Watching twin populists Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro on Tuesday was to see how nationalism today is, at its ugly root, ethnic and racial nationalism, eventually reducing identity to supposed genetics.
To realize these men with a robust sense of self-regard and a broad disdain for small-d democratic institutions and small-r republican values lead two nations composed of more races and ethnic groups than you can count is jarring. American and Brazil are messy, vibrant, multi-everything patchwork cultures working to overcome long struggles over race and origin, culture and language, wealth and poverty.
They are led now by two grunting, preening he-men. As in Helsinki, Trump is always ready to do his utmost for his most effective flatterers. His ongoing behavior with Vladimir Putin ranges between obsequiousness and full-on boot-licking. His bromance with Kim Jong Un is pursued with the fruitless vigor of a ninth-grader courting the head cheerleader.
Trump loves imitators, and he seemed particularly gleeful that his new friend had adopted the term “fake news” to describe any critical coverage in the press.
Bolsonaro said Brazil and the U.S. now “stand side-by-side in their efforts to ensure liberty and respect for traditional family lifestyles with respect to God... and against politically correct attitudes and against fake news.”
“I’m very proud to hear the president use the term ‘fake news,’” Trump said as they stood side by side in the Rose Garden, the American Mr. Brexit and the Brazilian MAGA enthusiast.
Both would-be strongmen are far behind the Donald’s supervisor in the Moscow home office, who’s all-in with a new law that punishes journalists and ordinary citizens alike for any utterance that doesn’t meet the standards of the Ministry of Truth.
Just after decrying fake news, Trump—a day after his White House breached whatever norms remained and actively encouraged people to read a mass-murderer’s manifesto—made some fake news of his own about big tech’s supposed “collusion” to censor conservatives. “Something has to be going on,” he said, as though he had a law like Putin’s already. “The hatred they have for a certain group of people that happen to be in power.”
Standing beside him, Bolsonaro was also canny in his manipulation of Trump’s all-in losing bet on his border wall. “We do agree with President Trump’s decision or proposal on the wall,” said Bolsonaro. “The vast majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions. They do not intend to do the best or do good to the U.S. people.”
It’s a sweeping irony. Like America, Brazil was shaped and enriched by immigration throughout its history; but in contemporary nationalism, it’s always Year Zero when the borders must be sealed, and Other is at the door.
In some ways, you can’t blame Bolsonaro for playing his game with Trump. Like other world leaders, he knows the best way to Trump’s heart is through his hungry ego, and Tuesday’s press conference was designed to let Bolsonaro stroke Trump’s vanity and need for adoration. Bolsonaro won promised trade consideration, Trump’s support for Brazil’s bid to become a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Trump making a wild statement about Brazil entering NATO.
Of course, Trump isn’t exactly the sharpest diplomatic mind of this (or, to be honest, any) era, so one can almost forgive him for advocating for Brazil’s NATO membership. Even Trump, who spends a disproportionate amount of his time shredding the long-standing bonds of security and friendship between the United States and our erstwhile NATO allies, could tell he was shit-talking Bolsonaro and the Brazilians, noting he would “have to talk to a lot of people” to make it happen. Ya think?
These White House moments were once something different. They were once part of a careful dance of diplomatic and international relationship-building that always had America’s deeply wired values as a backstop. Foreign leaders understood that regardless of who sat in the Oval Office, it was America with whom they were building their long-term relationship, not simply the president.
Closer ties with the largest economy in South America are desirable. Stable, growing democracies should work together to stabilize the region, promote economic growth, and address the environment. With Trump, however, the temporary and the transactional shape every relationship, and it’s hard to see any permanence and persistence in the nationalist fist-bumping of Tuesday.
It’s not simply nostalgia for an era when men and women shaped by the long, hard struggle of the Cold War and its attendant terror of one bad clash leading to white-hot thermonuclear death roaring over the poles to reduce Chicago, Minsk, New York, St. Petersburg, Washington, and Moscow to a shimmering plain of radioactive glass. It’s a sense that the leaders of the free—and even the not-so-free—world felt there were behaviors that must be kept to and boundaries respected.
Now there are just two strongmen in the Rose Garden, kidding-not kidding about fake news and their enemies.