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Visit by ‘Trump of the Tropics’ puts ‘America First’ in spotlight

Bolsonaro’s embrace gives Trump another chance to pitch himself as fighting socialism

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, left, poses with Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared iterim president Juan Guaido during a news conference in Brasilia on February 28. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, left, poses with Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared iterim president Juan Guaido during a news conference in Brasilia on February 28. (Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)

A populist message built on a pledge to put his country “first.” Hardline immigration policies. A get-tough-on China stance. And a controversial relationship with conservative strategist Steve Bannon.

Though that description certainly applies to President Donald Trump, it could also describe the man with whom Trump will appear Tuesday in the White House Rose Garden: Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president.

The “America first” president will host the “Brazil first” chief executive as the U.S. leader will get his first face-to-face meetings with the “Trump of the Tropics.” The afternoon of meetings and a scheduled joint news conference will give Trump an opportunity to make the case that his nationalistic approach is one that should be adopted by other countries.

From trade policy to Trump’s proposed southern border wall, expect plenty of comity when the two leaders appear before reporters on what is expected to by a sunny but crisp day in Washington. 

“I worked on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. We know how things work,” Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the new Brazilian leader reportedly said during a recent pro-Trump event at the U.S. leader’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “So build the wall. We Brazilians are supporting you.”

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To be sure, Trump has been keeping a close eye on the Brazilian politician many experts see as something of a mirror image of himself.

As he rode out what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history inside the White House, Trump on Jan. 1 fired off a tweet saying Bolsonaro had just “made a great inauguration speech,” adding: “the U.S.A. is with you!”

During that speech, Bolsonaro declared his country had just undergone a “liberation from socialism, inverted values, the bloated state and political correctness.”

Bolsonaro’s victory and visit will also give the U.S. president another opportunity to pitch himself — especially to his conservative base — as fighting socialism abroad and, as he tells it, preventing some far-left Democrats from installing it at home.

Trump is vowing to rid the Western Hemisphere of socialist governments, but the early days of his push appear as much about his own re-election fight than anything happening in Central and South America.

“The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere,” Trump said to applause from an audience of Venezuelan exiles last month in Miami. “And, frankly, in many, many places around the world. The days of socialism and communism are numbered — not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua and in Cuba, as well.”

He delivered a more inward message during a Feb. 11 rally in El Paso, Texas.

“There are those trying to implement socialism right here in the United States,” Trump said that evening. “So I again say to you — and I say it for the world to hear — America will never be a socialist country.”


What’s more, the new president has talked of loosening environmental regulations. Trump’s team has targeted environmental regulations and he withdrew the United States from the Paris accord.

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Behind closed doors, Trump and Bolsonaro are expected to discuss those and other issues, with U.S. companies’ access to uranium and a rocket-launch site there in play, as well as the South American company possibly lifting visa requirements for American visitiors.

But some experts, like Richard Youngs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office official, see risks for Trump.

“Democracy advocates appear to be on the back foot in many of the non-Western states that have been developing democracy support initiatives in recent years,” Youngs wrote in a recent white paper. “The 2018 ‘Varieties of Democracy’ index reported that Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey are among the world’s main democratic backsliders.

Sounding an alarm, the former UK official noted Bolsonaro “openly admires the country’s former military junta.” In the U.S., Trump has talked about “my generals” and been accused of suggesting law enforcement entities would get “tough” with his foes, if needed.

“You know, the left plays a tougher game. It’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. O.K.?” he told right-wing news site Breitbart last week.

“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump,” he said. “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.”