The fires were burning out of control in the Amazon, and the world’s most powerful countries were criticizing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for his handling of the crisis. With the Group of Seven (G7) about to meet at the end of August, the neophyte leader contacted Donald Trump. The US president, who counts Bolsonaro as one of his closest ideological allies, immediately promised to represent Brazilian interests at the exclusive meeting and ended up securing millions of dollars in assistance.
The two right-wing populists have established a strong transnational bond. Thanks to Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018, Brazil has experienced a Trumpification of politics. The Brazilian president “copied a lot from Trump: his online politics, his speeches against political correctness, his anti-feminist and hate speech,” explains Esther Solano, who teaches international relations at the Federal University of São Paulo. Trump in turn has provided cover for his friend, announcing, for instance, that Bolsonaro was “working very hard on the Amazon fires,” though he was doing anything but. Trump also pledged to push for Brazilian membership in NATO—despite the country’s being nowhere near the North Atlantic—and supported a free-trade deal as well.
Friendship with Donald Trump comes with benefits. Several other right-wing populist leaders, like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, have also huddled up close to the US president to share in the largesse. These leaders, like Trump, have come to power through the ballot box by making patriotic appeals to “the people” and railing against the “elite” even as they craft policies that privilege their powerful friends. Together with other autocrats in Trump’s affinity group—Saudi strongman Mohammad bin Salman, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Russian President Vladimir Putin—they create not so much an axis of authoritarianism as a diverse, illiberal, antidemocratic ecosystem.