Donald Trump, it seemed, had decided to go Full Bolsonaro. On Monday, just hours after the U.S. president left the hospital where he’d been treated for COVID-19 following a positive coronavirus test last week, a defiant Trump insisted that he was doing fine and told his countrymen not to let the virus that has killed 210,000 Americans (and counting), and was still presumably marauding through his body, “dominate” their minds.
Three months ago, after his own positive test, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wasted little time in declaring himself fit and healthy, and thus justified in his assertion that COVID-19 was nothing more than the “little flu” he had always claimed it to be. Trump, whom Bolsonaro considers a model for his own presidency, perhaps saw the Brazilian as the example to follow this time: Despite having presided over one of the few COVID-19 outbreaks that rivals the United States’ in its sheer devastation, Bolsonaro is today as popular as he’s ever been. With his own poll numbers plummeting, Trump needed the sort of bailout a coronavirus infection had apparently given his Brazilian friend.
Trump and Bolsonaro’s similarities have never been more obvious than during the pandemic: Their refusals to endorse even the most basic precautions have had disastrous consequences and are responsible not just for their own infections but for two of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. Together, the U.S. and Brazil are home to more than 12 million cases and 350,000 deaths.
Only one of them, however, seems set to pay an immediate political price for it because, for all their similarities, Trump has failed to do one key thing that has boosted Bolsonaro.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that he was cutting off talks with House Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi over a second pandemic-related economic relief package until after the Nov. 3 election. The tweets were a shock: Trump was turning down a potential gift from his opponents that might have provided a boost to both the economy and his lagging political prospects just weeks before Election Day. More than that, he was placing the blame for the continued struggles of the American people squarely on his own shoulders.
Much like Trump, Bolsonaro early on made his pandemic response a false choice between public health and economic health, on the bet “that the first concern of Brazilians would be their own economic survival,” as Brazilian political analyst Thomas Traumann wrote in August. But unlike Trump, he has remained steadfastly focused on the economy as the only real concern and proved himself much more politically shrewd than his U.S. counterpart ― at least in that when he was offered a gift, he knew well enough to take it.
In the early months of the pandemic, over Bolsonaro’s objections, Brazil’s Congress approved an emergency spending package that provided direct cash support to millions of informal-economy workers who were facing financial calamity. The payments ― about $100 per month, or roughly half the monthly minimum wage ― provided assistance to nearly 70 million people, few of whom realized or cared that Bolsonaro had initially sought to provide far less.
Bolsonaro has really botched it in terms of the epidemic, [but] that has been pushed aside because ... the people who have been most affected by the epidemic feel that the government actually did something for them. Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics
Bolsonaro’s approval ratings cratered in June amid allegations of corruption and executive overreach and as Brazil became a new epicenter of the global pandemic. But the economic assistance (along with some timely concessions to an influential bloc of centrist congressmen) helped ensure the sag would be short-lived.
Brazil’s public assistance program pushed the country’s poverty rate near a historic low, and although the economy slumped, it contracted at lower rates than in most other South American countries. Bolsonaro’s scandal-ridden presidency and the pain of the pandemic drove away many middle- and upper-middle-class Brazilians who’d once supported him. Nevertheless, his approval ratings rose in August to the highest levels of his presidency, thanks to increased support from poorer and working-class Brazilians, especially in the country’s poor northeast region, who had largely supported his opponent in 2018 but had now benefited from the cash assistance.
“There’s no question that what has driven Bolsonaro’s rise in the polls is not the fact that he survived COVID, but the fact that the Brazilian state provided ... enough aid to meaningfully change the lives of the poorest members of society,” said Brian Winter, the New York-based editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and the vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
Trump, too, backed a massive spending package that delivered significant amounts of relief to Americans early in the pandemic, via a stimulus payment, enhanced unemployment benefits and assistance to businesses. But the direct cash aspect was comparatively meager in terms of its design: The U.S. relied on a one-time payment instead of recurring monthly assistance. Most of the benefits of the overall package went to wealthy and large corporations, while only a fifth of the $4 trillion in aid helped individuals directly, according to The Washington Post.
More than 21 million Americans are currently unemployed, and another 11.5 million have seen reduced hours and pay during the pandemic, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. Although the unemployment rate has fallen from its pandemic peak, job growth is slowing and the number of layoffs has increased. The lack of new stimulus funding risks turning the U.S. economy into “a wasteland,” economists have warned.
Bolsonaro, on the other hand, supported an extension of Brazil’s assistance program as it neared its original expiration date in early September. Although the government cut the amount of each monthly payment in half, its guarantee of public assistance through the end of 2020 could help ensure that Bolsonaro continues to enjoy the political benefits of the “coronavoucher” while escaping blame for the continued spread of the virus. (In the August poll, just 11% of Brazilians blamed him for the country’s death toll.)
“A huge number of people have been beneficiaries of this program, and even if they’re unemployed, they feel like the government has helped them,” said Monica de Bolle, a Brazilian economist and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington who advised Brazilian legislators involved in the design of the relief program. “Bolsonaro has really botched it in terms of the epidemic, [but] that has been pushed aside because ... the people who have been most affected by the epidemic feel that the government actually did something for them. As opposed to here, where by and large the government hasn’t really done anything for the people who are very vulnerable.”
There are plenty of reasons why Trump might not have benefited had he followed Bolsonaro religiously down this path.
The pandemic hit the U.S. during an election year, while Bolsonaro is still shy of the halfway point of his presidency. Trump faces a coalesced and coherent opposing force in the Democratic Party, while the Brazilian opposition is still splintered, voiceless and largely impotent. And Brazil’s higher levels of poverty may have made direct cash payment programs more impactful from a political standpoint.
While Bolsonaro has benefited from and stoked Brazil’s high levels of polarization, the country’s population is in many respects less politically rigid than the electorate in the United States, a dynamic that makes many Brazilians more willing to support ― or turn their backs on ― their leaders. (To wit: No U.S. president could ever reach the 90% approval that then-Brazilian President Lula da Silva enjoyed a decade ago. Neither could one sink to the 3% rating that Brazilians bestowed on Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer, in 2017.)
Trump’s COVID-19 illness also appears far more serious than Bolsonaro’s and has done more to puncture the veneer of invincibility on which strongmen like them rely. And in any case, Bolsonaro has proved more ruthless than his U.S. counterpart: Trump may have largely sidelined his top public health officials, but Bolsonaro fired one health minister and forced another to resign after just 28 days on the job. His strong-arm approach and the boost in support from his economic response have helped him win the narrative war against governors, mayors and other state officials who sought to keep lockdowns in place longer than Bolsonaro wanted.
Brazilians also report higher levels of mistrust in scientists than many of their global counterparts, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center.
The confluence of all these factors may have created “a more ideal environment for denialism in Brazil than in the United States,” allowing Bolsonaro to benefit in ways Trump couldn’t, said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.
Bolsonaro may still face political blowback if he doesn’t continue the economic assistance into next year or if his government’s lack of assistance for Brazilian businesses hampers the economy in the near future.
Still, it’s shocking to those who’ve watched Bolsonaro prosper politically in the midst of his country’s pain that Trump hasn’t done more to copy the one aspect of the Brazilian response that actually makes good sense. Giving people money, it turns out, is good economics and good politics in the midst of a pandemic, even if everything else you’re doing is actively making the crisis worse.
“It completely surprises me because this is the obvious thing, right?” de Bolle said of Trump’s refusal to deliver more economic aid. “This is what you do: You help people out. It’s a win-win situation.”