SAO PAULO—When Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, went to New York in 2019 to address the United Nations General Assembly, he crossed paths in a hallway with one of his favorite politicians, President Donald Trump. Visibly anxious, the Brazilian leader exclaimed, “I love you,” in heavily accented English. Trump shook his counterpart’s hand, murmured “nice to see you again,” and walked away.
While the episode showcases Bolsonaro’s deep personal admiration for Trump, it is also a vivid example of how Brazil’s foreign policy toward the United States over the past two years has been predicated on the Brazilian leader’s efforts to build a personal rapport with Trump.
When Bolsonaro won the election in October 2018, he and his closest advisers saw themselves as part of a global populist wave that was epitomized by the American president. By forging close personal ties with Trump, Bolsonaro expected to appeal to his conservative base at home and to find ways to forge political and economic deals with the U.S. that would fuel Brazil’s recovery from an economic downturn. Several months after taking office, he traveled to the U.S. for his first bilateral trip overseas as president, where he played up his admiration for America and agreed with Trump to upgrade security ties between the two countries.