WASHINGTON ― Late Tuesday night, far-right Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro and his staff departed the Blair House, the estate that hosts foreign dignitaries and heads of state on their visits to the United States, en route to Andrews Air Force Base and a long flight south.
In the rearview mirror, Bolsonaro had left a new best friend.
Earlier in the day, Bolsonaro met with President Donald Trump at the White House, for talks that covered everything from their approach to the crisis in Venezuela to U.S. desires to launch satellites in Brazil. But the meetings, more than anything else, turned into a love fest between the leader known as “Brazil’s Trump” and the real thing.
Finally together in person, the men in charge of two of the world’s four largest democracies spent most of Tuesday afternoon showering each other with the kind of doting praise that has become a regular feature of Trump’s time with foreign leaders who share his authoritarian impulses.
“He has done a very outstanding job ― ran one of the incredible campaigns,” Trump said with Bolsonaro by his side. “I think Brazil’s relationship with the United States, because of our friendship, is probably better than it’s ever been by far.”
“I have always admired the United States of America,” Bolsonaro said an hour later, at a joint news conference in the Rose Garden, his eyes wandering to his left, where Trump was standing. “And this sense of admiration has increased since you took office.”
Bolsonaro and Trump have many things in common ― they are anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ, they share a history of making deeply racist and sexist remarks, and neither can quite hide their disdain for the basic tenets of democracy as they rail against “fake news,” praise authoritarian leaders and, in Bolsonaro’s case, openly pine for the return of military rule to Brazil.
What connects it all, though, and what has fostered the sort of bromance that took root last year and fully bloomed this week in Washington, is the sense of masculine, tough-guy aggrievement that fuels them both ― the defiant but insecure machismo that flows through everything they do.
It was on full display throughout Bolsonaro’s time in Washington.
“May I say that Brazil and the United States stand side-by-side in their efforts to ensure liberties and traditional family lifestyles and God, our creator,” Bolsonaro said during the White House press conference.
“And against gender ideology or politically correct attitudes,” he added, jamming his deep-rooted opposition to efforts to promote equality for women and LGBTQ people into one of the biggest moments of his visit.
Trump, who once proclaimed himself “a real friend” to the LGBTQ community, didn’t bat an eye. Instead, he praised Bolsonaro for lumping a distaste for “fake news” into the group of things both countries detest.
That both Trump and Bolsonaro are thrice married apparently does not contradict their version of what constitutes “traditional family lifestyles” ― instead it seems to reinforce it. In an impromptu press gathering after the White House visit had concluded, Bolsonaro told reporters that he and Trump had joked about the relatively young ages of their current wives (first lady Melania Trump is nearly 25 years younger than her husband; Jair Bolsonaro is 30 years older than his wife Michelle).
“I called him a young man and I spoke to a translator ― careful what you’re going to say now ― why I’m calling him a young man: We’re the age of the woman we love,” Bolsonaro said.
It wasn’t his first effort at humor of the week.
During a Monday speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bolsonaro told the American business community that his initial meeting with his economic minister, the University of Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes, resulted in “love at first sight.”
“Economically, I mean,” Bolsonaro cracked, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“I’m not a homophobe, by the way,” Bolsonaro, who has said he would rather have a dead son than a gay one, added. He later insisted the same during an interview on Fox News, adding there that he is not racist or xenophobic, either.
Guedes got in on the act, too: The reason Brazil is suffering from high rates of violence and a sluggish economy, he said at the Chamber event, is that “nobody had balls” enough to fix the problems.
“So, we got a guy who has balls,” Guedes said. (When it comes to violence, Bolsonaro’s main balls-informed plan has been to give one of the world’s deadliest police forces even more power to kill on sight.)
That tough-guy image is central to both Bolsonaro and Trump’s appeal ― to each other and their most hardcore supporters.
Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency have been defined by his appeals to aggrieved white men who feel like their America has been taken from them by immigrants, black people, LGBTQ communities, women and the political leaders who seek to advance the rights of all of them.
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, ran for office promising to restore Brazil “for the Brazilians” ― by which he primarily meant those Brazilians who felt their own grip on their Brazil had been loosened by years of leftist governments that pushed affirmative action quotas and other policies aimed at improving life for some of Brazil’s most marginalized peoples. (“Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan could well be ‘It’s not your fault,’” Harvard professor Bruno Carvalho wrote last July. “As if to say, ’If they weren’t ruining everything, this country would be great.’”)
That’s not just conjecture: Researchers found in 2016 that the more people believed in “masculine honor beliefs” ― supporting male aggression, physicality and bravery ― “the more positive they felt about Trump.” Others have suggested that Trump support rose in areas that showed higher levels of “fragile masculinity.”
The appeal of figures like Trump and Bolsonaro as mythical, comically masculine figures is evident in the sort of artwork and memes that each has inspired, and that circulated again around their meeting. In them, they are painted as muscle-bound, G.I. Joe-like superheroes, ready to save the world from the perceived scourge of LGBTQ people, feminism, immigrants and the “political correctness” that has eroded the world in which men can just be men.
Comic relief aside, that machismo has directly informed the way Trump and Bolsonaro have governed.
Both have stacked their governments with military officials that project the sort of strong, honorable image neither Bolsonaro nor Trump is capable of pulling off themselves. Bolsonaro’s 23-member cabinet includes just two women, and one of them ― Minister of Human Rights, Family and Women Damares Alves ― has embraced Bolsonaro’s fight against “gender ideology” with a rigid traditionalism: “Attention, attention! It’s a new era in Brazil: Boys wear blue and girls wear pink!” Alves tweeted in January.
Trump has routinely targeted women and minority groups not just with rhetoric but with policy decisions too, and Bolsonaro has followed a similar path. His first actions as president were aimed at reducing rights and protections for LGBTQ people, black Brazilians and indigenous communities, all of which are already subject to high rates of violence across Brazil.
Government-by-machismo also tends to lead to more hardline policies, and more aggressive support for them, when it comes to public security and foreign policy. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has supported shoot-to-kill policing in order to address violence, while Trump’s approaches to immigration and, right now, his efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ― potentially with military force ― give off the same tough-man vibe both leaders try so hard to project. (During his visit, Bolsonaro said he supported Trump’s border wall with Mexico and criticized immigrants; he also refused to take military support for the U.S. in Venezuela off the table.)
Trump and Bolsonaro’s meeting came at an important time for each, with both of the leaders in need of each other’s validation. Their governments are both flailing thanks to allegations of corruption, and their approval ratings and confidence in them to lead their respective countries have plummeted ― in Trump’s case to near its lowest point and in Bolsonaro’s from the heights he enjoyed the day he took office just two months ago.
But their bromance was comforting, a chance to look in the mirror and see a version of themselves in a position of power elsewhere. People in both countries have feared that the sort of validation Trump and Bolsonaro derive from each other could only lead to even more backlash against their most marginalized communities.
“When we see two far-right, neo-fascist people like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro meeting, we know it can only signal something bad for the oppressed people of their respective nations,” Sean Blackmon, a D.C.-based activist, said after a Sunday afternoon protest outside the White House, where nearly 100 people demonstrated against Bolsonaro’s visit.
Trump’s aggressive macho politics have helped amplify fringe “men’s rights movements” and emboldened white nationalists in the U.S. and elsewhere, with deadly consequences. Brazil is already one of the deadliest countries in the world for LGBTQ people, black people, and women ― in 2019 so far, four women a day have died due to femicide ― and there are fears across those communities that Bolsonaro’s brand of politics will only make it worse.
“These are two people who are both racist, sexist, bigoted against the LGBTQ community, and who support police terror,” Blackmon said. “We may even see an intensification of oppression. This kind of tacit seal of approval from the United States has a lot of meaning across the world. When we see Donald Trump basically giving his seal of approval to Bolsonaro, it’s a signal to him that nothing is going to stop him.”
Trump and Bolsonaro’s machismo has made them friends ― at least in the context of their presidencies. But the consequences of their approach to politics and the friendship it has fostered will likely linger well after both leave office.
“Both President Trump and President Bolsonaro, their attitudes, their views, their styles, have authorized in the public this resurfacing of some views, attitudes and behaviors that we thought had been put to sleep,” said Paulo Barrozo, a Brazilian political expert and Boston College professor. “What worries me most: This dark energy of prejudice, discrimination and irrationality that both administrations are authorizing will last way past the end of their administrations.”