Trump Endorses His Legacy

The former president’s backing of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is really just an endorsement of his own tactics.

Photo illustration with Jair Bolsonaro raising his hands and a profile of Donald Trump
Kiko Sierich / Getty; Eva Marie Uzcategui / Getty; The Atlantic

Brazil’s next presidential election is a year away, but Donald Trump already knows whom he is supporting. “President Jair Bolsonaro and I have become great friends over the past few years,” the former president said in a statement on Tuesday. “He fights hard for, and loves, the people of Brazil—Just like I do for the people of the United States.”

Reading between the lines, Trump’s support for the embattled Brazilian president, who faces potential criminal charges over his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, isn’t rooted in just their shared politics or leadership style. By endorsing Bolsonaro, Trump is endorsing his own legacy.

Bolsonaro, after all, is one of the key figures maintaining Trumpism on the international stage. Like the former American president, Bolsonaro continues to balk at the threat posed by the pandemic, eschewing shutdowns and basic public-health measures such as wearing face masks. He is a purveyor of misinformation and has been known to attack experts, including those within his own government, who disagree with him. Even before the pandemic, Bolsonaro fancied himself the “Trump of the Tropics,” modeling his campaign and much of his presidency after his American counterpart. (Unlike the former president, however, Bolsonaro is unvaccinated—a status that relegated him to eating pizza on the sidewalk during the United Nations General Assembly, owing to New York City’s requirement that indoor diners provide proof of vaccination.)

Even after Trump left the White House this year, Bolsonaro’s affinity for him didn’t change. If anything, the Brazilian president has doubled down on his commitment to Trump’s politics and, more recently, his repudiation of the democratic process. Bolsonaro has suggested that the only way he could possibly lose next year’s election would be because of “fraud,” in which case he would refuse to hand over power. “I have three alternatives for my future,” he said: “being arrested, killed, or victory.”

In many ways, this response was predictable. Bolsonaro was one of the few world leaders to entertain Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud and among the last to recognize his defeat. It stands to reason that in the run-up to his own reelection—which polls predict he could lose to Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—he would want to lay the groundwork for his own voter-fraud claims. It also helps that Bolsonaro isn’t the first candidate to question the integrity of Brazil’s elections. Following the country’s close 2014 presidential contest, the center-right candidate suggested that the incumbent Dilma Rousseff’s victory was a result of foul play, but has since admitted “that this was just a ruse to sow doubt and to challenge the legitimacy of the president who had been reelected,” says Gustavo Ribeiro, the founder of The Brazilian Report, an English-language website on Brazilian politics and economics. Bolsonaro has since taken such claims further, even suggesting that his own 2018 victory was tainted by fraud (like Trump in 2016, he believes that he should have won more votes).

These days, Bolsonaro’s focus has been trained on the country’s voting system, which has been electronic for more than two decades. Although the system was designed to prevent abuse, Bolsonaro claims that it’s uniquely susceptible to mishandling. For this reason, Bolsonaro has advocated for the return to paper ballots—a proposal that was rejected by Brazilian lawmakers. But Ribeiro says this still works to the president’s advantage: “Bolsonaro is using that to say, ‘They don’t want us to really know what are the real results,’ and he’s trying to use that to sow doubt in the legitimacy of the process.”

Bolsonaro isn’t the only leader who has flirted with Trump’s 2020 playbook. In Israel, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only grudgingly exited the official prime-ministerial residence following the formation of a new coalition government—one that Netanyahu declared was the result of “the greatest election fraud” in the history of democracy. In Peru, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the country’s former autocratic leader Alberto Fujimori, attributed her loss to a “systematic intent … to subvert the popular will.” Like Trump’s, both claims were determined to be baseless, and neither candidate was successful in overturning their electoral result.

But in many ways, this hardly matters. Although Trump failed to overturn the result of the 2020 election, his efforts weren’t entirely futile. He succeeded in maintaining control of his party, which has largely backed his claims, and has managed to reinvigorate his base of supporters, who are primed for a Trump presidential bid in 2024. Perhaps most damaging of all, he successfully convinced millions of Americans that their electoral process can no longer be trusted. By following in Trump’s footsteps, world leaders might not be able to retain power, but they can at the very least create a new wave of grievance—one that they and their allies can ride into the next election, and the next, and the next.

This is what many Trumpian world leaders appear to be counting on. In anticipation of a close race, and facing the emergence of a united opposition, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already begun the process of undermining the results of next year’s contest. Electoral interference “will happen,” Orbán told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson in August. “We are aware of that and we are prepared for that.”

This is Trump’s global legacy. By sowing distrust in democracy at home, the American president designed a blueprint that like-minded leaders have been able to follow. Whether they are successful or not is immaterial. As far as Trump and his playbook are concerned, electoral concessions, and the notion that democracy depends on every candidate’s willingness to lose gracefully, are a thing of the past. Elections come and go, but grievance is forever.