Is Brazil’s Bolsonaro the Trump of the Tropics?

The two men have a lot in common, but Jair Bolsonaro poses an even greater danger to democracy.

Brazil's president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, stands while the national anthem plays in the National Congress in Brasília, November 6
Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, stands while the national anthem plays in the National Congress in Brasília, November 6 (Agência Senado/Pedro França)

Brazil is the latest country to lurch toward right-wing nationalism. When Jair Bolsonaro resoundingly defeated his left-wing opponent, Fernando Haddad, in the country’s presidential election last month, news whirled around the world reporting this was Brazil’s Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro is certainly keen to be Trump’s partner in Latin America. But is the comparison apt? And is it helpful to view each new iteration of right-wing nationalism through the Trump prism?

Brothers in arms

Bolsonaro was swept to victory on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment. He promised to repair the economy, to be tough on crime and tough on corruption. Trump was one of the first to congratulate him.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro positioned himself as a political outsider and tapped into widespread discontent with the ruling class — in Brazil’s case, Haddad’s Workers’ Party.

Both use inflammatory rhetoric aimed for direct consumption via social media. Trump is notorious for his off-the cuff tweets. Bolsonaro had by far the largest social-media following (2.2 million) of any Brazilian presidential candidate.

Yet both wed their discourse skillfully to respectable pillars of society: the Church, family and the military. Both appeal to evangelics in particular, who in Brazil have grown from just 6 percent of the population in 1980 to 25 percent today. There is an increasingly powerful bullets-beef-and-Bible caucus in the country.

Simple solutions

The rhetoric emboldens homophobia, misogyny and racism at the same time as promising “strongman” solutions to complex problems.

In America, Trump wants to build a wall and bring in the military to halt immigration from Central America.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro wants to address alarming levels of violent crime by relaxing gun laws and giving the police carte blanche to shoot criminals.

These simplistic proposals reveal another similarity: both men lack political experience. Bolsonaro has already had to row back on several campaign promises, ranging from withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement to moving the Brazil embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Both proposals were borrowed from the Trump playbook.

Economic policy

There are differences in economic policy. Trump’s zero-sum approach to international relations has led to protectionist measures and the levying of tariffs on erstwhile free-trade partners. While the markets slumped upon Trump’s election, and were buoyed by Democratic gains in the midterms this week, they rallied when it became clear Bolsonaro would win in Brazil.

This is in part because Bolsonaro has entrusted his economic agenda to Pablo Guedes, an admirer of the free-market shock therapy implemented by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s.

Pinochet’s economic policy did bring significant macroeconomic growth, through the privatization of state-owned enterprises, spending cuts and deregulation, but it came at the expense of wages, benefits and working conditions. Over 40 percent of Chile’s population was living below the poverty line by the time Pinochet was removed from office in 1990.

Guedes will look to do the same to prop up what has been the weakest recovery from a recession in Brazil since 1929. Should he be able to overcome Bolsonaro’s nationalistic instinct (he shares Trump’s anti-China sentiment), democratic checks and balances, and the horse-trading that Brazilian politics requires, his orthodoxy will provide valuable cover for the less savory elements of the Bolsonaro regime.

Cold War mentality

What sets Bolsonaro and Guedes apart from Trump is that they cling to an anticommunist mentality that went out of the fashion in the rest of the world in the 1990s.

Unlike the United States, Brazil is a relatively new and now fragile democracy. It underwent a brutal military dictatorship during the Cold War from 1964 to 1984. Bolsonaro served in the army under that dictatorship with the principal goal of eliminating the threat of communism. He still sees the world through the same lens.

On the eve of his victory, Bolsonaro told supporters that, after four terms under the left-wing Workers’ Party, “We will sweep these red bandits off the map… They will be banished from our fatherland. Either they leave, or they go to jail… It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

He said this to the backdrop of crowds shouting, “Kill the communists.”

Compromised institutions

The Brazilian legislature has largely been discredited. In 2014, disdain for the political establishment grew when an investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, uncovered what has been described as the biggest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. It is now worth $1.8 billion and has seen over 100 convictions.

With politicians blatantly trying to shield themselves from prosecution, voters preferred a man who openly harkens back to the so-called “law and order” brought by the “heroes” of the dictatorship. Bolsonaro’s party has gone from just one seat in the lower house of Congress to being the second-largest party with 52. Only a third of Brazilians still agree that “democracy is preferable to any other form of government.”

The one institution that is still trusted is the judiciary, led by Public Prosecutor Sergio Moro. But his reputation could also be tainted. The highest-profile casualty of Moro’s investigation has been former Workers’ Party president Lula de Silva, who planned to run against Bolsonaro this year. Having successfully prosecuted Lula, Moro is due to become Bolsonaro’s justice minister. This sequence of events calls into question the separation of powers. It remains to be seen if Moro can restrain Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies.

Mitigating factors?

While Bolsonaro’s Congress may be the most right-wing since the return to democracy, his party only constitutes about 10 percent of lawmakers. Unlike in the American two-party system, Brazil’s lower house is fragmented. There are now thirty parties. That will make it hard for Bolsonaro to govern.

He will probably have to throw the far right some bones. Whether this entails greater police powers, underfunding environment agencies or giving evangelicals greater influence over education policy, the bullets-beef-and-Bible caucus accounts for up to 350 out of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and holds greater sway than party affiliation.

Despite the parallels, comparing Bolsonaro to Trump underplays what is at stake in Brazil. With the legacy of dictatorship still hanging over the country, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, the support he has from powerful interests and the vulnerabilities of Brazil’s political system mean that his ability to generate fear and unleash violence should be viewed with even greater concern.