The COVID-AM blog is a partnership between the UMI 3157 iGLOBES and the Institut des Amériques, coordinated by François-Michel Le Tourneau, Deputy Director and Marion Magnan, researcher at the Institute. About the blog.

Two populisms facing reality: Bolsonaro and Trump confronted by a pandemic

April 16, 2020


by François-Michel Le Tourneau, Deputy Director of iGLOBES and Senior Researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)


In 2016 for the United States and 2018 for Brazil, two presidents were elected on similar currents of rejection of traditional political men and systems. Both elected outsiders seemed to be"out of the box" and that's why they have often been grouped together.



"You're fired!", cult sentence of The Apprentice, Donald Trump's reality show (source Flickr, photo taken in 2005)
"You're fired!", cult sentence of The Apprentice, Donald Trump's reality show (source Flickr, photo taken in 2005)

And yet, looking close, the similarities are not so obvious. Donald Trump can really be called a newcomer (should we say novice?) to politics. He had never been elected before ascending to the highest court and he had spent his whole life doing business (with disputed results) or in reality TV (his cult-phrase "you're fired!" still resounds often today in the halls of the White House).


Jair Bolsonaro was the complete opposite. After a brief stint in the military, terminated with his dismissil for insubordination, politics became his career track (28 years in office as a federal congressman!) and the trade of his small family-owned company, all of his sons being local and national elected officials themselves. Strange for an outspoken critic - like Donald Trump - of those who profit from the system, while recognizing that president Lula's children were in the private sector (admittedly not far from government contracts...). 


More so than their profile, it's on their program that the two can legitimately be seen as similar, or rather the absence of clearly defined programs, if not the unraveling of what had been done by their predecessors and advocating for the largest possible deregulation. Both have a scapegoat, a hated person. For Bolsonaro, the Worker's Party and president Lula led Brazil to the disastrous condition it was in when he got there - even if the years 2002-2014 brought exceptional economic growth for Brazil. For Trump, president Obama only make bad decisions for which the country is greatly suffering - even if the economic recovery seen during 2016-2019 had begun well before that. In fact, in both cases, it's an ultra-conservative agenda that is unfolding, focused first and foremost on the societal totems of evangelical churches (especially abortion) and the conservative lobbies' priorities (notably environmental deregulation and the decrease in public services). This return to 1950s values is hidden behind apparent erratic speaches (for their followers "spontaneous" and "direct") on social media, a domain in which the Brazilian was directly inspired by his American counterpart. This push for direct communication (i.e. without using the media) with their base is a distinct feature of these two populists on the American continent.



In the States, as in Brazil, Congress thwarts the presidential agendas. So Trump and Bolsonaro skillfully put this opposition on stage, using it to justify roadblocks putting the responsibility on "old politics" or the deep state. There are plenty of parallels between the two presidents in the way they govern: frequent fallback on the family (Eudardo and Flávio Bolsonaro, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner), use of collaborators from a tight inner circle of those they trust (soldiers for the Brazilian, the business world for the American), etc.



Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro during the Brazilian president's last official visit to the US in March 2020. Source:
Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro during the Brazilian president's last official visit to the US in March 2020. Source:

Although the actions of both presidents can be compared, their relationship is complexe. Since the beginning of his term, the Brazilian president wants to get closer to the one who seems to be, given US power, an ideal. But president Trump appreciates most power struggles that go his way. He can show respect toward his Brazilian colleague, as demonstrated by Bolsonaro's four official visits to the United States (the last one in March having led to the coronavirus contamination of a good portion of said delegation). But his guiding principle is "America first". So, the Brazilians had to swallow the increase in various customs taxes and they can be certain that president Trump will do all he can to make sure China buys Midwest soybeans rather than Mato Grosso's. Behind cordial exchanges, rivalry remains.



Back from the US and despite allegations of contamination within the delegation, Jair Bolsonaro shakes hands with the crowd in Brasilia
Back from the US and despite allegations of contamination within the delegation, Jair Bolsonaro shakes hands with the crowd in Brasilia

The Covid-19 crisis brought to light new parallels between the two presidents and the way they govern. First they minimized the event. Then, when the crisis started crashing in on their countries,  they put the blame on others: China, a target for Trump and the Bolsonaro sons, or the WHO, recently attacked by the American president...Also in both cases, their first reaction was to save the economy. For Trump, he wanted to preserve his main arguments in line for his reelection: a striking economic growth and very low unemployment. For Bolsonaro, it was the need to avoid giving fuel to the major criticisms he was getting: a lifeless growth and persistent high unemployment. Both praised chloroquine, a sort of miracle drug in their eyes: if we have the medicine, the disease is no longer serious and the economy can start up again.



A converging reflection of their personalities, in both cases as well, the rise in popularity of people with a technical profile brings a defensive reaction meant to ostracize them. So, Doctor A. Fauci is on a fine line with Donald Trump, and the dismissal of the Brazilian health minister is expected any day now. Present as well is the temptation to demand exceptional powers and centralized government, when both countries are federations. In Brazil, the presidency tried to oppose the confinement measures some governors had put in place, and the American president is also attempting to assume power on the subject.


Despite these similarities, there are attitude differences. Although he'd been hard to convince, president Trump seemed rattled by the death count in his country. He is known as well, on a personal level, as apprehensive of germs and a hygiene maniac. Though reluctant, he seems to have now (for how long?) accepted to lead the fight against the epidemic with the only effective means: confinement of populations and a strong government involvement in the health and economic realms. 



On the other hand, Bolsonaro seems to swim in a sort of survivor complex. Having survived a knife attack during his electoral campaign and not having been contaminated (or having been contaminated but now being immune) during his visit to the United States, he has increased his interactions with the population in a sort of infantile defiance (no doubt a #badasspresident hashtag will show up at one point in his twitter feed).




Behind both leaders' behavior, it is definitely the populism that defines them that is undergoing the ordeal of reality today. Denouncing fake-news and conspiracy theories from the establishment will not stop the spread of the virus in the real world, nor will denigrating the technical expertise prevent having to manage the public health crisis. Without a coherent line of action, both presidents run of the risk of being marginalized by local governors (the New York governor or the State of São Paulo's for example) or by representatives who themselves are being efficient and responsable. Will a return to reality come back in force in these two democracies?


President Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of  Allergy and Infectious Diseases  (source Wikicommons)

François-Michel Le Tourneau is a senior research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Deputy Director of the UMI iGLOBES and a member of the Institut des Amériques Scientific Committee.  His work focuses on settlement and use of sparsely populated areas, especially the Brazilian Amazon. He is particularly interested in indigenous people and traditional populations and their relationships with their territory. He has authored a number of papers in national and international scientific journals (list here on HAL-SHS, here on Researchgate or here on