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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You make several compelling points about Trump’s impromptu suggestion that Brazil should join NATO. The alliance between Trump and Bolsonaro is especially concerning because If this were to actually happen, it would facilitate military cooperation between the USA and Brazil and give Bolsonaro easier access to U.S. weapons. He’s praised the military dictatorship in Brazil numerous times and has talked about violently suppressing dissidents. The last thing he needs is access to US military grade weaponry can be used on the Brazilian people.
You also pointed out several parallels between both leaders including the fact that Trump and Bolsonaro were elected by “riding waves of racial and economic resentment”. Despite their various parallels as authoritarian leaders, it is interesting to note that they come from very different backgrounds. I read an article from the New Yorker that talked about Bolsonaro’s humble beginnings. It would be interesting to compare what lead them to become authoritarian since they had very different upbringings.
Dangerous rhetoric aside, I thought it was ironic and quite funny that they talked about “traditional family values” considering both Trump and Bolsonaro have not only been married three times but have also said horrific things about women.
I share your fears related to human rights in Brazil under the newly elected Bolsonaro. His inflammatory rhetoric, especially towards Brazil’s LGBT community, represents a clear threat to Brazil’s marginalized and queer populations. On his first day in office, Bolsonaro issued an executive order removing LGBT issues from the responsibility of Brazil’s human rights commission. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric makes me worried about what he and his administration will do next. Even during his visit at the White House he doubled down on his homophobic positions, reiterating his government’s opposition to “gender identity” and the importance of preserving “family values.” There’s no sign that Trump or his administration plan to intervene, even with their plans to push for global decriminalization of homosexuality. Bolsonaro has already damaged democracy in Brazil. Brazil’s first openly gay politician, Jean Wyllys, fled the country and resigned after receiving death threats after Bolsonaro’s election. Bolsonaro tweeted “great day” after Wyllys announced his resignation. It’s sobering, especially when the US appears to have no interest in preserving LGBT rights in Brazil.
Sara, I believe your post touches on an interesting topic and Bolsonaro and Trump clearly play off each other in troubling ways. This linkage between fellow authoritarian rulers can be seen in Trump’s interactions with other leaders from China, Turkey, Russia, and so on. However I do think that it is important to acknowledge that the previous, more “democratic” presidency in Brazil was absolutely rife with corruption primarily featured around state-led oil company Petrobras, in a massive corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash. 9.5 billion dollars were laundered by the left-leaning ruling party and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is currently in jail for orchestrating much of the scandal and taking 1.2 million dollars in bribes. All the while crime ran rampant on the streets of Brazil and the cost of living skyrocketed. While Bolsenaro is deplorable and unfit for presidency it is disingenuous and counterproductive to ignore the havoc the former democratic regime reeked on Brazil. There is an insurmountable different between Trump riding waves of racial resentment and Bolsenaro riding completely justified waves of resentment for a corrupt and damaging party. I believe the interesting comparison here is between Bolsenaro, who took power through a system falling apart, and Trump, who took power through a generally stable, happy system.