The World Leader Who is Far Worse Than Trump

Take everything Trump did wrong about the virus. Then square it. That’s Bolsonaro.

Yes, Trump made huge mistakes in the coronavirus outbreak. But no, he’s not the worst world leader in this respect. That prize currently goes to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.  Like Trump, he’s a rightwing populist leader. He’s even been called “the Trump of the Tropics.” But he’s far more unmoored. When asked about Brazil’s record number of deaths on Tuesday, he shrugged in reply,  “So what? I’m sorry.  What do you want to do?”

Not that Trump has been a paragon. You’ll recall that until mid-March, Trump pooh-poohed the dangers of the coronavirus and said it was no worse than seasonal flu.  He also accused the media and his political opponents of drumming up hysteria about the disease. He was eventually talked down by public health experts, particularly after British researchers predicted up to two million deaths in the absence of serious control measures. Nearly every day, Trump gets up at a press conference and provides a blend of useful information, complete misinformation, and political remarks. But he does give public health experts like Dr. Fauci an opportunity to provide more reliable information.

Contrast Bolsonaro. As William Boyd discussed in a post earlier this week, he’s done little to help in dealing with the coronavirus.  But actually, he’s gone out of his way to make things work. Trump had spoken about reopening churches on Easter, but never really followed through. Here’s what Bolsonaro did on Easter (from the Guardian):

Over Easter, Brazil’s far-right leader repeatedly sniffed at his own health ministry’s distancing recommendations by going out for doughnuts, glad-handing fans and proclaiming: ‘No one will hinder my right to come and go.’ During one outing, Bolsonaro was filmed wiping his nose with his wrist before shaking an elderly lady’s hand.

Bolsonaro has spent weeks scoffing at the risks. He has called the coronavirus “a measly cold” and “a little flu,” telling Brazilians to “face the virus like a man, dammit, not a boy.” He issued decrees overturning state social distancing orders and exempting lottery parlors and churches, before being overturned by the courts. He has claimed that Brazilians already have the antibodies to protect them, because their immune systems are so strong they can “dive into sewage” without catching anything. Like Trump, Bolsonaro promotes an unproven anti-malaria drug as a remedy for the coronavirus, but with even more fervor.

On April 16, Bolsonaro fired his health minister, who had been patiently trying to get Brazilians to follow the best scientific guidance available.  A few days beforehand, while visiting a hospital along with the health minister, Bolsonaro had “walked into a crowd, took off his mask, extended his hand for a supporter to kiss and autographed jerseys.”  The health minister made no secret of his horrified reaction.

Since Bolsonaro and Trump have similar styles and political bases, we need to ask why Trump hasn’t gone down this road, or at least nowhere near as far.  He’s clearly been tempted to do so. What has held Trump back from hurtling down the same road?

One difference may be that Trump’s political position is weaker. Trump is much closer to his next election. (For Bolsonaro, it’s 2022). In addition, while Trump has a great deal of control over the Republican Party, Bolsonaro actually founded his own party. Bolsonaro may also feel more self-confident because unlike Trump, he won the popular vote in the last election.  Like Bolsonaro, Trump badly wants to reopen the economy. Yet he needs to exercise some care, because of the risk that a major flare-up in the Fall might impact the election.

Bolsonaro may also be more of an ideologue than Trump. Bolsonaro has spent his career in far-right politics. Trump used to be a Democrat and became a Republican only on his way to running for President. For him, winning is the point, not remaining true to an ideological movement.

Finally, despite all the hits that the bureaucracy and scientists have taken under Trump, expertise may still matter more in the U.S. context.  Recent polls show that Americans trust Dr. Fauci more than they do Trump. I doubt that this endears Dr. Fauci to him, but it remains a reality that Trump cannot afford to ignore.

In the meantime, Bolsonaro seems to be in deeper and deeper political trouble.  Besides his destructive stance on the coronavirus, he’s also fired his Justice Minister,  and Bolsonaro’s son has been linked to some dodgy connections.  Now Bolsonaro himself is under investigation by the Supreme Court. We’ll see how the politics works out for him and for his American counterpart.

[Note: The initial version of this post referred to the Justice Minister as a “public symbol of incorruptibility.”  This is not as clear as I had originally thought, so the phrase has been deleted.]



Reader Comments

4 Replies to “The World Leader Who is Far Worse Than Trump”

  1. Prof. Farber, you have most certainly lost your perspective when you compare the international power of the office of the President of the United States to the power of a Brazilian dictator in this way. Trump’s “huge mistakes” can destroy our democracy, our environment and our civilization.

    You deserve an A for the excellence of most of your posts, especially not including this one, relative to the problems that cause climate change.


    2020 expected to be Earth’s warmest year on record, scientists say

    As an intellectual leader of UC’s paramount environmental collaboration to overcome the global challenge of climate change you deserve an F for failing to produce implementable global warming solutions to protect an acceptable quality of life for our newest and future generations.

    Your rhetorical failures to motivate the public to conjoin with your collaboration is most troubling because you also refuse to unite with academics throughout UC to achieve the goal to protect our civilization.

    Once again, as the Durants documented in their epic “The Story of Civilization,” it is most often that political leaders cause failures of civilizations due to their failures to meet the challenges of change, usually because of the power of money, but today our intellectual leaders are failing us to the point where time may have already run out because of the destructive coronavirus in addition to other out of control destructive global warming consequences we are experiencing.

  2. To certify my second grade to you, I refer to Cara Horowitz’s recent post that asked her students a most important question: “What Do Tomorrow’s Leaders Think About This Mess?” A most urgent question focusing “on the pandemic, climate change, and the future.”

    Two of the responses, from a set of excellent responses, provided recommendations that must be considered to define the highest priorities for achieving our most important goal today, saving our democracy, our environment and our civilization:

    “What’s going to change the world is the fight. To remind ourselves that we have chosen this path, and that we can’t let ourselves feel hopeless. The believers and the fighters have to keep pushing. We now have to fight that much harder.”
    -Lena Freij, JD 2021

    “— I think that it’s important for governments and thought leaders to present unified messaging about the reality of climate change and the steps that must be taken to prevent it.”
    -Gabriel Greif, JD 2021

  3. Hi Dan! I enjoyed this analysis… and as a Brazilian-American in her own quest to understand who is doing a better job of mishandling the crisis, I think you settled it for me. One small note = must be a typo – Bolsonaro is up for election in 2022, not 2020. Cheers!

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more