Opinion | Bernie Sanders can’t find one Republican to join his message to Brazil

For weeks, Sen. Bernie Sanders has searched for a Republican senator to join a resolution he’s drafted warning about a potential coup in Brazil. It would send a bipartisan message from the Senate: The United States would find any attempt by President Jair Bolsonaro to overturn a loss in Brazil’s upcoming election as unacceptable.

The Vermont independent has come up empty. Not one GOP senator has been willing to sign on, Sanders said in an interview.

“We’ve not been able to get one Republican member of the Senate to make it clear that there must be free and fair elections in Brazil,” Sanders told us.

Sanders has been seeking support from Republicans with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is both a moderate and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. But even with Kaine onboard, no Republicans have joined.

The resolution declares that the United States will recognize the Brazilian election outcome deemed legitimate by international monitors. It also warns that the United States will reevaluate its relationship with any government that assumes power undemocratically or illegally, including via military coup, suggesting this could imperil future US aid.

Sanders started this quest after meeting this summer with leaders from Brazilian civil society, who warned that Bolsonaro might not accept an election loss, a concern that international observers have widely echoed. Sanders grew convinced the fear is legitimate.

“What I’m trying to do is make it clear to the leadership of Brazil that the United States will not support any government that stays in power illegally,” Sanders told us.

One possible reason no Republicans are joining: It would surely anger another leader who’s well-known for not accepting election outcomes. Donald Trump is a staunch ally of Bolsonaro, who is sometimes called the “Trump of the Tropics.” Trump even endorsed his reelection .

I suspect that my Republican colleagues do not want to antagonize Trump,” Sanders told us. He added that it’s extraordinary that none will join “a resolution that simply says, ‘let democracy prevail in Brazil, no matter who wins.’ ”

“That tells us a little bit about the state of democracy in this country and the Republican Party,” Sanders said.

If no Republicans join the resolution, it’s unclear whether it will get a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote at all, though Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), the committee chair, has expressed deep concerns about such a coup. The resolution would then die.

Lately, Bolsonaro — who is trailing badly in polls — has moderated his language. He’s suggested he will respect the results, while still giving himself an out. He recently declared he would accept any outcome that is “clean and transparent.” Which would allow him to say it wasn’t.

Concerns have only grown about a potential scenario in which Bolsonaro mobilizes supporters — and possibly allies in the military — to remain in power after losing. As Reuters reports, “Brazil’s courts, congressional leadership, business groups and civil society are closing ranks to shore up trust in the integrity of the vote.”

Some GOP reluctance to join Sanders’s resolution may come from this possible scenario: Bolsonaro loses and attempts to stay in power anyway, comparing himself to Trump. Then Trump publicly rallies to his defense. The result would be a conflict with Trump on one side and ( probably) the Biden administration on the other, and every Republican knows which side they’d want to be on.

All this raises fundamental questions about Republican foreign policy. The nascent “national conservatism” movement is just one of many strains on the right that look at authoritarian leaders such as Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Vladimir Putin of Russia and see much to admire. A Putinist wing is even developing among congressional Republicans.

One unspoken purpose this affection for authoritarians serves is to give shape to a new Republican foreign-policy philosophy. This is something the party has lacked, after the Cold War and then the global war on terrorism faded as organizing causes.

A transnational alliance of right-wing authoritarians fighting against liberal democracy everywhere might just be the ticket to renew the right’s sense of foreign policy purpose. But that means embracing an unwillingness to stand up for basic democratic principles, if not outright hostility to them, both at home and abroad.

Sanders, for his part, argues that the argument over the Brazil resolution highlights a debate over democracy itself — “an internal debate about whether or not we believe in this country in the rule of law and free elections.” As we can all see, this debate is very unsettled indeed.

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