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Some Bolsonaro supporters have called for a military takeover of Brazil. Why do they wave the American flag?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/27/2021 Gabriela Sá Pessoa, Terrence McCoy
A supporter of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wears a costume with the colors of the U.S. and Brazilian flags in São Paulo, Brazil, on Sept. 7, Brazil’s independence day. © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images A supporter of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wears a costume with the colors of the U.S. and Brazilian flags in São Paulo, Brazil, on Sept. 7, Brazil’s independence day.

SÃO PAULO — On the day when Brazilians celebrated the nation’s independence, when thousands of protesters this month called on President Jair Bolsonaro to lead a military takeover of the country, a middle-aged man set out onto the streets of Brazil’s largest city, cloaked in the flag.

The American flag.

Wilson Gomes, 56, strutted down streets thronged by thousands of Bolsonaro supporters, the Stars and Stripes draped across his right shoulder, demanding radical change in Latin America’s largest nation. The time had come to do away with the Brazilian supreme court, which he said had been corrupted by a kleptocratic left and was unfairly targeting Bolsonaro and his supporters. The only way to save the constitution, he said, was to suspend it.

“They want to plant communism and socialism,” he said. “How can we live in such a country?”

In recent months, as Brazil has grown ever more polarized by Bolsonaro, blamed by many Brazilians for the country’s disastrous coronavirus response, an overt American iconography is emerging. But it’s not being deployed in defense of democracy. It’s being wielded by those who would set Brazil’s constitution aside to bolster Bolsonaro’s power.

a man holding a green umbrella: A demonstrator places a U.S. flag over a Brazilian one during a gathering coined "Go Trump, Go," in support of the reelection of President Donald Trump outside the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Eraldo Peres/AP) A demonstrator places a U.S. flag over a Brazilian one during a gathering coined "Go Trump, Go," in support of the reelection of President Donald Trump outside the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, November 3, 2020. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

At far-right rallies all over the country, where many have called for supreme court judges and opposition lawmakers to be removed, the American flag is now a staple. Supporters wear cowboy hats and belt buckles emblazoned with Texas longhorns. One man in Brasilia this month shaded himself with an American flag baseball hat. Another strode down São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista dressed as a U.S. country sheriff. A viral meme among supporters shows Bolsonaro, clad in a green-and-gold version of Captain America’s uniform with the words that open the U.S. Constitution: “WE THE PEOPLE!”

Bolsonaro once said he’d stage a military takeover. Now Brazilians fear he could be laying the foundation for one.

In a country that has more traditionally viewed the United States and its intentions with suspicion, the sudden appropriation of American symbols has exposed a political paradox at the heart of the Bolsonarista movement. A group that many here believe wants to subvert, if not overthrow, Brazilian democracy has chosen as one of its banners the flag of the world’s oldest democracy.

“The whole thing is contradictory,” said Fernanda Magnotta, a senior fellow at the Brazilian Center of International Relations. “The Brazilian right is a nationalist group, and it is using flags that belong to other countries.”

Bolsonaristas, she said, are taking their cues straight from the top. Bolsonaro visited President Donald Trump at the White House and Mar-a-Lago. Trump this month praised Bolsonaro and his sons as “great people.” Strategist Stephen K. Bannon championed right-wing political thinker and Bolsonaro ally Olavo de Carvalho. Former Trump senior adviser Jason Miller traveled here this month to meet Brazilian conservatives. And Donald Trump Jr. agreed to be a guest speaker at the Brazilian version of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

President Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in March 2020. © Alex Brandon/AP President Trump shakes hands before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in March 2020.

Here, the American flag — and the idea of the United States — is being interpreted in a fully Brazilian context. For much of the past two decades, the country was governed by leftist leaders. They cozied up to socialist powers in the region and presided over a period of economic growth. But as the boom years gave way to a period of stagnation that continues to this day, they came to be associated in the minds of many Brazilians with pervasive corruption and bureaucratic rot.

One former president was jailed. Another impeached. And a new cadre of right-wing leaders rose, positioning themselves as the opposite of leftist governance. They wouldn’t partner with socialist Venezuela or communist Cuba. They would be allies with the capitalistic United States, home to several right-wing Brazilian thought leaders.

As coronavirus probe deepens, Bolsonaro increasingly threatened by a corruption scandal

One of them was Carvalho, who lived in rural Virginia, where he flew an American flag, named his dog Big Mac, collected rifles and posted YouTube paeans to personal liberty and condemnations of what he called the globalist left. An early Carvalho student was Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, who traveled to Virginia to attend a Carvalho seminar. “Greatest living Brazilian philosopher,” Eduardo Bolsonaro once declared.

Carvalho was an early supporter of Trump, whom he described in March 2016 as the “only viable Republican candidate.” Soon Eduardo Bolsonaro was posting his own support for Trump on social media, going so far as to hoist a Trump-Pence campaign sign shortly after the 2016 election.

Right-wing thinker Olavo de Carvalho, a Bolsonaro supporter, sits at a desk in Dinwiddie County, Va., where he has created hundreds of videos and social media posts. © Terrance Mccoy/AP Right-wing thinker Olavo de Carvalho, a Bolsonaro supporter, sits at a desk in Dinwiddie County, Va., where he has created hundreds of videos and social media posts.

Guilherme Casarões, a Brazilian political scientist who monitors Brazil’s far-right, said Trump’s victory was a catalyst and unifying force for a movement here that had been diffuse and poorly organized.

“Trump dismantled the establishment,” Casarões said. “From there, there was a clear signal that if an alternative form of the right could win an election in the United States, it could be brought into Brazil.”

Once Jair Bolsonaro soared into the presidential palace in 2019, the ideological partnership tightened. Bannon, who served as an informal adviser to Bolsonaro during his 2018 campaign, took an interest in Carvalho, saying he wanted to install him as a lecturer at an intellectual training camp. He then named Eduardo Bolsonaro as the Latin American leader of the movement “to reclaim sovereignty from progressive globalist elitist forces.”

He’s the Rush Limbaugh of Brazil. He has Bolsonaro’s ear. And he lives in rural Virginia.

“The Brazilian right and American have an agenda in common,” said Sèrgio Sant’Ana, president of the right-wing Conservative Liberal Institute. “It’s natural that people identify with each other and unite. The use of images is because the ideas and values are similar.”

But for the Brazilian right, the American flag is deployed not as a symbol of a diverse, pluralist society — the United States in its entirety — but as a cudgel to convey a conservative don’t-tread-on-me ethos.

“They are saying, ‘We’re not communists. We are like the Americans. We are capitalists,’ ” Magnotta said. “It is like something out of the Cold War, something that doesn’t fit in this era, a clash between the communists and the capitalists.”

Detail of an American-Brazilian flag suit. © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images Detail of an American-Brazilian flag suit.

During Bolsonaro’s first year in office, conservatives here launched CPAC Brasil, a cousin to the conference held in the United States. During that first gathering, an auditorium full of Brazilians chanted Trump’s name. The program’s website is festooned with American flags and images of the 45th U.S. president.

At this year’s conference, held this month, Donald Trump Jr. warned in a streamed address that Brazil faced two choices in its presidential election next year: Liberty or socialism. Miller met with Bolsonaro — and then was questioned by Brazilian authorities as part of a national investigation into misinformation.

They lost the Civil War and fled to Brazil. Their descendants refuse to take down the Confederate flag.

Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, said he was unsurprised by how much attention American conservatives have given Brazil.

“It’s a country where the right openly professes its adulation of the Republican ideal and what Brazil should look like,” he said.

But for Bolsonaro, Winter warned, modeling his movement on Trumpism carries political risks. Brazil is not the United States. Many of the most combustible cultural clashes there — gun rights, abortion, racism — don’t resonate with the same force here. What Winter described as the “transmission of the Fox News agenda into Brazil” doesn’t make much sense in a country where nearly 20 million people have recently gone hungry, the unemployment rate is at a record high and polls show a majority of Brazilians want Bolsonaro to be impeached.

“He needs to stop cloaking himself in the American flag and start cloaking himself in the Brazilian one if he wants to get reelected,” Winter said.

Many of his most ardent supporters disagree.

One is Jean Felipe Santos de Souza, 29. During protests this month to call for the removal of the supreme court, he stood outside its judicial chambers wearing an American flag around his waist. Signs calling for the suspension of Brazil’s constitutional system fluttered around him.

“Military intervention now!” one read. “President Bolsonaro, we support any decision you have,” read another. “Use the Armed Forces, Mr. President,” another urged.

Santos de Souza pulled the American flag tighter around his hips.

“In one way or another, what the right in the United States and the right in Brazil wants is liberty,” he said.

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