Foreign Policy

Bolsonaro's brush with the coronavirus empowered him

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Editor's Note: We make some of our coverage of coronavirus pandemics free to non-subscribers. You can read these articles here and subscribe to our newsletter here.

US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have a lot in common: Both were elected on anti-establishment platforms to disrupt the sclerotic political systems. both promote nationalist views; both tried to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now both are members of the emerging group of world leaders affected by the virus. Although it is still too early to say anything definite about the political consequences for Trump – especially shortly before an historic election – Bolsonaro, who caught the virus in early July, is not only unscathed, but politically strengthened from the ordeal emerged. It is worth considering whether its post-coronavirus renewal contains any clues to Trump's future.

With a few caveats, comparisons between the United States and Brazil are very illustrative. The countries are comparable in size and share similar political systems. They are the two largest countries in terms of population in the western hemisphere. The Brazilian Constitution of 1988, which helped restore democracy after two decades of brutal military rule, found inspiration in the US Constitution and the Federal Republic it created. On numerous occasions, Bolsonaro has noted the similarities between Brazil and the United States, from which he draws inspiration, and has invited personal comparisons with Trump by enthusiastically adopting the nickname "Trump of the Tropics".

For Bolsonaro, the coronavirus infection came at a most inopportune time. Not only did it pierce the armor of his strong personality, but it also referred to the coronavirus as Gripezinha or "little flu" in early March. As if to confirm the ruthlessness of such views, Bolsonaro's popularity plummeted to the high 20s (and the disapproval rate rose to nearly 50 percent) when news of his illness spread. His convalescence, carefully documented on social media, seemed to confirm his earlier predictions that his manhood and history as an athlete would mean a speedy recovery in the event of illness.

This recovery eventually brought about a surge in Bolsonaro's popularity and, with it, a resurrection of his political fate. Two months after COVID-19 closed, Bolsonaro's popularity has stabilized around 40 percent (and its disapproval rate has fallen to 30 percent) and has been floating there since early August. These are some of the highest numbers in his entire presidency. Amazingly, the latest poll found that a near majority of Brazilians surveyed blame him for the country's 140,000+ COVID-19 deaths – the second highest death toll worldwide after the US. Although the next presidential election is not planned until 2022, Bolsonaro comfortably leads all hypothetical matchups – including the marquee against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – and makes him a favorite in all election scenarios.

However, the main source of Bolsonaro's new popularity offers a potential cautionary story for Trump's political future. Bolsonaro appears to have harmed its political status by promoting a popular money transfer program for the poor known as the Bolsa Família. When the increased payments expired in early September, Bolsonaro spent valuable political capital in the Brazilian Congress to earn his renewal by the end of the year, despite his advisers' fears of an impending budget crisis. The result is an expansion of support for the Brazilian president, even in the country's constantly oppressed northeastern region, the birthplace of former President Lula and longstanding stronghold of the Brazilian Labor Party, Bolsonaro's arch-rival on the political left.

However, Bolsonaro receives little institutional support in Brazil. He is currently a politician without a political party who broke up with the Social Liberal Party (PSL) last November because he spat with party sponsor Luciano Bivar. Bolsonaro's intention is to eventually create a political party called Alliance for Brazil that will take half of the PSL with it. Due to insufficient efforts, the Alliance currently lacks any legal status. Instead, allies of the president must run under the banner of other parties in the local elections in November. The expectation is that once the alliance becomes an official political party, the winners will change affiliations. If this does not succeed, however, Bolsonaro could remain on the way to his re-election campaign without institutional support and in search of a new party.

Of course, the Brazilian party system was unlikely to be a reservoir of support for a president seeking solace during difficult times. Bolsonaro ran for president on the PSL platform, but it was only a temporary home. In the course of his three decades of political career, he belonged to no fewer than nine political parties. With dozens of parties represented at the Brazilian Congress, the Brazilian party system is highly fragmented and remains largely unconsolidated. For example, the two largest parties in the Brazilian lower house each own only 10 percent of the seats. For the most part, the Brazilian political parties are ideologically amorphous and offer ample opportunity for institutionalized transplant as unwieldy ruling coalitions try to stick together and pass laws by all possible means. The resulting “coalition presidentialism” can make politics in Brasília feel like a never-ending game of musical chairs.

In contrast, the consolidated party system in the United States (and the polarization of the parties) offers itself as an obvious factor of stability for presidents in difficult times. In fact, Trump relies on a source of support among registered Republicans, as high as 94 percent in a recent Gallup poll. Over 82 percent of Republicans are in favor of the Trump administration's response to the pandemic. The party's stratospheric support has enabled Trump to weather controversy and mitigate the effects. But Trump's electoral stand seems to be waning, and most polls show that he is following former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the national presidential election.

Seeming intent on squeezing what his campaign sees as an electoral advantage in managing the pandemic, Biden repeatedly draws attention to the country's death toll and persistently high caseload. Unlike Bolsonaro's case, US data shows that many Americans blame the Trump administration for dealing with the pandemic. Indeed, the latest polls conducted immediately after Trump's hospitalization show a growing lead for Biden. A clear majority of Americans believe Trump could have avoided the virus if it hadn't been for his easygoing attitude.

Meanwhile, Trump, like Bolsonaro, has been keen to document how little COVID-19 has slowed its pace. In addition to frequent updates on social media, he greeted supporters in front of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in an SUV on Sunday evening. Critics even accused the Trump administration of staging several photos to show him at work. (On closer inspection, Trump may have signed blank slips of paper.) Trump also announced that he would be leaving the hospital early and returning to the White House on Monday night. While Bolsonaro's political news during his recovery may have helped garner support for his base, Trump already has sky-high approval ratings from him.

But Bolsonaro's political comeback could offer Trump a warning story. In the middle of the summer, analysts wondered aloud whether Bolsonaro would survive politically or suffer humiliation and impeachment. Now his once-dying presidency has been revived and stabilized – at least for the short term. Although Bolsonaro lacks the natural refuge of a consolidated party system in support, his speedy recovery seemed to confirm his story that COVID-19 is just minor flu, and now he's been rewarded with good prospects for re-election. While Trump can count on solid support from the party, he is facing a highly uncertain re-election landscape. If there is a lesson from Trump's fellow populists in Brasília, it is this: If he wants to neutralize Biden's electoral advantage in his government's handling of COVID-19 and in an accelerated time frame, he must use his recovery as a sign of political strength and a metaphor that the United States will also rule over the pandemic.

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