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Bolsonaro Is Betting His Presidency on Trump

The Brazilian president has hitched his wagon to the tweeter-in-chief's flickering star—and Trump has lent American legitimacy to an aspiring dictator.

Bolsonaro presented Trump with a Brazilian soccer jersey. (Chris Kleponis/Pool/Getty Images)

During his visit to the United States Monday and Tuesday, Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing extremist sworn in as Brazil’s president in January, appeared visibly giddy at the prospect of meeting Donald Trump, gamely playing the amiable ally. While Bolsonaro represents a distinctly Brazilian and deeply militaristic strain of authoritarianism, he has expressed admiration for Trump’s combativeness and disregard for political correctness, revealing that he had been “rooting for” Trump in 2016. But Bolsonaro was not only excited to meet Trump because the two men have much in common—a tendency to invent wild attacks against opponents while denouncing the media as fake news and inciting violence against minorities, for example—but also because he believes this seeming alignment of personalities will yield positive results for Brazil.

President Trump so far has given him every indication that this is a winning strategy. During a joint press conference on Tuesday, Trump said he would support Brazil joining the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and possibly even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), both exclusive clubs reserved for some of the wealthiest and most influential countries in the world. Membership for Brazil would reflect the kind of international recognition the country so craves. Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at Brazilian university Fundação Getúlio Vargas who has been critical of Bolsonaro, called this “the largest concession package given by a U.S. president to a Brazilian counterpart in the last thirty years.” Brazilian papers later reported Trump felt such a kinship with Bolsonaro that he gave the Brazilian president his personal phone number so that he could “call whenever he wants.”

The Trump administration’s aims in pursuing such a close partnership—aside from President Trump’s well-documented love of flattery—are relatively clear. Although Brazil has declared it will not support an invasion of its collapsing neighbor, Venezuela, Trump wants Brazil to continue doing all it can to keep the pressure on Maduro. The United States will also likely push Bolsonaro to make it harder for Russia and China to exert the kind of pressure they have increasingly brought to bear in Latin America in recent years. Putin has lent crucial support for the Maduro regime while China has become a major trading partner and investor in infrastructure across Latin America, meaning that Brazil must articulate a clear policy in relation to these countries, both of which represent perhaps the greatest geopolitical challenges for the United States in the short and long term. And Trump’s willingness to even entertain the idea of Brazil joining NATO as anything other than a major non-member ally suggests an aggressive attempt to wrest Brazil away from the so-called BRICS—the association composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—for good.

With almost any other American president, one would also expect some sort of human rights pressure to be put on Bolsonaro, who has issued several orders targeting minority groups since he took office, has made a variety of sexist and racist remarks, spoken approvingly of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, and insinuated that opponents should be met with violence. Instead, Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s joint press conference featured Bolsonaro declaring, via translator, that “Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God our creator, and stand against gender ideologies and politically incorrect attitudes and against fake news.”

Back in Brazil, there are some concerns that Bolsonaro is confusing fleeting ideological affinities with strategic geopolitical realignment. He was widely pilloried in the Brazilian press, for example, for visiting CIA headquarters, a step no Brazilian president has ever taken—for good reason, considering the CIA’s role in Latin America since the 1950s. And Bolsonaro seemed blithely unconcerned by the fact that political winds in the United States might shift next year. During a joint press conference on Tuesday, Bolsonaro was asked how he would react if a self-avowed socialist were to beat Trump in the 2020 presidential election. “Well, it’s an internal matter. We will respect whatever the ballots tell us in 2020, but I do fully believe Donald Trump is going to be reelected.”

While Trump has begun to ratchet up his rhetorical attacks on socialism in response to its rising appeal among younger voters and within the Democratic party, Bolsonaro has been railing against it for years, proclaiming that the mild center-leftism of the Workers’ Party that governed Brazil for thirteen years was leading the country to an authoritarian abyss. “Every day,” he declared at the White House on Tuesday, “more and more people that are prone to socialism, and even communism, slowly are going to be opening their minds to the reality. And you can see the border with Venezuela and Brazil was recently closed—not for Brazilians, which are pro-socialism, to go into Venezuela, but the other way around, so that Venezuelans who support democracy wouldn’t go into Brazil. This feeling most certainly is going to be very much seen when 2020 comes.” Through Bolsonaro’s fanciful assessments of the political landscape in Brazil, which he argues is largely controlled by nefarious “cultural Marxists” despite the fact that he handily won a national election on a campaign defined by homophobia, belligerence, and racism, a strategy begins to emerge: Bolsonaro is betting the rest of his presidency on a continued partnership with Trump.

This gamble is due primarily to the paranoid conspiratorial worldview both men share. They mostly agree on the problems facing the world and how to solve them. But Bolsonaro may also have little choice but to cling to his U.S. analogue: He has become so internationally reviled so quickly that finding willing partners going forward may prove difficult. Since October of last year, Democrats have urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to denounce Bolsonaro’s most egregious statements. In a major foreign policy speech at Johns Hopkins University, Bernie Sanders included Bolsonaro in a global far-right wave of “demagogues who exploit people’s fears, prejudices and grievances to gain and hold on to power.” Sanders has also established close ties with Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party candidate Bolsonaro defeated in the 2018 elections. Bolsonaro, in other words, will likely not find a friendly ear should the Democrats win the presidency. While becoming a pariah would obviously not be in Brazil’s best interest, Bolsonaro—along with his foreign minister, as I have argued elsewhere—has shown little willingness to soften his rhetorical edges for foreign audiences.

This is why, rather than adopt a diplomatic approach to the current occupant of the White House, seeing him as a temporary partner, Bolsonaro instead treats Trump as a life jacket. As long as he has an ally in Washington as reactionary and aggressively ignorant as Trump, Bolsonaro will have the latitude to pretend his administration has influence at the highest echelons of global power. If, instead, the tide is turning on Trumpism and the 2020 election results reflect that, Bolsonaro may very well be held accountable abroad for his hyperviolent rhetoric.

Some of Bolsonaro’s critics, particularly those on the left, argue that it doesn’t matter who the U.S. president is—Brazil will always be placed in a junior position and taken advantage of by the world’s hegemonic power. It is true that the United States has never treated Brazil with the respect Brazilians feel they deserve as a large democracy with a diverse population, an appealing and vibrant national culture, and abundant natural resources. But wholeheartedly embracing an American president as erratic as Trump is more risky for Brazil than a balanced posture would be, one that would give Brazilian policymakers room to maneuver should the political situation in Brazil and the world begin to change.

By committing to Trumpism, Bolsonaro has linked his administration’s credibility to a U.S. administration that may or may not be around to accommodate him in two years. In Bolsonaro, Trump has found a lackey eager to do Washington’s bidding in a supposedly shared civilizational crusade against progressive values, aligning the United States with the most ultra-reactionary political forces in Latin America’s largest nation.