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In Brazil’s Bolsonaro, President Trump finds an ally and kindred spirit

The far-right president-elect shares Trump's disdain for immigrants, the media, and China's trade practices.

A supporter of far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro, wears a mask of US President Donald Trump as he celebrates after Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidential election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. CREDIT: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images.
A supporter of far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate for the Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro, wears a mask of US President Donald Trump as he celebrates after Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidential election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 28, 2018. CREDIT: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images.

President Donald Trump called Brazil’s far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro on Monday, congratulating him on his victory and vowing, on Twitter, that the United States and Brazil would “work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!”

Although U.S. trade has been operating at a slight deficit with Brazil, President Trump has not excluded the country from the list of nations he claims are taking advantage of the U.S. with high tariffs on American imports.

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“That’s a beauty, they charge us whatever they want. If you ask some of the companies, they say Brazil is among the toughest in the world, maybe the toughest in the world. We don’t call them and say, ‘hey, you’re treating our businesses unfairly, you’re treating our country unfairly,'” said Trump earlier this month.

Now, President Trump has reason to be enthusiastic about Bolsonaro’s victory: For one thing, the Brazilian hard-liner is a fan of his, even using Trump’s language in is campaign appearances and interviews.

Anna Prusa, program associate at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute told ThinkProgress that Bolsonaro’s election has a potential to reshape U.S.-Brazil relations.

“For the first time in decades…we have a leader of Brazil and a leader of the United States who are pretty well-aligned on key issues, but two leaders who also seem like they’ll get along on a personal level — they’re very similar in a number of ways,” said Prusa.

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“Just like he wants to make America great, I want to make Brazil great,” said Bolsonaro, already called “the Donald Trump of Brazil,” in a TV interview in July.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro, a former military captain, positioned himself the outsider who could wipe out corruption (aka “drain the swamp”) and has dropped a trail of anti-gay, sexist, and racially charged, anti-immigrant comments along with way.

He has spoken in favor of torture, dictatorship, and like President Trump, his supporters have threatened the media.

Still, the U.S. State Department issued a statement on Monday congratulating Bolsonaro, highlighting “our mutual commitment to promote security, democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights.”

Rights activists, said Prusa, “should be concerned,” citing an “uptick in violence” with Bolsonaro’s supporters attacking people in the streets.

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A supporter of the National Rifle Association, Bolsonaro wants to change the country’s gun laws, making it easier to buy guns in a country with soaring violent crime rates.

Making guns more available is an interesting move. Brazil has strong (if uneven) arms sales, and according to the country’s federal police the bulk of guns that end up in the hands of its criminals come from the United States.

Prusa said Bolsonaro would get a law passed in congress in order to allow for gun ownership for the general public — and he will likely have the majority he needs when the new congress is sworn in in 2019.

“One of his core constituencies within that congress is what we call the ‘Bullets, beef and Bible’ caucus — a coalition of conservative law-and-order people, agribusiness and the evangelicals…and if [Bolsonaro] wanted to make guns more available, they would help him do it,” she added.

“He certainly borrowed a lot from the Trump campaign in terms of the use of social media, the inflammatory rhetoric, this idea of speaking directly to the the people — and Bolsonaro has said several times that he’d like to see better relations with the United States,” said Prusa.

Some of that, she said might just be talk, or just “presidential diplomacy” — just support for each other on the world stage and maybe, eventually, a bilateral trade deal.

As with President Trump, Bolsonaro is shifting his country’s domestic and foreign policy to the far right — he said he will move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as President Trump has controversially done, and is considering pulling out of multinational deals and agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord, as Trump has.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has vowed to play hardball with China on trade (although, so far, President Trump’s locking of horns with China Xi Jinping has only served to damage both economies). He’s also vowing to loosen environmental rules in favor of the mining industry.

Regionally, though, a more cooperative Brazil could be very useful to Trump administration goals.

“I think the White House would love to see Bolsonaro take a strong lead in the region on issues like Venezuela, helping lead the right-leaning governments, like Chile and Paraguay, to contain Venezuela and counter the more left-leaning governments in the region,” said Prusa.

Venezuela is drowning political and economic strife, hemorrhaging people to neighboring countries as its currency drops and as shortages of food and medical supplies crush its population. The Trump administration has considered a number of options there — from an invasion to instigating a military coup — but ended up backing away from both.

“They won’t want to see [Bolsonaro] go too far — I don’t think Brazil will invade Venezuela, for example — but I think the White House won’t want to see the refugee crisis get much worse,” she added.