U.S. anthropologist Maxine L. Margolis looks at the similarities between the far right leaders Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and how the Brazilian has gone beyond the chaos wrought by his North American idol.
By Maxine L. Margolis
“Disdain for women’s bodies and disdain for the earth are deeply connected. Both remind idiotic baby men like Bolsonaro and Trump that they are part of a web of interdependent life and not the lone heroic figures [they] pretend to be.”
—Naomi Klein, 2019
Jair Bolsonaro, elected President of Brazil in January 2019, has often been called “the Tropical Trump,” an apt depiction of the authoritarian leader of the world’s sixth most populace nation. As a long-time student of Brazil and a politically engaged American I have been struck by the remarkable parallels between President Bolsonaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump in their policies, personalities, and ideology. Their mutual incompetence in dealing with the Covid pandemic is just one glaring example of this.
The backgrounds of the two men are markedly different. Bolsonaro is the son of an itinerant dentist in rural Brazil, a retired captain in the Brazilian military, and a multi-year member of Brazil’s National Chamber of Deputies. Trump? We all know that Trump is what Brazilians call a “filho de papai,” a spoiled rich kid.
Bolsonaro and Trump have promoted similar policies towards the natural environment. In this Trump is to coal mining and offshore oil exploration, what Bolsonaro is to gold mining and cattle ranching in the Amazon. Bolsonaro supports the miners regardless of the environmental damage their exploits may cause, just as Trump supported his embattled coal miners despite the costs to the natural world.
Both loosened environmental regulations and partially gutted agencies charged with environmental oversight, leading to drastic reductions in enforcement. In the Amazon, raids by wildcat loggers and miners who no longer fear government fines or retribution have resulted in the murder of several indigenous leaders attempting to defend their lands. In Bolsonaro’s first year as president, killings of indigenous Brazilians reached their highest levels in more than two decades.
Trump, for his part, was on a four-year crusade to roll back clean air and water protections. He proposed dramatic changes to the country’s oldest and most widely accepted environmental law that would have exempted large infrastructure projects from environmental review. Prosecutions of environmental crimes plummeted during the Trump administration; its first two years saw a 70 percent decrease in criminal prosecutions under the Clean Water Act. This mind set led both men to regard climate change as a “hoax” perpetrated by “left wing” scientists, resulting in their mutual abandonment of the Paris climate accords.
Their treatment of marginalized populations has also been similar. Both Trump and Bolsonaro took actions that favor the rich and powerful and worsened conditions for the poor, for people of color, for LGBTQ communities and, in the case of Brazil, for indigenous populations.
Bolsonaro has railed against affirmative action programs for Afro-Brazilians. “I would not get on an airplane piloted by a cotista (beneficiary of a quota) nor would I allow myself to be operated on by a cotista doctor.” He also has been accused of strident racism. When asked what he would do if his son married a black woman, he replied, that would not happen because “my son is well bred.”
Once Bolsonaro assumed the presidency he ceded control over lands reserved for Brazil’s indigenous peoples to the Ministry of Agriculture, an arm of the government dominated by lobbyists for big agriculture. The Ministry was also charged with overseeing quilombolas, rural areas set aside for the descendants of former slaves.
Bolsonaro also repeatedly threatened to end land demarcation, a policy through which indigenous communities are granted control over clearly defined territories. He has also been promoting a bill to permit mining, oil and gas projects, along with hydroelectric dams, on indigenous reserves. One result of these policies is that the deforestation of lands occupied by isolated indigenous communities in the Amazon more than doubled in 2019. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that, under Bolsonaro, evangelical missionaries have increased their efforts to reach uncontacted populations putting them at risk of physical and cultural genocide.
Moreover, Bolsonaro does not think much of the inhabitants of such communities. He has compared them to “zoo animals.” “The indigenous person can’t remain on his land as if he were some prehistoric creature,” declared the Brazilian President, who is sorely in need of a course in anthropology. “The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture.” But there is, he added, some hope: “The Indian has changed, he is evolving and becoming more and more, a human being like us.” These last remarks earned him Survival International’s Racist of the Year Award in 2019.
Soon after taking office, Bolsonaro removed Brazil’s LGBT population as a category protected by human rights laws. This essentially meant rolling back legal protections for gay Brazilians, a move that came at a time when the president was denouncing what he called “leftist gender ideology.” He also led efforts to eliminate programs that promote LGBT and gender equality in Brazil’s public schools, labeling a school campaign against homophobia “a gay kit” intended to “pervert” students. Then there was Bolsonaro’s infamous quip that if he found out one of his sons were gay, he would “rather see him dead.”
Trump, too, was no friend of the LGBTQ community. While he never made outrageous statements about gays akin to Bolsonaro’s, his administration rolled back protections for gay and transgender Americans. During his presidency he opposed LGBT activists on a host of issues, including banning transgender individuals from serving in the military and arguing in court that civil rights laws do not protect employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Immigrants, refugees, and people of color also received no love from either man. Bolsonaro called refugees from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East “the scum of humanity,” very much akin to Trump’s scorn of several African nations as “shit hole” countries.
Trump and Bolsonaro are misogynists par excellence. Both have been married three times, have children by several women, and are not known for abiding by their marital vows. The Brazilian president said of a congresswoman with whom he was having a dispute: she is “not worth raping; she is very ugly.” He has also said that he would not employ a woman “with the same salary as a man” because “women get pregnant.” Then there was his disparagement of his own daughter. “I have five children. I had four boys, and in the fifth, I weakened, and a girl came.”
Likewise disdain for women—especially powerful women—became a hallmark of the Trump presidency. “Take her out. Get rid of her,” Trump demanded of an underling referring to Marie Yovanovitch, the American Ambassador to Ukraine, and called Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Represenatives, “an inherently dumb person.” His reluctance to appoint women to high level positions was so well known that the Pentagon delayed recommending two female generals to take top level commands for fear the Trump administration would overturn the decision and replace them with other (read: white male) candidates. Calling various women “nasty,” “disgusting,” “whack jobs,” and saying they have “low IQs” are just a few of the choice epithets Trump has hurled at the female sex.
Many of Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s stances reflected not only their own views but those of their most ardent supporters. In the case of Bolsonaro, they are part of what Brazilians call the “BBB bloc”—shorthand for boi, Bíblia, and bala—beef, Bible, and bullet block—a reference to his rural voters, evangelical Christians, and pro-gun groups. They are reminiscent of what Hillary Clinton termed Trump’s “deplorables,” which, like Bolsonaro’s, include residents of rural areas and small towns, born-again Christians, and supporters of gun rights.
Both men encouraged the politics of resentment by portraying themselves and their followers as “outsiders.” They disparaged the educated elites of their nations including academics and scientists and espoused an intense anti-intellectualism and suspicion of expert knowledge. Both expressed disdain for the humanities and social sciences and have never shown much interest in history, the arts, or foreign cultures. Nor have they supported any of these fields. Trump opposed the on-going funding of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, while Bolsonaro tried to disband Brazil’s Ministry of Culture.
Bolsonaro and Trump prize an Idealized past and pine for a culture of rigorous masculinity. For Trump this is the traditional family of white America of the 1950s; for Bolsonaro the era of military rule. His support for Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship that controlled the country for two decades is not unlike Trump’s expressed belief that “torture works.” Coupled with both men’s veneration for a bygone era was their promotion of “traditional family-values”—short-hand for their opposition to abortion, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights.
Both Trump and Bolsonaro have been notably hostile to the media, labeling as “fake news” any reports they do not like. Part of their disdain for news organizations is their conviction that the media is arrayed against them. Both see conspiracies by mysterious “deep state” actors out to destroy them and their administrations. Political opponents, especially those on the left, are viewed as sworn enemies.
Journalists and news organizations in Brazil have been threatened and subjected to actual violence by Bolsonaro’s followers. He has also made good on his pledge to cut off public funds to Globo, that nation’s largest television network which he refers to as “the enemy.” Similarly, Trump was in a running battle with the print and electronic news media since the day he took office in 2017, suing the New York Times and the Washington Post for libel and CNN for defamation.
Bolsonaro and Trump are “Twitter guys” who demeaned their opponents with ugly invectives and reckless charges. Trump’s notorious non-stop tweets were both crude and slanderous, while Bolsonaro has been no more gentlemanly. He has called teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg a “pirralha” or a “little brat.” Both men have also expressed special scorn for their own predecessors. Bolsonaro referred to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio da Silva—known as Lula—as a “scoundrel” and Trump tweeted derisively about Obama innumerable times calling him “stupid” and “a disaster,” and questioning nearly all of the Obama administration’s policies.
Still, the truth be told: Nothing has matched the sheer incompetence and ignorance displayed by both men during the public health crisis that began in early 2020. As a consequence of their malign neglect, the U.S. and Brazil are two of only three countries in the world with several million confirmed cases of Covid-19. State governors in both nations were largely left on their own to impose lockdown restrictions to fight Covid and Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s cavalier attitude towards the virus further eroded compliance with such measures by the general public.
Both men saw politics lurking behind the pandemic as well as the response to it. Bolsonaro labeled the outbreak a “fantasy” and a “trick” propagated by the media, while ignoring medical advice not to shake hands or mingle with crowds of his supporters. And he was no fan of masks. He made fun of members of his own staff for wearing them claiming masks were “uma coisa de viado”—roughly “a fairy thing.” More recently, he demanded that “we have to stop being a country of sissies.” “Enough fussing and whining,” he told a crowd of his followers. “How much longer will the crying go on?” He also stubbornly resisted the call for Brazilians to stay at home and for businesses to temporarily close. He berated Brazilian mayors and governors for taking such steps, saying that they had fallen into a state of “hysteria” and asserting—with no proof—that they were inflating corona virus figures for political gain.
Trump took a similar stance charging that “the lamestream media” was “the dominant force” trying to get him to keep the country closed for as long as possible. He also implied that state and local Democratic officials were continuing to enforce corona virus-related restrictions simply to hinder an economic recovery and, hence, his electoral prospects. Trump told friends that he even doubted the Covid-19 mortality figures, claiming they were inflated in order to damage him politically.
Bolsonaro and Trump appeared to see themselves as personally immune to the virus. “In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus,” Bolsonaro said. “I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.” Then in July 2020 Bolsonaro himself was found to have this “little flu.” For his part, Trump refused to don a face mask and turned the wearing of masks into a political statement; those who refused to do so were seen as fans of his. Trump also appeared unmoved by the suggestion that, as an over-weight senior citizen, he could become seriously ill—which he indeed did—when he contracted the virus.
When it came to the pandemic both men exhibited a remarkable lack of empathy, viewing the crisis only through the lens of how it affected them personally. Asked by reporters about Brazil’s several thousand Covid deaths, Bolsonaro replied: “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” Then there is Trump who complained that he was Covid’s biggest victim. Walling himself off from the nation’s suffering, “it is what it is” he said, and suggested that his administration deserved credit for preventing a far worse crisis.
By the time effective vaccines were developed to fight the virus, it was too late to repair the damage caused by the two men’s mishandling of the response to the pandemic. The U.S.’s nearly 30 million cases led to well over a half million deaths and by April 2021 Brazil had the most new Covid cases and a quarter of all deaths from Covid in the world. By that date, 125 Brazilians were dying every hour.
And there you have it. Two spectacularly unqualified men who were both morally and intellectually incapable of leading their respective nations. The degree of damage wrought to the United States and Brazil is simply unknowable as is the time it will take to recover from two such loathsome individuals.
Maxine L. Margolis is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of Florida and Senior Research Scholar at the Institute of Latin American Studies, Columbia University, 2009-2020.