in the country linked to distinct historical traditions of the extreme right and global far-right discourses. While there are some areas of comparison between the events in the US and Brazil, a comparative analysis is limited in some key aspects.
It is necessary to frame right-wing extremism in Brazil in relation to global issues, but also the recent dictatorial experience. The Brazilian dictatorship was characterised by a high degree of military presence in Brazilian politics, the capacity of mobilisation in support of anti-democratic terms and a degree of permeation of right-wing extremism within the army. This is a scenario that also concerns security demands in the context of the Ibero-American extreme right and populist radical-right leaderships. Considering this, the Brazilian case should not be considered to be disconnected from a global panorama.
The key comparison that can be made between these movements and events is evaluating how anti-democratic and extremist discourses and the use of social media to articulate groups can wield an even more profound impact in countries with a late democratic transition and a history of institutional turmoil.
Odilon Caldeira Neto is a historian, Professor of Contemporary History at the Department of History of the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora), Brazil. He is the coordinator of the ‘Extreme Right Observatory’ in Brazil. He works with extreme right and transnationalism themes, focusing on neo-fascist groups and their relations with the radical right. Twitter: @odiloncaldeira