The convergence of the two leaders has for good reason been hotly anticipated: Trump and Bolsonaro represent the hemisphere’s two largest democracies and both style themselves as radical disrupters of the status quo. On the campaign trail, the once-fringe Bolsonaro espoused a far-right platform that promised an end to corruption, a tough crackdown on crime and a sweeping repudiation of the political left. He waxed nostalgic for military dictatorship, raged against the mainstream media, and won the adoring support of evangelical voters. Despite their different biographies and homelands, it was impossible not to hear the tinny echoes of Trumpism in Bolsonaro’s rise — indeed, some of the Brazilian leader’s own family members actively courted the comparison.
Recent meetings between Bolsonaro and top Trump administration officials underscore a budding geopolitical partnership between the two countries. Both Bolsonaro and Trump are vociferous in their criticism of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and don’t hide their desire for his regime to fall. They also try to frame Venezuela’s economic disaster — a legacy largely of cronyism and mismanagement — as the inevitable outcome of all the region’s leftist agendas. (Many of their opponents are unimpressed by this line of attack.)
As my colleagues noted, Bolsonaro’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, is a “Trump-loving antiglobalist,” who, like hard-line conservatives in the United States, rails against “radical Islam” and “cultural Marxism” and wants to extend Trump’s nationalist “make America great again” to the whole hemisphere. To that end, Bolsonaro’s government has departed from Brazil’s traditional embrace of multilateralism by distancing itself from global efforts to reckon with climate change and pulling out of a U.N.-led international pact on migration.
But experts suggest that Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington may also highlight strains within his administration. In recent weeks, he has clashed with economic advisers over pension reforms and bowed to his right-wing base by revoking the appointment of a political scientist to a commission crime because of her supposedly left-leaning views. The ideological tensions simmering in Brasilia could come to the fore in the American capital.
“A dynamic that has become a hallmark of this Brazilian government will also be on display in Washington: the antiglobalist, pro-Trump faction of the Bolsonaro administration, which includes his foreign minister, will clash with the more prudent generals, led by Vice President Hamilton Mourão, and the technocrats, represented by the Economy Minister Paulo Guedes and Justice Minister Sérgio Moro,” wrote Oliver Steunkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “While Mourão will not be at the meeting, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him publicly contradict Bolsonaro while the president is traveling, as he has continuously done over the past few months.”
Any observer of the White House’s own palace feuds over the past two years would find this rivalry between rabid ideologues and more pragmatic officials familiar. Bolsonaro came into office with a notorious rhetorical record, having at various points in his political career insulted LGBT Brazilians, women, Afro-Brazilians and indigenous communities. But experts hoped that the gravity of the job, as well as Brazil’s institutional checks and balances, would restrain his worst impulses.
Nevertheless, Bolsonaro is already confirming some of his opponents’ fears in his first months in power. A grim school shooting near Sao Paulo this week that killed at least seven people intensified the debate around access to guns, which Bolsonaro and his ruling party are working to make easier to purchase. A bizarre series of tweets from the president earlier this month, including lewd videos of publicly performed sexual acts, were intended to mock the left, but only further outraged his critics.
Despite his vows to purge corruption from the Brazilian scene, Bolsonaro’s family has already been snared in a number of probes investigating alleged graft. They also got linked this week to something all the more unseemly: Police in Rio de Janeiro arrested two suspects involved in the brutal assassination of Marielle Franco, a black leftist legislator and human rights activist who was gunned down in the city a year ago.
Both suspects were former police officers with conspicuous ties to the president: one had a daughter who dated Bolsonaro’s son; the other had been previously photographed in a warm embrace with Bolsonaro himself. Flavio Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons, was the only member of the Rio state assembly who last year voted against conferring an award in posthumous recognition of Franco — precisely the sort of left-wing politician the Bolsonaro clan detests.
Franco was an outspoken critic of police brutality as well as the city’s mafia-linked militias — and now seems to have been their direct target. “In Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, so-called militia groups, often composed of off-duty and former law enforcement officers, reportedly took policing into their own hands,” noted the State Department’s latest report on human rights in Brazil. “Many militia groups intimidated residents and conducted illegal activities such as extorting protection money and providing pirated utility services. The groups also exploited activities related to the real estate market and the sale of drugs and arms.”
Franco’s friends are demanding that the investigation continue until it determines who ordered her targeted killing.
Investigators said the connection in these arrests to the president was simply a “coincidence,” and Bolsonaro said he had no recollection of taking the picture with the suspected officer. But the case does raise questions about the Bolsonaro family’s broader links to these vigilante groups and a murkier shadow world of abuse and impunity.
In this too, the U.S. and Brazilian presidents share a bond — the power of their positions can’t fully shield them and their families from legal and journalistic scrutiny. But that’s not checking their angry rhetoric. On Thursday, Trump warned his political opponents that he had might and muscle on his side.
“I have the support of the police,” Trump told the far-right Breitbart website, “the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.”