“As president and citizen, I will continue to follow our constitution,” Bolsonaro said instead, delegating power to Lula. With that gesture, Brazil’s democracy, at least for now, was preserved and strengthened.
Now turn to America after the bitter and ugly midterms that have left Congress and several states suspended as of this morning. The biggest question that remains unanswered is this: Come the 2024 presidential election, will the United States be able to reaffirm its values as Brazil did?
It may or may not happen. If that ambiguity doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention. By count, between 253 and 291 of MAGA Republicans on federal and state ballots across the US yesterday have, in one way or another, become partisans of Donald Trump in spreading the big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Many people make false pretenses about the violent uprising that took place on January 6, 2021, denying that it was an attempt at conspiracy – despite ample evidence. Popular on Trump’s coattails, many will back Donald in an expected rematch against President Joe Biden in two years.
What will that election look like? In 2020, Trump and his allies orchestrated a sustained effort, documented with devastating precision by the January 6th Committee of Congress, to use lies, intimidation, fraud and violence to overturn a legitimate election. If that pushback failed, it was because enough officials across the country — and especially enough Republicans — resisted and asserted the truth.
Next time it won’t be. “Anyone who rejects the results of one election is also rejecting the results of another election,” says Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian and author of “On Tyranny.” With that tension pre-programmed, America may be headed for what might be called a constitutional crisis in 2024, but in reality looks like a low-level civil war.
That nightmare is not yet inevitable. But a look at history shows that it is plausible. Ever the founder of republics, and trends in the United States and elsewhere have worried enough to spark an explosion of research on “how democracy dies.” The short answer is that their deaths don’t have to be as spectacular and sudden as Chile’s in 1973. Often, freedom fails as marriages, companies, and dams proverbially do: first gradually, then suddenly.
My favorite case studies are Republican Rome and Weimar Germany. Both shared with the United States today many of the defining characteristics of corporate decline. The first is the repeated breaking of taboos, especially the one against political violence.
In the Roman Republic, it began in B.C. 133 and B.C. With the assassination of the two Gracchi brothers in 121 in Weimar, it began with the assassination of centrist and left-wing politicians by right-wing mobs in the early 1920s. In the United States, the ban was broken in 2021 with the removal of the capital sack. The other day, a man broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home with the intention of forcing her to her knees. In her absence, he decided to take his hammer to her husband’s head. What’s next?
Parallel to these bans and the erosion of fancy, there is a cynical abandonment of truth as a standard. The term “Big Lie” actually comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Once we can no longer agree with the facts—and, worse, when we can no longer dictate that truth exists at all—we can no longer respect the judgments of courts or the legitimacy of any institution.
In such a context, the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. This quote, oddly attributed to the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke, describes Republican Rome, Weimar, and the United States today, among other places. Then as now, plenty of people—both elite and electorate—will harbor unscrupulous wannabe Caesars until it’s too late. One excuse for apathy on November 8 is that elections are not really about democracy, but about “bread and butter issues” like inflation.
So citizens of sunset democracies fall asleep to tyranny. One detail I’ve always been curious about is that neither Hitler nor Octavian – better known as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome – ever bothered to annul the constitutions of the republics they overthrew. Hitler simply ignored the Weimar Constitution, which was officially revoked only after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Octavian, for his part, carefully guarded the republican shows with its senate, consuls, praetors, and tribunes. Everyone knew it was just for show. It’s entirely conceivable that “We the People” will be tattooed on the arms of the gravediggers of the American Republic.
But we are not there yet. Sometimes in history the good men begin to do something by doing nothing. They rise above partisan loyalties, or resist apathy — or the lure of power — and obey the call of duty. Bolsonaro and most Brazilians did. Americans, regardless of their party, can too.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
Borgen shows US and UK how to do democracy right: Andreas Kluth
Race to Disunity: Brexiteers or Republicans Ahead?: Martin Evans
Jan. 6 Committee Proves Trump Accountable Again: Timothy L. O’Brien
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist on Bloomberg covering European politics. A former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion