Argument

Bolsonaro’s Brush With the Coronavirus Empowered Him

Will the same be true for Trump?

A woman poses for a snapshot holding a portrait of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a demonstration in his support in Brasília on June 21.
A woman poses for a snapshot holding a portrait of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a demonstration in his support in Brasília on June 21. Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have a lot in common: Both were elected on anti-establishment platforms meant to disrupt sclerotic political systems; both promote nationalist outlooks; both sought to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, both are members of the burgeoning group of world leaders stricken by the virus. Although it is too early to say anything definitive about the political consequences for Trump—especially so close to a historic election—Bolsonaro, who caught the virus in early July, has emerged from the ordeal not only unscathed, but also politically empowered. It is worth considering whether his post-coronavirus renewal holds any clues for Trump’s future.

With a few caveats, comparisons between the United States and Brazil are quite illustrative. The countries are comparable in size and share similar political systems. They are the two largest countries by population in the Western Hemisphere. And Brazil’s 1988 constitution, which helped to restore democracy after two decades of brutal military rule, found inspiration in the U.S. Constitution and the federal republic it created. On numerous occasions, Bolsonaro has noted the resemblances between Brazil and the United States, from which he draws inspiration, and has invited personal comparisons to Trump by enthusiastically embracing the moniker “Trump of the Tropics.”

For Bolsonaro, infection with the coronavirus came at a highly inopportune time. Not only did it pierce the armor of his strongman persona, but earlier in March, he had famously referred to the coronavirus as a gripezinha, or “little flu.” As if to confirm the recklessness of such views, Bolsonaro’s popularity plummeted to the high 20s (and disapproval ratings rocketed to nearly 50 percent) as news of his illness spread. His convalescence, however, documented assiduously on social media, seemed to reaffirm his own earlier predictions that, should he get sick, his virility and history as an athlete would portend a rapid recovery.

That recovery eventually brought a rise in Bolsonaro’s popularity and, with it, a resurrection of his political fortunes. Two months after contracting COVID-19, Bolsonaro’s popularity has stabilized around 40 percent (and his disapproval ratings have fallen to 30 percent), hovering there since early August. Those are some of the highest numbers of his entire presidency. Astonishingly, recent polling revealed that a near majority of Brazilians surveyed consider him blameless for the country’s more than 140,000 COVID-19 deaths—the second-highest death toll in the world behind the United States. Although the next presidential election is not scheduled until 2022, Bolsonaro comfortably leads all hypothetical matchups—including the marquee one against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—making him a favorite in all election scenarios.

Yet, the primary source of Bolsonaro’s newfangled popularity offers a potential cautionary tale for Trump’s political future. Bolsonaro appears to have staved off damage to his political standing by boosting a popular cash transfer program for the poor, known as Bolsa Família. When the increased payments expired in early September, Bolsonaro expended precious political capital in Brazil’s Congress to earn its renewal through the end of the year, despite fears among his advisors of a looming budget crisis. The result is expanding support for the Brazilian president, even in the perpetually downtrodden northeast region of the country, the birthplace of former president Lula and long a stronghold of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, Bolsonaro’s archrival on the political left.

However, Bolsonaro garners little institutional support within Brazil. At present, he is a politician without a political party, having split from the Social Liberal Party (PSL) last November over a spat with party godfather Luciano Bivar. Bolsonaro’s intention is to eventually create a political party called Alliance for Brazil, taking half of the PSL with him, but the still inchoate effort means that the Alliance currently lacks any legal status. Instead, in municipal elections in November, allies of the president will have to run under the banner of other parties. The expectation is that the winners will switch affiliations once the Alliance is an official political party. But should they fail to do so, it could leave Bolsonaro without institutional backing and searching for a new party as he heads into his reelection campaign.

Of course, Brazil’s party system was always unlikely to be a reservoir of support for a president seeking solace in difficult times. Bolsonaro ran for president on the PSL’s platform, but it was merely a temporary home. Over the course of his three-decade political career, he has belonged to no fewer than nine political parties. With dozens of parties enjoying representation in Brazil’s Congress, the Brazilian party system is highly fragmented and remains largely unconsolidated. For instance, the two largest parties in Brazil’s lower house each possess a mere 10 percent of the seats. Brazilian political parties are mostly ideologically amorphous, lending ample opportunity for institutionalized graft as unwieldy governing coalitions attempt to hold together and pass legislation by any means possible. The resulting “coalitional presidentialism” can make politics in Brasília feel like a never-ending game of musical chairs.

By contrast, the consolidated political party system in the United States (and party polarization) lends itself as an obvious font of stability for presidents during troubled times. Indeed, Trump relies on a wellspring of support among registered Republicans, reaching as high as 94 percent in a recent Gallup poll. Over 82 percent of Republicans approve of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. Stratospheric levels of party support have allowed Trump to weather controversies and mitigate the fallout. Yet Trump’s electoral standing seems to be withering, and, according to most polls, he trails former Vice President Joe Biden nationally ahead of the presidential election.

Biden appears keen to press what his campaign feels is an electoral advantage on the handling of the pandemic, repeatedly drawing attention to the country’s death toll and stubbornly high caseloads. Unlike in Bolsonaro’s case, U.S. data shows that many Americans do blame the Trump administration for its handling of the pandemic. Indeed, recent polls taken just after Trump’s hospitalization demonstrate a widening lead for Biden, with a clear majority of Americans believing Trump could have avoided the virus were it not for his cavalier attitude.

Meanwhile, like Bolsonaro, Trump has been eager to document how little COVID-19 has slowed his pace. In addition to frequent social media updates, he greeted supporters outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in a SUV on Sunday night. Critics even accused the Trump administration of staging several photos purporting to show him hard at work. (On closer examination, Trump may have been signing blank pieces of paper.) Trump also announced he will depart the hospital early, returning to the White House Monday evening. While Bolsonaro’s political messaging during his recovery period may have helped to rally support with his base, Trump already commands sky-high approval ratings from his.

Yet Bolsonaro’s political comeback may offer a cautionary tale for Trump. In the middle of the summer, analysts wondered aloud if Bolsonaro would survive politically or suffer humiliation and impeachment. Now, his once moribund presidency has been resuscitated and stabilized—at least in the short term. Although Bolsonaro lacks the natural refuge of a consolidated party system for support, his rapid recovery seemed to confirm his narrative that COVID-19 is just a little flu, and now he has been rewarded with buoyed reelection prospects. While Trump can count on robust party support, he encounters a highly uncertain reelection landscape. If there is a lesson from Trump’s fellow populists in Brasília, it is this: If he is to neutralize Biden’s electoral advantage on his administration’s handling of COVID-19, and on an expedited timeframe, he must use his recovery as a sign of political strength and a metaphor that the United States will also prevail over the pandemic.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.

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