When Donald Trump was in the White House, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, like many around the world, took lessons from his authoritarian political style. He dismissed unwelcome reports as fake news, downplayed Covid-19, and claimed to be the authentic beacon of hardworking folks crushed by educated elites, feeding a cult of personality that mimicked his ally to the north.
After Trump’s loss in November, many foreign leaders moved on. But Bolsonaro, 66, has doubled down on the former president’s formula, attacking Brazil’s congress and top judges as corrupt and charging without evidence that his opponents are hijacking voting systems.
As with Trump a year ago, Bolsonaro is facing a difficult reelection campaign. He is under criminal investigation and trails his likely opponent, left-leaning ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, 75, in the polls. As he fights to maintain power, he and his inner circle, including his son
Eduardo, a congressman, are drawing not just on Trump’s tactics but on many of his political advisers, too.
In August, after meeting with Trump in New York, Eduardo Bolsonaro flew to Sioux Falls, S.D., to participate in a conference focused on election fraud allegations that was organized by Mike Lindell, the
pro-Trump conspiracy theorist and chief executive officer of
My Pillow Inc. Introduced by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who’s long cultivated ties to Brazil, Bolsonaro delivered a speech warning darkly of the alleged dangers of electronic voting machines used in his country. “We are exposing how ridiculous is this system,” Eduardo said from the stage, showing videos claiming that rigged voting is as rampant in Brazil as Trump loyalists falsely claim it is in the U.S.
The Bolsonaro family’s interest in Trumpworld has been eagerly reciprocated. With Trump exiled from Washington and the movement he led out of power for now, some Trump allies believe that Brazil under Bolsonaro has emerged as the world’s foremost expression of Trumpist right-wing nationalism.
“In many ways, Brazil’s movement is actually far more advanced than we are in the United States,” Bannon tells Bloomberg. He views Brazil as being among a handful of countries where Trumpist political forces could herald a global revival of right-wing nationalism—an outcome he’s actively promoting. “In 2016, the Brexit win in June was inextricably linked to Trump’s upset victory in November,” he says. “Bolsonaro’s heavyweight title fight against Lula next October,” as well as the showdown in France between President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, “will set the stage for the American midterm elections,” Bannon says. Many U.S. political experts expect Republicans to retake the House of Representatives in November 2022.
The Brazil-U.S. relationship on the right isn’t new: Eduardo, who advises his father on foreign affairs, regularly visits with Trump and his children in the U.S. Bannon has known Eduardo since 2018 and talks to top Bolsonaro aide Filipe Martins “a lot,” according to a source familiar with the relationship. But recent weeks have seen ties appear to tighten, and new connections form.
In 2019, Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump ally who chairs the
American Conservative Union, inaugurated CPAC Brasil, an offshoot of the popular Conservative Political Action Conference, traditionally held in Washington, which draws Republican luminaries and presidential hopefuls. This year’s Brazil CPAC, held on Sept. 3 and 4, featured Trump’s son Donald Jr. as the keynote speaker (via video, because Hurricane Ida grounded his flight).
Jason Miller, Trump’s former spokesman who now runs the conservative social media outlet Gettr, spoke in person at the event and later appeared on Bannon’s podcast saying that he’d met with Bolsonaro and that Brazil was Gettr’s second-biggest user base. “In a lot of ways, President Bolsonaro has the same superpowers that President Trump does,” he said.
Bannon—who was just
subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol—has emerged as the key intermediary between Trumpworld and the Bolsonaros. The CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign and a top adviser at the beginning of his presidency, Bannon left the White House in disfavor after seven months. But after refashioning himself as a diehard Trump defender and promoter of pro-Trump conspiracy theories, he worked his way back into the fold. In 2020 he was indicted on charges of defrauding investors in a border-wall-fundraising scheme. Bannon pleaded not guilty; just before leaving office, Trump issued him a pardon.
Following his stint in the White House, Bannon made high-profile efforts to foment a broad nationalist movement across Europe, attacking the European Union, cultivating Catholic religious conservatives in Italy and France, and publicly aligning himself with right-wing populist politicians such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Those efforts mostly failed to gain traction, but Brazil under Bolsonaro appears more receptive to Bannon’s entreaties.
Bolsonaro has sought to rekindle the anti-establishment fervor that propelled him to power in 2018, staging motorcycle rallies modeled on the huge rally in Sturgis, S.D. On Sept. 7, hundreds of thousands of green- and yellow-clad supporters of the president took to the streets in cities around Brazil. Bolsonaro told crowds that next year’s elections are a “farce,” because voting machines will be manipulated by his opponents, and said he would disregard orders from the Supreme Court: “I’m letting the scoundrels know I’ll never be imprisoned!” A couple of days later, he stepped back slightly, saying he’d spoken in the heat of the moment. In recent weeks, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes has approved the arrest of some of Bolsonaro’s most outspoken supporters as part of a sprawling probe into the spread of misinformation.
On the day of the demonstrations, Miller, Trump’s one-time spokesman, was detained for three hours in relation to that probe before he flew out of Brasilia. He declined to comment for this article, as did Eduardo Bolsonaro. Schlapp didn’t respond to requests for comment, and neither did Jair Bolsonaro’s office.
Bolsonaro was one of the last world leaders to recognize Biden’s victory over Trump last November, echoing Trump’s false claims that the election was rife with fraud. Trump contends that all probes of his affairs are political revenge, lacking any legitimacy. Similarly, Bolsonaro dismisses investigations into irregularities in the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines and his efforts to cast doubt on Brazil’s electronic ballot system.
The president’s clashes with the court and his loose talk of an institutional “rupture” have spooked markets, where many see Bolsonaro channeling the kind of falsehoods that helped fuel the Jan. 6 insurrection. Polls show Lula easily beating him in 2022: Inflation in Brazil is soaring, hunger is spreading, and the inquiries are tarnishing the image of a man who promised to end political corruption.
Through it all, Bolsonaro has clung to Trumpworld.
“We’re dealing with a government that’s following their ideology,” says Marcio Coimbra, a one-time Bolsonaro ally who heads the Economic Freedom Foundation, a right-leaning think tank in Brasilia. “When the ideology left power, they didn’t stay with government but with the ideology.”
Coimbra accompanied Eduardo on an official trip to Washington after Bolsonaro’s election in late 2018. Although meetings were set up with top policymakers and legislators, “there seemed to be more interest in the Trump movement than institutions,” Coimbra says. The Brazilian delegation attended Bannon’s 65th birthday dinner in his home, and Eduardo was the guest of honor. In 2019, Eduardo joined Bannon’s far-right group the Movement as representative for South America.
Even the idea of the children of a democratically elected president playing a central role in government seems to borrow a page from the Trump book. In truth, as with many things the leaders have in common, Bolsonaro—who backs broad gun rights, opposes abortion, and has defended Brazil’s military dictatorship—embraced such tactics on his own, honing them with the support of the Trumpist network around him.
But given Bolsonaro’s declining popularity, it’s worth asking what he thinks this bear hug of Trump will yield. Some close to him say he believes it will keep his core base engaged and with that core, he can make it to the election runoff next year. (Presidential elections in Brazil have two rounds; if no candidate gains a majority of votes in the first round, the top two vote getters go to a runoff.)
Others say it goes beyond next year’s race. Michele Prado, an expert on the rise of the far right in Brazil, says the ongoing links with Trump and his key advisers have given those around Bolsonaro a sense that they are part of something globally significant. “What is important is that ideas are shared and spread,” she says. “For Bolsonaristas, it means they’re not irrelevant to the world.” —With Simone Iglesias
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