Butterfly Effect: Trump's 'Big Lie' Is Spreading ... Globally
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Six months after Trump left office, the former U.S. leader’s failed but dramatic attempt to stay on in power by discrediting the November election is sparking copycat efforts around the world — from Brazil to Peru and Myanmar to Niger.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
The president is clear. He will not leave office if he believes an election in which he’s defeated is tainted by fraud. He has no compunctions about undermining the credibility of the very democratic process that brought him to power. And his assaults on the electoral process aren’t a one-off. They’re near-daily diatribes meant to convince supporters that the only way he can lose is through electoral malpractice.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has learned well from his friend, former U.S. President Donald Trump. Fifteen months before South America’s largest nation votes in its next presidential election, Bolsonaro — like Trump in America — is chipping away at the legitimacy of his nation’s democratic institutions. Just this month, he has twice refused to commit to a smooth transfer of power if he loses next year, which appears possible given that he’s lagging far behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in polling. Over the past two weeks, Bolsonaro has also sharpened attacks against the country’s top electoral authorities, accusing them of stealing votes in earlier elections — all without evidence.
But Bolsonaro isn’t alone.
Six months since Trump left office, the former U.S. leader’s failed but dramatic attempt to stay on in power by discrediting the November election is sparking copycat efforts around the world. For most of its existence, the U.S. has served as an example that has inspired democratic traditions globally. Now from Brazil to Peru and Niger to Myanmar, America’s recent churn is evidence to some that, by sowing distrust in the political system, you can try to grab control of the levers of power. That Trump has — so far at least — gotten away unscathed and remains as popular with his supporters as ever, only reinforces that belief. It shows others that they have little to lose by trying to emulate what the former American president did.
All of this is an indication of the challenge President Joe Biden faces as he tries to restore America’s international reputation as a bastion of democracy.
In Peru, conservative political scion Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president and despot Alberto Fujimori, tried to overturn the results of the nation’s June presidential runoff for more than a month. She lost the election to rural teacher and Marxist Pedro Castillo by 44,000 votes but refused to concede, alleging voter fraud. Castillo was ultimately declared the president-elect on Monday, while prosecutors continue to investigate attempts by Fujimori to fabricate evidence in support of her claims of fraud.
Two oceans away, Myanmar’s generals also appear to have picked up tips from Trump’s campaign. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was comfortably reelected in November, defeating the party that the army — which had ruled for decades in the Southeast Asian nation — was supporting. The military alleged fraud, but without any evidence that was independently substantiated. Then it threatened a coup. When Suu Kyi’s party refused to buckle, the army acted on its threat, grabbing power in February and placing the 76-year-old and other top NLD leaders under house arrest. Hundreds of protesters agitating against the military coup have died in the subsequent crackdown by security forces.
Israel’s longest-serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, tried to use the same strategy as Trump, Bolsonaro, Fujimori and Myanmar’s generals when an opposition coalition came together to dethrone him in June. Netanyahu claimed Israel had witnessed the biggest fraud in its electoral history.
And in Niger, opposition leader Mahamane Ousmane insisted he had been denied by fraudulent efforts after he lost the West African nation’s February presidential election to Mohamed Bazoum. That was even though international observers concluded the election had been fair. Outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou had broken with the growing trend in the region to stay on in power, instead refusing to seek a third term.
It would be tempting to conclude that in most nations, Trumpian attempts to reverse the popular mandate have failed. But in country after country, those efforts have seriously undermined democracy. Where institutions bent but didn’t break, there’s no guarantee they’ll remain resilient the next time a powerful populist challenges a vote count. Where the military itself has a vested interest, as in Myanmar, Trump’s example has already offered a way to overthrow a fragile democracy, while claiming to actually be defending the people’s will.
Brazil in particular could prove a litmus test. The scars from its former military dictatorship — from 1964 to 1985 — are still fresh for many Brazilians. Bolsonaro and many of his closest aides are former army officers who have spoken of those traumatic years with pride. And Bolsonaro has drawn far deeper lessons from Trump than to just cry fraud.
As OZY reported in November, social media bots linked to Bolsonaro tried to influence U.S. public opinion in favor of Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, amplifying them on platforms like Twitter. Experts believe that was, in part, a trial run ahead of Brazil’s 2022 election.
None of this reflects well on American democracy. But reduced trust in democratic institutions globally has bigger consequences: It opens up space for America’s autocratic rivals in Russia and China to bolster their influence in other democracies. This is why the globalization of Trump’s “big lie” isn’t just Brazil’s problem. Or Peru’s. Or Myanmar’s. Or Niger’s. It’s America’s cross to bear too.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi