Election 2020

The Trump of the Tropics After Trump

Bolsonaro needs Trumpism to rally his base, but he might need Biden’s America even more.

By , an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on his arrival at the West Wing of the White House on March 19, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on his arrival at the West Wing of the White House on March 19, 2019. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

No U.S. presidential election in living memory has been so closely watched in Brazil as this one. Through social media meltdowns and televised debates, countless Brazilians came away from the coverage bewildered at the complexity of the U.S. electoral system and more appreciative of Brazil’s electronic voting system, which allows the Electoral Courts to reveal results within hours of polling stations closing. In the United States, the slow process of counting votes, incumbent President Donald Trump’s premature declaration of victory, his threats to take the decision to the Supreme Court, and rising case counts in the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to encapsulate what has been a disastrous year for the United States’ reputation in the world. “Who is the banana republic now?” the Colombian magazine Publimetro provocatively asked on its cover, amid Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.

Even more than the spectacle, Brazilians were rapt by the electoral contest because its outcome is likely to have significant consequences for domestic politics in Latin America’s largest country. That is because President Jair Bolsonaro’s political persona has been so closely modeled on Trump. Now, a victory by Joe Biden has robbed the Brazilian president of his main assets. His No. 1 ally is gone, as is his direct access to the White House. Since becoming president, Bolsonaro has largely operated in Trump’s slipstream, not paying much of a price for his government’s systematic attacks on multilateralism and its climate change denialism. But now, his calculations will have to change, especially with his domestic critics already starting to focus on the lessons Biden’s campaign offered for presidential hopefuls planning to challenge the so-called “Trump of the Tropics.”

No U.S. presidential election in living memory has been so closely watched in Brazil as this one. Through social media meltdowns and televised debates, countless Brazilians came away from the coverage bewildered at the complexity of the U.S. electoral system and more appreciative of Brazil’s electronic voting system, which allows the Electoral Courts to reveal results within hours of polling stations closing. In the United States, the slow process of counting votes, incumbent President Donald Trump’s premature declaration of victory, his threats to take the decision to the Supreme Court, and rising case counts in the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to encapsulate what has been a disastrous year for the United States’ reputation in the world. “Who is the banana republic now?” the Colombian magazine Publimetro provocatively asked on its cover, amid Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.

Even more than the spectacle, Brazilians were rapt by the electoral contest because its outcome is likely to have significant consequences for domestic politics in Latin America’s largest country. That is because President Jair Bolsonaro’s political persona has been so closely modeled on Trump. Now, a victory by Joe Biden has robbed the Brazilian president of his main assets. His No. 1 ally is gone, as is his direct access to the White House. Since becoming president, Bolsonaro has largely operated in Trump’s slipstream, not paying much of a price for his government’s systematic attacks on multilateralism and its climate change denialism. But now, his calculations will have to change, especially with his domestic critics already starting to focus on the lessons Biden’s campaign offered for presidential hopefuls planning to challenge the so-called “Trump of the Tropics.”

Bolsonaro’s decision not to congratulate Biden until Trump has conceded represents the dilemma the Brazilian president will face in the coming years: how to establish a productive working relationship with the new U.S. president and preserve an important economic and political partnership (since last year, Brazil has been a major non-NATO ally) without betraying Trumpism, which is an important ingredient of the Brazilian president’s overall political narrative and which helped him mobilize his most radical followers.

For Brazil’s president, there is no easy way out. Pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups are already teeming with conspiracy theories about how the Democrats stole the election. If Bolsonaro decides to establish a pragmatic working relationship with the Biden administration, he will risk a backlash from his most loyal followers. Yet decrying an illegitimate globalist takeover of the White House is likely to cause a fierce reaction from economic elites, who are growing tired of the uncertainty created by Bolsonaro’s radical foreign policy. Already having lashed out at numerous key economic partners such as Argentina, China, and the European Union, cheered on by ardent anti-globalist Bolsonaro fans, offending the U.S. president-elect may be a step too far for Brazil’s president.

Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Twitter: @OliverStuenkel

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