“It’s funny, the relationships I have,” Donald Trump told the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. “The tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. … The easy ones are the ones I maybe don’t like as much or don’t get along with as much.”
President Trump has upended the United States’ role in the world, pulling the country out of international agreements, withdrawing it from global institutions, and undermining its sacrosanct alliances. But perhaps one of the most visible ways in which he has altered world affairs has been in his chosen friendships. Trump’s penchant for personality politics has led him to find common cause with leaders in whom he sees a bit of himself: populists and nationalists who share a disregard for norms, a disdain for dissent, and a dedication to strengthening their own power.
Some have been from more traditional American partner nations, while others lead countries with whom the U.S. has previously been on tenser terms. All, however, have benefited from having a like-minded ally in the White House—one who has proved willing to not only turn a blind eye to their illiberal tendencies, but also applaud them.
Here are some of the world leaders who have gained the most from Trump’s presidency, and who stand to have the most to lose should this term be his last.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
If there is one world leader who has fully committed himself to Trump, it is Bolsonaro. The far-right populist’s appeals to the American president began as early as his 2018 campaign for the Brazilian presidency, during which he echoed Trump’s defiance of political correctness and contempt for the establishment. Like Trump, he has made crude statements about women and minorities, lashed out against experts and “fake news,” and peddled conspiracy theories. He welcomed his association with the American president as the “Trump of the Tropics” and even adopted his own version of Trump’s “America First” slogan: “Brazil above all.”
Those efforts have largely paid off. Not only is Bolsonaro one of the world leaders most commonly compared to Trump, but he has even found a fan in the American president himself. “Anybody who has the moniker of ‘Trump of the X’ is automatically somebody [Trump] is going to take a liking to,” Fernando Cutz, a former senior White House official who worked on Latin America policy in the Obama and Trump administrations, told me. Bolsonaro “didn’t run from it or play it down. He played it up and liked it. And Trump loved that.”
Though their relationship has yet to produce many concrete benefits for Brazil (Trump’s pledge for a substantial increase in trade, for example, hasn’t materialized), it has reaped plenty for Bolsonaro. By inviting the Brazilian leader to the White House and reaffirming their close ties, Trump enabled Bolsonaro to claim credit for the renewed alliance between the two countries. He backed Bolsonaro during last year’s wildfires in the Amazon, his handling of which prompted several world leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, to voice concern. By lending his support, Trump gave “Bolsonaro room to not be an international pariah on this topic,” Cutz said. “Bolsonaro feels more comfortable going against Europeans knowing that the United States is still in its corner.”
Most crucial for Bolsonaro, Trump gifted him an association with him. “Bolsonaro’s proximity to Trump is a key asset to him politically,” Oliver Stuenkel, an international-relations professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, told me. “It doesn’t matter that the relationship didn’t produce any tangible benefits for Brazil. It was very popular to see Bolsonaro being buddies with Trump.”
Under a Joe Biden administration, that relationship—and the bragging rights that come with it—would almost certainly go away. But Bolsonaro has so far declined to prepare for that possibility: In addition to expressing his support for Trump’s reelection, he has lashed out at Biden over his pledge to stop Amazon deforestation during the first presidential debate. “[It] is not comfortable for a country to be on very bad terms with the United States, given that Brazil is already on very bad terms with Argentina, the European Union, and China,” Stuenkel said. Still, he added, Bolsonaro could yet find a way to utilize a Biden victory to work in his favor. “For many authoritarians, it really helps being isolated because it’s just such a powerful narrative to say, ‘The world is out to get us.’”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán
Like Bolsonaro, Orbán is pretty convinced of which way the election will go. “We have an exceptionally good relationship with Trump,” he told Reuters last month. He noted that the relationship between the two countries would be “lower” in the event of a Biden victory, but that such an outcome wasn’t a concern to him. After all, he had been right before. “My calculation is OK. [Trump] will win.”
Orbán has little reason to maintain diplomatic appearances: The Hungarian prime minister is an unabashed advocate of “illiberal democracy.” He doesn’t care for the rule of law, democratic institutions, or press freedom. Though his autocratic tendencies have earned him few friends within the EU or past U.S. administrations, it has nonetheless won him Trump’s confidence. “Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways,” Trump said of the Hungarian leader during his visit to Washington last year. “[He’s] respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a bit controversial, but that’s okay. That’s okay. You’ve done a good job and you’ve kept your country safe.”
Dávid Dorosz, a former member of the Hungarian Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, told me that Fidesz, Orbán’s ruling far-right party, put a lot of effort into making a good impression on Trump. “They saw Orbán’s visit to Trump as a big win for them,” he said, noting that “Orbán sees himself as a harbinger of Trump.”
More valuable than Trump’s approval, Orbán got his silence. Unlike the Obama and Bush administrations, which shunned the Hungarian leader over his crackdowns on civil society, Trump appeared to facilitate them. His State Department scrapped a $700,000 program to support independent Hungarian media. Even when Orbán’s government sought to expel Central European University, the U.S.-accredited institution founded by the Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros, the U.S. failed to step in.
It would be a stretch to say that Orbán ever needed Trump’s approval. The prime minister had vilified the media, stoked fears about foreigners, promoted conspiracy theories, and packed the courts with loyalists long before Trump began doing the same. Still, he values having a congenial figure in Washington. “He views a critical international scene, including the EU and the U.S., as a potential threat to the continuity of his power,” Dorosz said of Orbán. “In that [sense], a possible Biden administration stepping up to the defense of human rights and the values of liberal democracy is a potential threat to him.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Few world leaders have a friendship as visible as Trump and Modi’s. Their bond is rooted in their shared interests—including security, defense, and mutual (if, on India’s part, muted) concerns about a rising China—as well as their similar leadership styles. Both fancy themselves strongmen with a knack for political showmanship. They’ve sought to curtail criticism, be it from the press or peaceful protesters, and have utilized exclusionary, nationalist sentiment to stoke their respective bases.
Though the U.S. and India have long had a close partnership, it has rarely manifested itself in this kind of bonhomie. This has been particularly true for Modi: The Bush administration denied him a visa over his handling of deadly communal riots in his home state of Gujarat, where he was serving as chief minister. Though Washington’s ostracism of Modi came to an end following his ascension to the premiership in 2014, his unlikely friendship with President Barack Obama was not without disagreement: Obama had privately cautioned Modi against stoking divisions between India’s Hindus and Muslims.
In Trump, Modi found a president willing to ignore his Hindu-nationalist agenda. Indeed, Trump didn’t even comment on the deadly clashes between Hindu mobs and Muslims in New Delhi during his inaugural visit to the country in February. A generous interpretation of Trump’s silence would be that he didn’t want to disrespect his hosts (not that this was a concern on previous foreign visits); a less generous one would be that he didn’t care.
Perhaps because of their relationship, Trump has all but assumed Modi’s support for him on the campaign trail. But Navtej Sarna, India’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2016 to 2018, pushed back against this, noting that the U.S.-India relationship is far bigger than that of their two leaders. “Our effort, at least for the last several years now, is to make sure that no matter who is in the White House, we have a good relationship,” he told me.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Biden would prove as willing as Trump to overlook certain issues, such as Modi’s decision to revoke the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir or his move to alter India’s citizenship laws to exclude Muslims from neighboring countries. The way Sarna sees it, though, such criticisms wouldn’t amount to much, regardless of which president delivered them. “India is very, very sensitive to other people preaching [to] us on human rights or democracy or anything of that nature,” he said. “I think the U.S. and other countries are also aware of that.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
The bar for U.S.-Philippine relations was set decidedly low when Trump took office in 2017. By that point, Duterte had become best known for having launched a verbal tirade against Obama over his disapproval of the thousands of extrajudicial killings resulting from Duterte’s “war on drugs.”
In Trump, Duterte found a more amenable American partner. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Duterte in a 2017 phone call, according to a transcript. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”
As with Trump’s other friendships, his rapport with Duterte is rooted in a number of commonalities: In addition to their mutual dislike for Obama, the men share an iconoclastic, populist style of politics and a disdain for the media. Echoing Trump, Duterte has long declared journalists who publish unfavorable coverage as “fake news,” and has even gone so far as to threaten violence against them. Perhaps the most notable example of deteriorating press freedom in the country is the conviction of the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa over a story that she had no part in that was found to be in violation of a law that did not exist at the time of its publication. Though a different U.S. administration might have condemned Duterte’s conviction of an American journalist (Ressa holds dual U.S.-Philippine citizenship), Trump has been preoccupied with his own media battle: a purge of congressionally funded independent news agencies such as Voice of America, which the White House had previously criticized over its coronavirus coverage.
The relationship hasn’t been without complications. In February, Duterte informed the U.S. that the Philippines would be ending its decades-long military agreement allowing American forces to train in the country—a move triggered in part by Washington’s revocation of a visa to Ronald dela Rosa, a Philippine senator and former police chief who was the architect of Duterte’s drug war. But Ressa told me that such strains have little to do with the relationship between their two leaders. Rather, it’s between the Philippine government and “the checks and balances of American institutions trying to live up to those values of human rights and trying to hold its longtime partner, the Philippines, to account.” Although U.S. congressional critics of Duterte, including Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy, have been barred from visiting the Philippines, Duterte praised Trump for his acceptance of the country’s decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, adding that he “deserves to be re-elected.” (The decision to end the agreement was ultimately reversed.)
For Duterte, a change in the U.S. administration could mean a shift in the way it chooses to address the human-rights and press-freedom violations in the Philippines. It could have major implications for people like Ressa, too, who faces a cumulative sentence of 100 years. “Whether I go to jail or not will be partly determined by whether or not America acts in pursuit of these values,” she said.
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