by Sarah Ampolsk
“It’s an honor to be here after decades of anti-American presidents,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office today.
Bolsonaro, often referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics,” was elected president of Latin America’s largest economy by a large margin in October 2018. His campaign echoed that of the American president’s two years prior; rife with misogynistic, racially-charged rhetoric, the retired military officer and former member of the Brazilian National Congress Chamber of Deputies ran on the promise to “rescue Brazil” from corruption and violence. Like Trump, who posits himself as the savior of the United States against the Democratic Party, Bolsonaro views his leftist opponents as illegitimate. As with the U.S. president’s affinity for authoritarian strongmen, the new Brazilian leader has frequently praised the military dictatorship which ruled his country with an iron fist for two decades. And while the two countries’ circumstances prior to the elections of their current leaders are not entirely analogous, both Trump and Bolsonaro came to power riding waves of racial and economic resentment.
It should not be shocking, then, that the new president would, in a first for a Brazilian leader, make his inaugural overseas bilateral visit to the United States (the first international trip of his presidency was to Davos, Switzerland in January 2019 for the World Economic Forum.) Even against the backdrop of a world in the midst of a rapid democratic backslide, Bolsonaro’s trip to the White House has been anticipated with particular vigor by observers eager for an indication of how the relationship between the Americas’ two largest economies will unfold under populist leadership, and the implications on the respective countries’ citizens and beyond.
It should surprise no one who has followed the leaders’ mutual expressions of fondness – Trump was quick to tweet praise for Bolsonaro’s inaugural address, and the Brazilian president has frequently praised the U.S. leader in kind – that the visit was, to use a favorite phrase of Trump’s, a “love fest.”
Bolsonaro, in his aforementioned meeting with the U.S. president in the Oval Office, was quick to draw a distinction between himself and his predecessors, characterizing them as anti-American in contrast to his own pro-U.S. position. President Trump, for his part, told the gathered press that he was “honored” to be compared to Bolsonaro, and stated that the U.S. and Brazil have “never been closer” than now, with himself and his new counterpart at the helm. Later on, in a joint press conference in the Rose Garden, Bolsonaro quipped about “political correctness” and “fake news” in a direct appeal to, and to the delight of, Donald Trump, who frequently decries “PC culture” and characterizes neutral media outlets as “enemies of the people.” And, perhaps most notably, President Trump, in what was seemingly an off-the-cuff statement, stated his desire to potentially make Brazil a NATO ally.
Rhetoric and fanfare aside, what can President Bolsonaro’s trip to Washington tell us about the state of geopolitics going forward? Potentially a lot. Trump’s suggestion of Brazil joining NATO is significant not just in the sense that it represents the U.S. president’s affinity for altering pre-existing alliances, organizations and systems, but also in that it reinforces his penchant for doing so based on his own personal relationships over other, more salient considerations. While it is common for leaders to have positive working relationships on the basis of shared values, the Trump-Bolsonaro relationship is mutually-reinforcing in a troubling manner. Both leaders have demonstrable disdain for democratic norms, frequently employ discourse used to de-legitimize their perceived enemies (opposition parties, news media, etc.), and discuss their presidencies in classic populist terms, each positing himself as the one and only savior of his country. Side-by-side in the Oval Office and later in the Rose Garden, the two leaders’ worrisome tendencies were on full display, both men playing off the other’s language and rhetoric.
Perhaps most distressing is what was apparently missing during the leaders’ private meetings. In a joint statement released by the White House at the conclusion of the visit, there is nary a mention of the human rights record of the Brazilian leader. Whereas prior U.S. administrations centered the issue in their discussions with their foreign counterparts, President Trump has been notably silent in his meetings with world leaders. The Bolsonaro visit was no exception. In a continuation of what has become the new normal for the United States under the Trump administration, the president opted to focus on economic and trade issues – his bread and butter – and gloss over Bolsonaro’s troubling positions on race, gender, and the environment.
It remains to be seen what the full impact of a democratic alliance turned undemocratic, such as that of the United States and Brazil, will be. However, based on today’s meetings, it is safe to assume that things will continue to trend in a concerning direction.
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