Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Why a Trump Defeat Would Be a Disaster for Bolsonaro

A Biden victory would rob the Brazilian president of key political advantages that go far beyond an amicable relationship with President Trump.
Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Jair Bolsonaro, at Mar-a-Lago on March 7, 2020.Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Reading Time: 4 minutes

SÃO PAULO – A vivid debate has emerged in Brazil about how a Joe Biden victory in the upcoming presidential election in the United States would affect U.S.-Brazil ties. Some argue that President Jair Bolsonaro’s strong ideological alignment with President Donald Trump would inevitably lead to a significant downgrade of the bilateral relationship, while others believe pragmatism on both sides and U.S. concerns about China’s growing influence would prevent a rupture.

But more than affecting the bilateral relationship alone, a Biden victory could threaten the global environment the Trump presidency helped create for Bolsonaro’s political project. With Brazil’s president openly campaigning for re-election in 2022, another question then arises: How would U.S. election results impact Bolsonaro’s political fortunes?

There are three main challenges a potential Trump defeat in November would pose for the Brazilian president at home. 

First, Trump is wildly popular among Bolsonaro supporters and the perception among his die-hard fans that the Brazilian president possesses privileged access to the White House has been a key political asset for the former army captain. Still, numerous political analysts have pointed out that the Trump-Bolsonaro partnership has produced few concrete benefits for either side — Bolsonaro failed to live up to his promises to help oust Maduro or help reduce Chinese influence in Latin America, while Brazilian farmers and steel makers failed to gain better access to the U.S. market. Yet to most Bolsonaro’s core supporters, it was the narrative and the photo-ops that mattered. To them, both Trump and Bolsonaro broke the mold and had the courage to face down globalists and left-wing elites around the world. A Biden victory would thus take away one of Bolsonaro’s political assets and divide his core followers between those who’d favor radicalization and rupture with the new U.S. administration and those who’d prefer to opt for pragmatism to protect Brazil-U.S. ties. This decision will not be made any easier by the fact that Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a congressman and powerful politician in his own right with presidential ambitions, will almost certainly maintain his existing close ties to Steve Bannon, who can be expected to start working immediately to reenergize the populist right to attack the Biden administration. In addition, a Biden victory could provide a blue-print of how to overcome a populist incumbent, energizing several centrist candidates who will challenge Bolsonaro in 2022.

Second, and maybe more important, a change in the White House would complicate a unique and often overlooked advantage that Bolsonaro enjoyed in the foreign policy realm: With the United States acting as the disruptor-in-chief and absorbing most of the world’s attention, Bolsonaro could actively undermine multilateralism and rail against globalism without paying much of a price.

This may sound like a minor issue, but Bolsonaro’s radical foreign policy has been crucial to satisfying an important part of his constituency which voted for the seven-term congressman expecting a complete rupture with the past. It is no coincidence that the president’s son Eduardo chose to head the congressional commission on foreign relations and national security. It is on the foreign policy front that Bolsonaro can implement a disruptive and revolutionary agenda, facing few of the constitutional constraints that apply to domestic policy, where Congress and the Supreme Court pose formidable obstacles to radicalization. Demonizing the UN and globalism, proudly refusing to speak to Argentina’s president or doubting climate change would still be immensely popular among bolsonaristas, but with Biden as U.S. president, it will come at a far greater price abroad. As global concerns about Trump would give way, at least initially, a far more united West will be seeking to restore the transatlantic relationship and multilateral cooperation.

Finally, a Biden victory will complicate a third political asset that has helped Bolsonaro maintain the support of his radical followers: an obstinate refusal to bow to international and domestic pressure in the realm of climate change. The president’s strategy to hold on to his controversial Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles amidst raging fires and increasing deforestation has led many to characterize Bolsonaro as an unpredictable and incoherent strategist. Yet a careful analysis of his political strategy suggests that the former army captain follows a very clear set of principles and believes that it is preferable to pay the economic cost of non-ratification of trade deals or even boycotts against Brazilian products than losing the political support of small-scale farmers, miners, squatters and illegal loggers, who are part of Bolsonaro’s most loyal support base, and who benefit from environmental deregulation.

With the United States under Biden switching sides and possibly aligning with Europe when it comes to deforestation in the Amazon, Bolsonaro’s political calculus is likely to become unsustainable. Ignoring European pleas to combat deforestation in the Amazon is one thing, facing down a joint U.S.-European alliance threatening to isolate Brazil economically over its failure to protect the world’s largest tropical forest, quite another. Both Salles and Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo are immensely popular among Bolsonaro’s base, but may struggle to keep their jobs.

Waiting for November

Whereas the outcome of elections elsewhere only rarely has a direct impact on political dynamics in Brazil, the 2020 U.S. elections have a special significance in Latin America’s largest democracy. At no point in history has a Brazilian leader made his resemblance to and friendship with his U.S. counterpart such a central element of his political persona. 

Despite their many differences — Trump’s relationship to the military is troubled, while Bolsonaro venerates the armed forces — the Brazilian president has actively encouraged the idea that he is a “Trump of the tropics.” Perhaps symbolic of this strategy, Bolsonaro once streamed a Facebook video of himself watching an hour-long Trump speech.

It is thus no surprise that few leaders around the world are rooting harder for U.S. President Trump in the upcoming presidential election than Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.


Reading Time: 4 minutesStuenkel is a contributing columnist for Americas Quarterly and teaches International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. He is the author of The BRICS and the Future of Global Order and Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order.

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Tags: Bolsonaro, Brazil-U.S. relations, Trump, U.S. Elections
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