Observers have long flirted with the idea that far-right Brazilian congressman Jair Bolsonaro, the front-runner in Sunday’s presidential runoff, was a “tropical Trump.” Bolsonaro has presented himself as someone who tells it like it is while promising to dismantle a dysfunctional political system, and who seeks to capture the imagination of many citizens afraid of losing their place in an increasingly diverse and inclusive society.
While US President Donald Trump and Bolsonaro have many differences — before running, Trump was a billionaire businessman while Bolsonaro was long-time congressman with few legislative victories — many tactics used in their campaigns were remarkably similar.
Perhaps the biggest similarity and likely the one that initially gave rise to the comparisons between Bolsonaro and Trump is that neither man appears to measure his words. In the 2016 U.S. elections, Trump often billed himself as the man who wasn’t afraid to say what everyone else was thinking. Bolsonaro shares the same lack of filter. Some of the comments that have gotten him in trouble reflect longstanding ideological positions, like his repeated praise for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Other comments may be more off the cuff and a wink at his reputation for shunning the “politically correct,” like when he told an audience that he had a daughter “in a moment of weakness” after four sons. Both men “enjoy being outrageous and making statements for shock value,” said Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
BASH MAINSTREAM MEDIA
Bolsonaro and his three oldest sons, who are also politicians, have hammered away at Brazil’s main media organizations, accusing them of everything from telling outright lies about the candidate to ignoring his rise in the polls and endorsements from other politicians. Like Trump, they accuse the media of propping up the country’s traditional elite and of trying to derail a campaign that might threaten it. Earlier this month, daily Folha de S. Paulo reported that Bolsonaro’s campaign may have broken campaign finance laws because friendly businessmen were allegedly bankrolling blast messages on WhatsApp. Bolsonaro has responded by repeatedly calling Folha “fake news” and promising to punish it by cutting off government advertising.
SOCIAL MEDIA MESSAGING
For candidates who don’t trust the media, social networks provide the perfect outlet. Bolsonaro, like Trump, has made heavy use of Twitter and Facebook to talk directly to voters. That became especially important after the candidate was stabbed on Sept. 6 and confined to the hospital for more than three weeks. Even after being released from the hospital in late September, Bolsonaro has skipped all the debates the last month, citing his doctors’ orders. Instead he held nightly Facebook live sessions with political allies and did interviews with friendly stations. “The idea that you would skip the debate on health grounds but then have three 10-minute interviews with a friendly TV networks is very Trumpian at its core,” said Matthew Taylor, associated professor of Latin American politics at American University, adding that a heavy reliance on social media helped both men overcome initial resistance to their candidacies.
Bolsonaro has raised the specter of fraud and said it could rob him of the election. A week before the first round on Oct. 7, he told a television station he would not accept any result but his own victory, implying that the size of support he had seen at street rallies indicated he would win, even though the polls were close. A few days later, he backed off those comments, saying he would accept the election results but wouldn’t make a call to his rival to concede. Trump trod a very similar path. “Bolsonaro is essentially saying, ‘Fairness means that I win. Anything else is fraud,’” said Jason Stanley, author of “How Fascism Works: The politics of us and them.”
USE OF PROXIES
Similar to how Trump’s campaign had Donald Trump Jr. and other children sometimes speak for their dad, Bolsonaro has often depended on his three eldest sons to float ideas, deny critical press reports and make outlandish claims. On Oct. 7, as Brazilians were going to the polls in the first round of voting, Senate candidate Flavio Bolsonaro shared a video on Twitter that purportedly showed a voting machine that had been tampered with. Within hours, the country’s electoral court announced that it was a false report. However, by then it had surely been seen by millions of people on Twitter and the messaging group WhatsApp. “The technique is to use people who speak for you but don’t speak for you,” said Taylor. “Trump or Bolsonaro can always say, ‘I didn’t or would never say that.’”