Brazil’s new president has been called the ‘Trump of the Tropics,’ but the White House says there’s only one Trump

A protester carries a poster against the far-right’s presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, saying ‘Not him,’ in São Paulo, September 29, 2018. Victor Moriyama/Getty Images
  • Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidency by a wide margin on Sunday.
  • Bolsonaro has espoused racist and violent rhetoric for years and has drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump.
  • Asked about those comparisons on Monday, the White House seemed dismissive.

Jair Bolsonaro cruised to an expected victory in the second round of Brazil’s presidential election Sunday.

Bolsonaro has been a federal legislator in Brazil since the early 1990s, but his positioning as an outsider, as well as his appeals to law and order, resonated widely in a country where the public has grown exasperated by politicians’ lack of response to rampant crime, widespread corruption, and faltering economic performance.

An ultra-rightist who has a long history of racist, misogynist, and homophobic comments, Bolsonaro has also drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump, which the former army captain has embraced.

Asked about that comparison on Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was dismissive, telling reporters, “There’s only one Donald Trump in my opinion.”

Donald Trump campaign rally
President Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign rally in Tennessee in October 2018. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A number of observers have also dismissed the comparison, though many of them have said Bolsonaro may be a more sinister figure.

Will Carless, a US journalist who documented hate and extremism in the US and is now based in Rio de Janeiro, said the Brazilian president-elect “makes Trump look like Mr. Rogers,” pointing to Bolsonaro’s history of hateful and incendiary comments.

“The Brazilian investigative journalism collective Agência Pública has compiled a list of at least 50 attacks carried out across Brazil by Bolsonaro supporters. And he is not even president yet,” Carless wrote earlier this month.

Bolsonaro’s political career has been suffused by praise for the country’s military dictatorship, which killed hundreds and tortured thousands between 1964 to 1985. In fact, he has said military rulers were not violent enough.

“Unfortunately, it will only change the day that we break out in civil war here and do the job that the military regime didn’t do, killing 30,000,” he said as a congressman. “If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die. I will even be happy if I die as long as 30,000 go.”

After his win on Sunday, Bolsonaro said his government would be a “defender of the Constitution, democracy and liberty.” But he has also said the country’s congress should be shuttered and that if he was elected he would “start a dictatorship right away.”

Bolsonaro has surrounded himself with former military officers. His running mate, Antonio Hamilton Mourão, retired from active duty as a four-start general in February.

“His distrust of civilian politicians means his Cabinet is likely to be composed mostly of former military men,” according to Brian Winter, a Brazil-based correspondent between 2010 and 2015.

Mourão has raised the possibility of “self-coup,” in which the military could help the president secure greater powers, Winter, now editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, wrote earlier this month.

Bolsonaro has threatened to subvert checks on his power by stacking the Supreme Court. (Bolsonaro has softened his rhetoric in recent weeks, but a strong margin of victory and a more agreeable congress may mean he doesn’t have to resort to extreme measures to enact his agenda, Winter adds.)

He has also said he could tell political rivals to choose between extermination or exile. Police raids on universities, purportedly to stop illegal electoral advertising, have raised concerns about future restrictions on freedom of expression.

Jair Bolsonaro Brazil military cadets troops
Brazilian congressman Jair Bolsonaro poses for photos with soldiers and cadets during a a ceremony commemorating Army Day, in Brasilia, Brazil, April 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

With his ties to segments of the military with political ambitions, “Bolsonaro conjures up the sort of rule last seen in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile or interwar Europe,” writes Alex Hochuli, a São Paulo-based writer and researcher.

Hochuli distinguishes Bolsonaro from current right-wing parties in Europe. While those parties aim to politicize their societies, Hochuli writes, “Bolsonarism signifies an attempt, by the rich and powerful, to sweep away all political division and to potentially do away with a democracy that includes those they feel should be excluded.”

“All of which is to say, Bolsonarismo stands alone when compared to its global far-right peers,” Hochuli adds.

Vincent Bevins, a former correspondent in Brazil for the Los Angeles Times, also dismissed the comparisons, characterising a Bolsonaro government as a “a violently anti-democratic project.”

“What Bolsonaro offers is an explicit return to the values that underpinned Brazil’s brutal dictatorship,” Bevins wrote earlier this month. “Bolsonaro did not need to be ‘red-pilled’ to believe that political correctness had gone too far in today’s Brazil; he has been consistent in his views for a long time.”

Bevins said a more apt comparison would be to President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who has presided over thousands of deaths, many believed to be extrajudicial killings by police, since taking office in mid-2016.

“And if we’re honest, Duterte’s program was not as maximalist as this,” Bevins said of Bolsonaro.

More violence in Brazil – where there are already more 60,000 homicides a year – is widely expected.

He has endorsed relaxing restrictions on police and security forces, who already kill thousands of people a year, and said that criminals “are not normal human beings,” and that rather than punishment, police should be heralded if they “kill 10, 15, or 20” at a time.

Just days before the second round of voting, Bolsonaro told supporters he would purge “red criminals” and “build a new nation.”

“It will be a cleansing never seen in the history of Brazil,” he added.

Human Rights Watch has called Bolsonaro “a pro-torture, openly bigoted member of congress” and called on Brazil’s institutions to safeguard the rule of law and respond to threats to democracy.

“This is a really radical shift,” Scott Mainwaring, a Harvard professor who has studied Latin American politics for decades,told The Times. “I can’t think of a more extremist leader in the history of democratic elections in Latin America who has been elected.”

Trump called Bolsonaro after his victory was announced on Sunday night.

“Both expressed a strong commitment to work side-by-side to improve the lives of the people of the United States and Brazil, and as regional leaders, of the Americas,” Sanders said of their discussion. Bolsonaro called it “obviously a very friendly contact” and has promised to be “a great ally” of the Trump administration.

Sanders was asked on Monday if the White House would seek assurances that Bolsonaro’s government would respect human rights and democracy.

“We promote human rights all over the world. We value our longstanding relationship with Brazil,” Sanders said. “We want to continue to be able to work with them, and we’ll see what happens from there.”