From Washington to Brasilia, history is often written by the losers

Two insurrections in the Americas remind us that winners are not the only ones with the power to define the future

Supporters of Brazilian former President Jair Bolsonaro invade the presidential palace while clashing with security forces in Brasilia on January 8, 2023. AFP
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Two years ago, as thousands of rioters staged a violent takeover of the US Capitol in a bid to overturn Donald Trump’s presidential election defeat, Hope Hicks, a White House aide, pleaded with the outgoing president to condemn their actions. His unwillingness to do so was “damaging his legacy”, she suggested.

“Nobody will care about my legacy if I lose…the only thing that matters is winning,” he allegedly responded. Paradoxically, Mr Trump’s determination to be guided by the oft-repeated cliche that “history is written by the winners” seems to have confirmed the very opposite. January 6, 2021 is sure to earn a place in American history books – its consequences, which continue to help paralyse American politics today, shaped almost entirely by Mr Trump’s behaviour as after losing the election.

This week, another capital in the Americas saw its own history re-written by apoplectic losers, in near-identical fashion. On Sunday, thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, who recently lost the Brazilian presidency to Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, stormed official buildings in the capital, Brasilia, overwhelming police. Much like the US insurrectionists in 2021, the rioters forced their way into the country’s legislative building, smashing windows and taking selfies as they scampered contemptuously through the corridors of power. Mr Bolsonaro, who is believed to be in the US state of Florida, waited several hours before issuing a half-hearted condemnation via Twitter.

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Another capital in the Americas saw its own history re-written by apoplectic losers

Many critics of both Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro attribute their respective refusals to cede victory to their own political aspirations. But the motivation driving their supporters is more abstract. The common factor, it seems, is a deep-rooted and ever-growing distrust in their countries’ governing institutions. American insurrectionists were not simply angry to see Mr Trump go; for weeks in the run-up to the election, a great number of them were convinced there was a concerted effort by shadowy powers-that-be to rig the vote against him. In Brasilia this week, many “Bolsonaristas” were less concerned with seeing the former president remain in office than they were with preventing Mr da Silva, who was previously imprisoned on corruption charges, from taking power. Graffiti left behind by some of the rioters in Brasilia calls for a military coup, supposedly in order to stop the new left-wing president from bringing about communism.

A deep and often-conspiratorial distrust of institutions is not a phenomenon isolated to the Americas. In countries where corrupt institutions have often earned such contempt, it has come to define politics. The Middle East has a number of such examples. And the results – the emergence of a culture that promotes partisan violence over good-faith institution-building – provide a cautionary tale for not only would-be rioters elsewhere, but also the governments they so despise. This summer, Iraqi protesters supporting the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, who was cut out of a power-sharing deal by a real-life conspiracy, twice stormed the parliament in Baghdad. The protests and counter-protests brought Iraq to the brink of civil unrest – an outcome averted by Mr Al Sadr bowing out of politics.

In countries that hold elections, the peaceful transfer of power is a vital pillar. It is not easy to earn the trust of millions of people. Governing institutions as old as those of Washington and Brasilia have managed to do so over centuries of constant – albeit imperfect – service to the public. In most cases, and certainly in countries as successful as the US and Brazil, seeking to destroy them is rarely the cure to their ills. Improving them, peacefully and over time, usually is. Those who win control of these institutions have a great deal of responsibility to ensure that this can be done. But an even greater onus lies with the losers.

Published: January 10, 2023, 3:00 AM