Not long ago, it would have been difficult for anyone in the United States to imagine a sitting president responding to an election loss by claiming his rightful victory had somehow been stolen—let alone that it would inspire a partisan attack on the U.S. Congress. Now, with recent events in Brazil, there appears a danger that election denial and political violence could be spreading globally. After the Brazilian general election in October, the country’s then-president, Jair Bolsonaro, announced that his defeat was the result of widespread electoral fraud. And on January 8—two years and two days after the U.S. Capitol riot—a mob of his supporters attacked and vandalized federal government buildings in Brasília, hoping to prompt military leaders to carry out a coup d'état and reinstall Bolsonaro. It all seemed very familiar. Has Donald Trump changed the playbook for the world’s anti-democratic populists?

Lucan Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books on authoritarianism. As Way sees it, while Trump has altered the political life of his country, and is still influencing political life beyond it, his most infamous populist technique can only go so far. While election denial has now been the pretext for political riots in two Western capitals, the only sustained benefit to its instigators has been to keep hardcore supporters engaged—at the cost of alienating others, activating opponents, and even, more in Brazil, losing political allies. Now that it’s in “the Western anti-democratic repertoire,” Way says, authoritarian populists will continue to try out election denial where they can—but they’ll be up against considerable democratic resilience.

Eve Valentine: What precedents would there be, other than the last U.S. election, for the leader of a country to deny the legitimacy of a democratic vote to try to hold power?

Lucan Way: In polarized “emerging democracies”—notably in sub-Saharan Africa but elsewhere—it’s been quite common for parties either to claim an election was stolen after the fact or to boycott one in advance, on the grounds that it was already rigged. Sometimes, in fairness, these claims have been true; oftentimes, they haven’t.

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