Trump hosts Brazil's Bolsonaro as the two populists aim to build stronger ties

Key Points
  • President Trump and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro hold their first face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two largest economies in the Americas.
  • The political crisis in Venezuela is expected to top the agenda for their meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
  • Trump and Bolsonaro also share a similar political style, including nationalist, populist and "anti-globalist" views that were influenced by former White House aide Steve Bannon.
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, waves while standing with Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, the anti-globalist leaders of the two largest economies in the Americas,  met at the White House on Tuesday for their first face-to-face encounter.

An ardent admirer of Trump, Bolsonaro chose Washington as the site of his first state visit since being inaugurated in January. As one nationalist populist to another, Bolsonaro appears eager to strike up a personal alliance with Trump and to forge a strong bilateral relationship, two goals that set him apart from most of his predecessors.

"For the first time in a long time, a Brazilian President who is not anti-American arrives in Washington," Bolsonaro tweeted on Sunday. "It is the beginning of a partnership for freedom and prosperity, as Brazilians have always wanted."

Bolsonaro's use of Twitter is one of several stylistic similarities with Trump. Others include their bombastic rhetoric, their skepticism of climate change science, their scorn for traditional government ethics and their willingness to publicly attack news outlets if they receive negative press coverage.

As a result, some foreign policy experts have taken to calling Bolsonaro "the Trump of the tropics," a nickname the Brazilian president has embraced.

Venezuela tops the agenda

The two leaders were expected to put the political crisis in Venezuela at the top of the agenda for their meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Each has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the rightful president of Venezuela and have called for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro.

During a conference call with reporters Monday ahead of Bolsonar's visit, a senior U.S. administration official said the White House hopes the Brazilian military can leverage its historically close ties to the Venezuelan military to persuade top brass in Caracas to shift the military's allegiance from Maduro to Guaido.

"The Brazilian military has very good relationships with the Venezuelan military, and the Brazilian military can clearly communicate with them," the official said. Bolsonaro is a former army captain who has installed several career military officers in key posts throughout the government.

Also on the agenda Tuesday is trade. Resource-rich Brazil has long had China as its biggest trading partner and its largest export market, with the U.S. a distant second. Bolsonaro, however, has repeatedly signaled frustration with Beijing's expanding footprint in Latin America. "China doesn't want to buy in Brazil," Bolsonaro frequently said on the campaign trail in 2018. "It wants to buy Brazil."

This kind of rhetoric closely mirrors Trump's own views on trade, which are largely centered around his belief that other countries have taken unfair advantage of the United States, and none more so than China.

This philosophical alignment on trade also reflects the views of one particular political adviser who has shaped Bolsonaro's and Trump's outlook on the world: former Trump White House senior advisor Steve Bannon.

Bannon's long shadow

Bannon left the Trump administration in 2017, after having served in senior roles for the Trump campaign and inside the West Wing.

But in many ways, Bannon's nationalist and isolationist views never left the building, and they continue to shape Trump's approach to governing, to foreign policy and to the country's economic priorities.

Following his White House stint, Bannon shopped his political message around the world, and found an eager audience in members of Bolsonaro's campaign team. Bolsonaro even adopted Trump's "America first" slogan for his own campaign, promising to put "Brazil first."

On Sunday night, Bannon was among a group of conservative U.S. political figures who dined with Bolsonaro at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington.

Bolsonaro's son, Eduardo, a Brazilian congressman, recently agreed to officially join Bannon's global right-wing nationalist consortium, called "The Movement." According to Bannon, members of The Movement "support populist nationalism and reject the influence of globalism."

Despite the long shadow that Bannon's worldview may cast over Tuesday's meeting, Trump's current White House aides struck an upbeat and optimistic note about the meeting.

"We're very much looking forward to the visit of President Bolsonaro of Brazil," National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday. "This is a potentially historic opportunity to redirect relations between our two countries, the two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere. I think it will have a profound impact not just in this hemisphere, but really around the world."