There they were in the White House on Tuesday, smiling, exchanging soccer jerseys, denouncing “fake news” and vowing to banish socialism forever.
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
So alike. In so many ways.
If Bolsonaro is lucky.
I spent last week in Brazil, and the sense of deja vu that has characterized Bolsonaro’s rise to power felt stronger than ever. His now-infamous “golden shower” tweets, the corruption scandals involving his family and political party, his false attacks on the press and public, extraordinarily nasty fighting within his own inner circle – all have prompted growing talk of an unfocused government at risk of a genuine crisis. Bolsonaro himself accused the media last week of seeking his impeachment, the same fate that befell two of his four most recent predecessors. Prominent business leaders are publicly pleading for him to lay off social media and focus on real issues, like security and pension reform. “President Bolsonaro, you’re making things more difficult,” one posted on Instagram. “I’m on your side, but I didn’t give you a blank check.” Polls show his approval rating slowly but inexorably sinking. Dire predictions have come from both left and right; the conservative guru Olavo de Carvalho said Saturday that “if the government continues like this, six more months and it’s over.”
No wonder Bolsonaro looked so happy to be in Washington.
We forget this now – it was like 5,000 things ago – but Trump’s first few months in office were also so chaotic, so shocking, that even some of his supporters wondered if he would survive, too. This was early 2017, the period that saw the opening of the Mueller investigation, the firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey, constant lies and provocations on Twitter, and the president’s sympathetic response to a white supremacist rally. By December, Trump’s approval rating had sunk to the mid-30s, the lowest ever at that stage of the modern presidency. Impeachment was seriously discussed on TV (and on Wall Street); Trump’s own secretary of state called him a “moron;” a Republican senator called the White House “an adult day care center;” some officials even discussed invoking the 25th amendment to remove him on the grounds of gross incompetence.
How did that turn out? Well, Trump not only survived, but thrived – delivering much of what his supporters wanted, including a historic tax cut, deregulation, two conservative Supreme Court justices and record-low unemployment. Yes, the chaos has never totally stopped. Yes, he may still be in some peril. But at least for now, his approval rating has recovered to the mid-40s, impeachment is off the table, and he stands a decent chance of being reelected in 2020.
Which raises two questions:
Are these governments just naturally chaotic?
And: What, if anything, must Bolsonaro do to stage a similar turnaround?
Regarding the first question: I wonder. During those early months of Trump, if you left places like Washington and New York, people had a very different take. Similarly, while in Brazil, when I stepped outside the bubbles of government, media or civil society, what I tended to find was… patience. Tem que dar tempo para o cara, I kept hearing. “We have to give the guy some time. He’s just getting started.” “Things aren’t getting better, but they aren’t getting worse either. Those leftists had 14 years to ruin the country – they stole everything! – how could Bolsonaro fix it in just three months?”
Hand on heart: In the United States, journalists and pundits were the last people to understand how politics had changed. We continued to treat every lie, every controversy, as a sign of Trump’s imminent demise – not realizing that, in this world of social media, it’s that buzz, that little rush of adrenaline, that attracts many voters in the first place. “Can you believe he said that?” “Ohhh, I bet they’re going nuts in Washington today!” Noising up the establishment, provoking the haters on Twitter – that is politics for many people today. Which is to say: I did find plenty of people who enjoyed the “golden shower” tweets. “It was hilarious!” one man told me. “He’s just showing things the way they are. And the left went crazy!”
There’s also clearly a learning curve. On this front, there’s one absolutely huge difference between Trump and Bolsonaro: the Republican Party. Even though he had no government experience, Trump could always lean on the GOP for personnel, a policy agenda and experience in Washington. Bolsonaro has a party that basically didn’t exist a year ago. Instead of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, he has… Onyx Lorenzoni, who mystified virtually everyone by spending part of last week in Antarctica instead of pushing the government’s agenda at an important moment for their signature pension reform. The president does have several technically excellent ministers, including Sérgio Moro and Paulo Guedes – but they came to the job with no political experience, and that has sometimes shown.
This is where the comparisons start to fall apart – and, I believe, pose a clear trap for Bolsonaro.
Many argue that what really saved Trump was not his bluster, not his adoring base, but the economy, stupid. Trump inherited an economy that was already good and proceeded to pour rocket fuel on it – in the form of tax cuts, and oh by the way an extra $2 trillion in debt. The picture in Brazil is of course radically different: an economy that has still not properly recovered from its worst recession ever. Can Bolsonaro repeat Trump’s feat? Here, the picture is cloudy, with a clear split between financial markets and more long-term investors. The Bovespa stock index hit the 100,000-point barrier for the first time on Monday, and it’s up 13 percent since Bolsonaro took office. But forecasts for the real economy have been heading in the other direction – economists on average forecast just 2 percent growth in 2019, down from 2.5 percent only three weeks ago. Auto production plunged 10 percent in January, unemployment is stuck around 12 percent, and investment remains stagnant, as it has been for years. Yes: tem que dar tempo para o cara. But the clock is ticking. “I want to believe,” one senior banker told me. “But I just haven’t seen any proof yet this is going to work.”
I met numerous people like him who may not have voted for Bolsonaro but are desperately hoping he will get it together. “The country can’t afford another failure” was a line I heard again and again. I was in Brasília for part of my trip and heard some encouraging signs. The biggest story of February and early March was the shift in power and influence to the military – which composes a third of Bolsonaro’s cabinet, and is more powerful now than at any moment since the 1964-85 dictatorship. Headed by Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the (even more powerful) retired general Augusto Heleno, this group is pragmatic on foreign policy, would prefer to avoid the culture wars entirely, and is (mostly) aligned with Guedes on economic matters. Anybody with an understanding of Brazilian history knows that empowering the military can bring its own problems; but that’s a risk many investors and others are willing to take, at least for now. “We have to reduce the noise,” one representative of this group told me. “We must get Brazil back on the path to stability.”
But this is where you have to wonder if Bolsonaro’s Washington trip came at exactly the wrong time. The president, his son Eduardo and his top aides just spent several days inhaling the #MAGA agenda – dining with Olavo de Carvalho and Steve Bannon (who not even Trump listens to anymore), meeting with CPAC, talking to Fox News – and of course, basking in the glow of the Donald himself. The hard-core, “anti-globalist” wing left the visit feeling euphoric – and empowered. But – and I could be wrong – I just don’t believe that U.S.-style conservatism is going to fly over time in Brazil. I think that faction grossly misinterprets Bolsonaro’s mandate – most of his 57 million votes came not from Brazilians who want girls to wear pink and boys to wear blue (as Bolsonaro’s women’s affairs minister famously proposed), but from voters eager to avoid the return of the Workers’ Party at all costs. Even with the rise of evangelical Christianity in Brazil, polls show only small minorities are energized by “gender ideology,” for example – Mato Grosso is still not Iowa. That’s why doubling down on the most divisive brand of trumpismo seems like a recipe for a continued decline in Bolsonaro’s popularity, which is already down to 37 percent – lower than any of his predecessors at this stage since full democracy returned in 1989.
The true path to success (and popularity) would be to put the culture wars aside – and focus on turning the economy around and reducing crime in a sustainable, legal way. But don’t count on it. In the medium term, I think these various factions will continue to slug it out – generating major distractions in Brasília. That probably adds up to a government that survives, but is less effective or popular than many expected – for better and for worse. That means a pension reform that passes, but is less ambitious than the market currently expects. It means a modest economic recovery, but not the turnaround many Brazilians hoped for. And of course this all assumes that the scandals now percolating in Brasília remain roughly akin to the Russia investigation – loud, a constant source of stress and intrigue, criminally incriminating for some, but never sufficiently damaging to the president himself to pose an existential risk.
All will depend on the decisions Bolsonaro makes now that he’s back home, and which path he follows. And that’s the true irony of this trip: Going forward, the less Bolsonaro acts like Trump, the more likely he is to follow in his footsteps.