In wreaking such environmental and human havoc, Mr. Bolsonaro could act with impunity; after all, he had Mr. Trump’s blessing. “I have gotten to know President @jairbolsonaro well in our dealings with Brazil,” the American president wrote on Twitter in 2019. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil.”
Ah, those were the days. Mr. Biden is unlikely to be so permissive (and will, please Lord, be on Twitter less). With the United States no longer led by someone who thinks climate change is a hoax, Mr. Bolsonaro can expect to encounter much more pressure. Brazil, in the words of the political scientist Oliver Stuenkel, may soon have to “face down a joint U.S.-European alliance threatening to isolate Brazil economically over its failure to protect the world’s largest tropical forest.”
Mr. Bolsonaro, to give him his due, seems to be aware that a Biden administration is likely to restrict his room for maneuver. “We recently saw a great candidate for head of state say that if I didn’t put out the fire in the Amazon, he will put up commercial barriers against Brazil,” he said in November, referring to a statement made by Mr. Biden during a presidential debate. Don’t worry, though: He has a plan to deal with it. “Just diplomacy is not enough,” he said. “When saliva runs out, one has to have gunpowder, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
It’s possible — necessary, I would say — to ridicule these as the words of a madman. But underneath the bravado is the recognition that the situation is changing for Mr. Bolsonaro, and not for the better. Mr. Trump’s loss robs the Brazilian president not only of a friendly (at least in theory) presence in Washington, but also of a kindred spirit. For right-wing populists, Mr. Trump was a trailblazer, a beacon, even a leader. His departure marks a worrying reversal and perhaps spells trouble ahead.
Certainly, that’s the view (and hope!) of many Brazilians. Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 seemed to foretell the rise of the country’s own maverick, right-wing populist to power; perhaps Mr. Trump’s exit will prove to be similarly prescient. Who knows? Judging from Mr. Bolsonaro’s recent comments — “Hope is the last to die,” he said grimly the day after the election — the thought must have crossed his mind.
But Mr. Bolsonaro is not easily deterred. He promises to stand strong at his post. After all, Mr. Trump “was not the most important person in the world,” as he said last month. “The most important person is God.”