Bolsonaro is unlikely to give up power without a fight. Key Trump supporters are preparing to do battle for him

29 de setembro de 2022
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On 2 October, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court announced that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Leftist leader and former president, had won the popular vote in the first round of the country’s presidential election – receiving six million more votes than incumbent right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro.

The next day, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and a family friend of Bolsonaro’s, took to his podcast, ‘Bannon’s War Room’, to raise allegations of electoral fraud. Bannon was joined by Matthew Tyrmand, a board member for Project Veritas – a discredited US group that uses hidden cameras to supposedly ‘expose’ leftist journalists – and Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who was fired in 2018 after it emerged he had met with white nationalists two years earlier. (Beattie told US media he had said “nothing objectionable” at this meeting.)

On the podcast, all three men expressed their doubts over Lula’s win. “There was fraud there,” Tyrmand said, based on the fact that early results had shown a lead for Bolsonaro before ballots from the north-eastern region, Lula’s stronghold, were counted.

Bannon agreed, claiming a Bolsonaro defeat was “mathematically impossible”, as his party had won eight seats in the simultaneous Senate election, becoming the largest bloc. There was evidence, Tyrmand suggested, of fraud in the electronic ballots to favour Lula.

But this was not true. The US State Department considers Brazil’s electronic voting system, which has never registered a single instance of fraud since its introduction in 1996, “a model for the (Western) hemisphere countries and the world”. Electoral observation missions from the Organisation of American States, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the US Carter Center noted that the vote was democratic and held transparently and peacefully.

Regardless, disinformation campaigns spread like wildfire in conservative WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Brazil’s fake news migrated to the US, where it was picked up by ‘alternative’ right-wing media, like Bannon’s podcast. This is increasingly commonplace – dozens of Trump allies have established relationships with the Bolsonaro family over the past four years, and supporters of both men employ the same narratives, tactics and platforms to denigrate democracy.

A four-month investigation by Agência Pública, an independent Brazilian journalism agency, found alliances have been built on conspiratorial far-Right narratives, such as the threat of communism and ‘cultural marxism’, which support Trump and Bolsonaro’s populist claims.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Bolsonaro has been nicknamed ‘Trump of the Tropics’. The men share hardline views on crime, immigration and gun control laws, and have both launched attacks on the media and publicly shared claims that their enemies plan to oust them, against ‘the will of the people’, via electoral fraud. They are also friends. Bolsonaro supported Trump on his claims of widespread election fraud in 2020 and was among the last heads of state to recognize Joe Biden’s presidential win, doing so six weeks after the election. In return, Trump effusively backed Bolsonaro’s re-election bid. “He is a wonderful man, and has my Complete & Total Endorsement!!!”, Trump posted on Truth Social, the social media platform he founded, in early September.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s third son and a member of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, has also formed close ties to US conservatives. In August 2018, a few months before his father won the presidency, Eduardo met Bannon in New York, at the offices of Breitbart News, the extreme Right propaganda website, of which Bannon was once executive chairman. “We share the same worldview,” Eduardo tweeted after the meeting. “We are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural Marxism.”

The following year, Bannon named Eduardo the South American representative of The Movement, a platform of rightist political parties that had until then been entirely European, which Bannon put together to “support populist nationalism and reject the influence of globalism”. While The Movement never really took off, it enhanced Eduardo’s status in right-wing circles, with Agência Pública counting 77 visits and meetings between him and key Trump supporters in the past five years.

One such supporter, Mark Ivanyo, the executive director of right-wing think tank Republicans for National Renewal, whose primary goal is building bridges between the US and global rightwingers, sees Eduardo as a key figure. Speaking to Agência Pública, Ivanyo described him as “our primary partner” in Brazil and said he was the keynote speaker at his think tank’s inaugural event in 2020.

The Brazilian connection to the 6 January riot

With neither Lula nor Bolsonaro having achieved more than 50% of the vote in the first round, Brazil will go to the polls in a runoff vote on 30 October. Whatever the result, “Bolsonaro has no intention of losing the election,” Thomas Shannon, the US ambassador to Brazil under Barack Obama, told Agência Pública. He believes he will follow in Trump’s steps and “try to find a way to stay in office”.

Shannon is referring in part to the events of 6 January 2021, when, having refused to accept electoral defeat, Trump encouraged his supporters to “fight like hell”. Hours later, a mob stormed the Capitol building in Washington in efforts to thwart Biden’s election. Eduardo Bolsonaro was in Washington at the time, and mystery still surrounds his “surprise visit”, as Brazilian paper O Globo described it, which the Brazilian embassy in the US said the foreign ministry was not aware of.

While Eduardo’s movements on 6 January have never been disclosed, throughout the rest of his trip – which seems to have spanned from 4-11 January – he posted selfies with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner; Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC); and Daniel Schneider, the then-leader of the American Conservative Union, which organises CPAC conferences.

On the eve of the insurrection, Eduardo met MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a fanatical Trump supporter who the Washington Post later photographed entering the White House with notes appearing to suggest Trump should declare martial law to stay in power. On a livestream on 6 January, Lindell explained a plan to set up a committee to hear evidence of election fraud. He added: “The whole world is watching. I met with Brazil last night, the president of Brazil’s son…”

At the time, President Bolsonaro refused to condemn the attempted insurrection. “You know I am connected to Trump so you know my response here,” he told reporters. “There were people who voted three, four times, dead people who voted,” he falsely claimed.

In Brazil, an orchestrated campaign was busy spreading Trump’s narrative on ‘the Big Lie’ (the terminology Trump and his supporters use to make claims of electoral fraud), according to an analysis by Agência Pública and University of Virginia professor David Nemer. Almost 24,000 tweets were posted using the hashtag ‘#GoTrumpReeleito’, crafted specifically for a Brazilian audience, between October 2020 and February 2021. At least six Brazilian lawmakers, who are allies of Eduardo, also spread claims of the ‘Big Lie’ and praised the 6 January riot on social media.

Fine dining in Copacabana

As well as Eduardo making regular visits to the US to meet with leading right-wingers including Trump, influential American conservatives have also travelled to Brazil to support Bolsonaro.

One secretive meeting took place in September 2021, an explosive moment in Brazilian politics. With his popularity waning, dogged by corruption charges and a record number of impeachment requests in Congress, Bolsonaro urged his supporters to take to the streets on 7 September, Brazil’s national independence day. “We have three alternatives for me: prison, death or victory,” he said at a meeting of evangelical leaders in August, adding that the first was out of the question.

Hundreds of thousands flooded the streets of Brazilian cities, decrying the ‘rigged’ election system and demanding “military intervention” and a “shutdown of the Supreme Court”, which had suspended unconstitutional measures from Bolsonaro. In São Paulo, the country’s largest city, 125,000 people gathered to hear the president say he would not follow judicial orders, proclaiming: “Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.” Truck drivers blocked highways in 14 states, causing fears of food shortages. Some groups tried to storm the Supreme Court building, but were stopped by the police.

The riots cooled down only on 9 September when, under the threat of impeachment, Bolsonaro signed a letter stating he had never attacked the Supreme Court. The day before, while the country was still ablaze, 16 prominent US conservatives attended a dinner at Copacabana Palace, a beachfront hotel in Rio de Janeiro. Agência Pública has spoken to six people who were present at the meeting, which was hosted by Brazil’s National Confederation of Industry (CNI) and was officially a business event, though few of the American attendees were businesspeople. Most were politicians, political operatives and donors.

Republican Mike Lee, an influential senator who supported Trump’s efforts to reverse the election result, was arguably the most important US attendee. There were also at least four political consultants there, three of whom were linked to Republican senator Rand Paul: Sergio Gor, Paul’s former senior adviser (who was also the chief-of-staff on Trump’s reelection ‘Victory Finance Committee’), Connor Hickey, Paul’s former staffer, and Doug Stafford, his longtime chief strategist and fundraiser. The fourth was Nick Luna, Trump’s former personal assistant and bodyguard, who was reportedly in the Oval Office on 6 January when Trump called his vice-president to pressure him not to certify the election results.

Most of the Brazilians in attendance were business executives, with at least two exceptions: Eduardo and Sérgio Sant’Ana, who in 2020 co-founded the Instituto Conservador Liberal (ILC), which organises CPAC conferences in Brazil. The dinner was set up by Sant’Ana and Gor, with Eduardo thanking both for making it possible and especially Gor, “for his role in organising the trip”. The audience applauded.

When asked about the meeting by Agência Pública, Sant’Ana said it was a “private event” organised by Lee and unrelated to the Brazilian government and the ILC. “I don’t exactly know the background of the Americans there, but it was the senator’s [Mike Lee’s] thing,” he said.

After a presentation about the Brazilian economy by CNI president Robson Braga de Andrade, Lee stated that “the US is very friendly with Brazil”, adding that the relationship “has to be strengthened”. Eduardo, meanwhile, talked about the similarities between his father and Trump and said US and Brazilian conservatives were tightly knit with much in common. Eduardo also thanked many of those in the US delegation for meeting with his father in Brasília, the capital city, a few days beforehand. The president’s official schedule, though, mentions only a 45-minute meeting with Lee.

Another off-the-record visitor to the president around that time was the anti-immigration Republican donor and Texas businessman, Don Huffines. Writing on his website on 27 September 2021, Huffines said: “Earlier this month, I visited a courageous leader who shocked the world with his election victory, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. We talked about our shared Christian values ​​and discussed strategies to not only tackle the swamp of the establishment, but defeat it.”

Republican lawmaker Mark Green – who voted against certifying Biden’s election on 6 January – also met with Bolsonaro on 7 September, during a $15,000 six-day trip funded by the American Conservative Union. Green had spoken at a CPAC conference organised by Eduardo just days earlier, and had also met with two Brazilian congresspeople to discuss ‘vote integrity policies’. Green left Brasilia on 8 September.

Electoral support

There is no evidence that anybody in the US provided financial support for Jair Bolsonaro’s re-election bid, which would break Brazilian electoral rules, but it appears likely that US conservatives have given the president political advice. As former ambassador Thomas Shannon said: “I have no doubt US political consultants are providing advice to Bolsonaro… Why else would they be spending time down there? They’re not at the beach drinking caipirinhas.”

Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and vice-chair of the American Conservative Union, told Agência Pública: “Everyone who follows Brazilian politics prays every day for Jair [Bolsonaro] to win the election.” He said he was unaware of any financial support for Bolsonaro’s re-election, which he noted would be illegal. But “to the extent that advice could be legally given, if it was asked for, I’m sure it would be given,” he added.

Over the past year, US ‘free speech’ social network Gettr, run by Donald Trump’s former spokesperson Jason Miller, has sponsored political activities in Brazil that unofficially support Bolsonaro’s re-election campaign. On an episode of Bannon’s podcast released on 6 September 2021, Miller said: “In a lot of ways, President Bolsonaro has the same superpowers that President Trump does.”

Gettr sponsored at least four events held by the ICL in Brazil between September 2021 and June 2022: two CPAC conferences – at least one of which Miller attended – and two regional conservative meetings called Brasil Profundo (Deep Brazil). Gettr did not respond to a question from Agência Pública about how much money it had given to those meetings, though it reportedly paid $75,000 to be a ‘partnering sponsor’ of a different CPAC conference in the US.

Fernando Neisser, who chairs Sao Paulo Lawyers Bar Association’s Political and Electoral Law Commission, said these conferences could be seen as “anticipated electoral campaigns”, which would be illegal in Brazil. Gettr, ICL, CPAC and Bolsonaro did not respond to our requests for comment on this. Miller also did not respond, although he tweeted a Portuguese-language version of this article with the words “fake news”, adding: “CPAC Brasil was organized and conducted well within all permissible guidelines, and well before the August 16th beginning to [Brazil’s] election season.”

On 7 September, the day Bolsonaro’s supporters took to the streets, Eduardo escorted Miller, Tyrmand and Mario Balaban, a spokesperson for Project Veritas, to the Brazilian presidential palace. There, they chatted with the president and his family by the swimming pool, with Miller telling The New York Times that the Brazilians wanted to “kick the tires” on Gettr.

Later that day, the three American men were detained by federal police as they tried to leave Brazil. Gerald Brant – a Brazilian-born New York-based financial executive who is a longtime adviser to the Bolsonaro family and who several sources Agência Pública spoke with consider to be the main middleman between the US and Brazilian Right – was also stopped at the airport. On an order from a Supreme Court judge, the men were questioned about Gettr’s role in spreading misinformation in Brazil, according to Supreme Court documents seen by Agência Pública. None was charged with wrongdoing and all were allowed to leave the country on a private plane hours later.

A political heir

The US Capitol insurrection of 6 January 2021 is currently being investigated by a US House Selection Committee, with Bannon this week sentenced to four months in jail and a fine of $6,500 for refusing to cooperate with the probe.

Representative Jamie Raskin, a member of the committee, told Agência Pública that he is “investigating the ties between the Trump regime and the Trump movement with [Vladimir] Putin and [Hungarian president Viktor] Orban and Bolsonaro”. But another aspect being examined by the committee, Raskin told Brazilian newspapers, is Eduardo’s presence in Washington on the day. Shannon told Agência Pública it is likely Eduardo travelled to the US capital at his father’s request.

He said: “People around Bolsonaro, and especially Eduardo, have really studied the events of January 6 and concluded that Trump failed because he lacked institutional support from key sectors, like the military, and that Bolsonaro needs to figure that out and build that institutional support to stay in power if he loses the election.”

With Lula currently having a slight lead in the polls, Bolsonaro’s political future may now depend in part on the international connections built by his son. Bannon has expressed interest in discussing the Right’s future in Latin America with Eduardo. “What I try to do, especially with Eduardo, is talk about how [to develop] a populist nationalist movement in Latin America, how to connect it, get people from each country to communicate, share ideas, say what’s working or not,” he told the BBC.

Mark Ivanyo, of the Republicans for National Renewal, also sees a bright future ahead for Eduardo. In a tweet from the day of Brazil’s first-round vote, Ivanyo’s think tank wished Bolsonaro “good luck” on Twitter, and sounded optimistic about his son’s political future. Speaking to Agência Pública, Invanyo said: “[Eduardo] is the best and only person who can succeed his father when that time comes.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro, Mike Lee and Sergio Gor didn’t answer our requests for comments, nor did the other members of the US delegation that travelled to Brazil.

*This piece was written for openDemocracy by Agência Pública’s Ken Silverstein, Alice Maciel, Natalia Viana and Laura Scofield

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