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Trump Would Have Been Disastrous for the Fight for Democracy in Brazil and Ukraine
His actions both in and out of office show he cares not a whit about avoiding authoritarianism
Two countries resisting the global trend of democratic backsliding are Brazil and Ukraine. But if Donald Trump were currently in the White House, democracy would have had less of a fighting chance in either. During Trump’s presidency, it was often unclear whether America was on the side of democracy or autocracy abroad (or even at home).
Some overestimate America’s clout in the world, but as the world’s largest economy and military power, America’s words and actions influence others. Brazil’s predicament is driven primarily by domestic causes, so America’s impact in that country is limited to the example America sets and the leaders it chooses to support or oppose. Ukraine’s problems, on the other hand, are the result of a foreign authoritarian’s aggression. So America can have a more direct impact through weapons and information sharing.
Under Trump, America might have abdicated on both fronts.
Biden Bails on Bolsonaro
Let’s start with Brazil.
Brazil does not have a strong history of democracy, especially compared to the United States. Its democratic institutions are newer and more fragile, the norms of elections unsettled, and civilian control of the military less ingrained. From 1964 to 1985, the country was a military dictatorship.
So in 2021, when then-President Jair Bolsonaro—a right-wing, nationalist populist nicknamed the “Trump of the Tropics”—took a leaf from Trump’s playbook and started muttering about voter fraud and attacking the media in anticipation of losing the 2022 presidential election, it raised concerns he might attempt a coup. In the months leading up to the election, Bolsonaro claimed, “The Army is on our side.” After he lost narrowly to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his supporters held rallies calling on the military to keep him in power. A few days before Lula’s victory was certified, Bolsonaro warned the military was the last barrier between Brazil and socialism.
But, as it turns out, Brazilian military leaders weren’t interested in overthrowing their country’s democracy for Bolsonaro. And the Biden administration strongly supported that instinct.
In July 2022, three months before the election, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke at an Americas-wide defense meeting in Brazil and stressed the need to respect civilian officials’ authority over the armed forces. In September, the U.S. Senate, led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, unanimously passed a resolution in support of Brazilian democracy. For months leading up to Brazil’s Oct. 2 election and the subsequent Lula-Bolsonaro runoff on Oct. 30, the Biden administration complemented Austin’s public words with private communications along diplomatic, military, economic and intelligence channels. As Robbie Gramer reported in Foreign Policy, top officials from the White House, Defense Department, State Department and even CIA held meetings and calls with their Brazilian counterparts to try to head off any effort by Bolsonaro to subvert the election result.
After the runoff, Biden quickly recognized Lula’s win, calling the election “free, fair and credible.” This anticipated Brazil’s top military brass’s joint statement a week and a half after the runoff warning that all political disputes had to be resolved in accordance with democratic rule of law.
It is reasonable to believe that this all-hands-on-deck American diplomacy played a role in Brazil’s military and other national elites’ deciding against supporting a Bolsonaro coup.
Trump would have done none of this if he were president. He, after all, was on record praising Bolsonaro when they were both in office. In 2020, Trump hosted Bolsonaro at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, and endorsed the Brazilian president’s reelection bid. In August 2021, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a member of Brazil’s Congress, traveled to South Dakota to meet former Trump aide Steve Bannon and others, telling them that his country’s electronic voting system was “ridiculous” and vulnerable to mass fraud. After his father’s failed bid for reelection, Eduardo schlepped to Florida and held separate meetings with Bannon and the former president, reportedly discussing ways to challenge Brazil’s election. Fox News’ top-rated host Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, backed Bolsonaro’s baseless claims that Brazil’s election was “rigged.” Likewise, MAGA influencers—including Donald Trump Jr., Bannon, former Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller and Jan. 6 rally organizer Ali Alexander—pushed claims about election fraud. They even encouraged Brazil’s Jan. 8 riots, both in advance and as they were happening, with Bannon openly celebrating the violence.
Had Trump and his acolytes been in control, there is little doubt they would have egged Bolsonaro on. Whether that would have worked, one cannot say. But Trump’s statements and actions would have sown doubt and confusion in the ranks of Brazilian elites, which could have only redounded to the benefit of Bolsonaro supporters who didn’t want to recognize the election results. Meanwhile, Brazil’s military leaders may have been more reluctant to make a democracy-respecting decision if the commander in chief of the Western Hemisphere’s dominant military had been siding with Bolsonaro, rather than warning them against intervening to reinstall him.
Brazilian democracy may not have slid all the way into autocracy, but it may well have inched closer.
Biden’s Unwavering Support for Ukraine
Now let’s turn to Ukraine.
The Biden administration made it a priority to help Ukraine as much as possible without triggering a wider war and has thus far succeeded. The United States has given Ukraine over $27 billion worth of military aid, including advanced equipment, such as the HIMARS rocket artillery system that Ukrainian forces have used to hinder Russian military logistics behind their lines. European countries have sent about $10 billion worth of weapons too, including tanks. Biden has been outspoken about the moral and strategic reasons for defending Ukrainian democracy, articulating the dire long-term implications for the world if Russia’s aggression is allowed to succeed. Without American support, it is hard to see how Ukraine might have stopped and partially reversed Russia’s military advance, as it did last fall.
By contrast, when Russia invaded its neighbor last February, Trump, at that point a year out of office, called Putin a “genius” and praised him for his “savvy” move in a gushing radio interview.
This was in keeping with Trump’s affection for authoritarians when he was in office (remember his love letters with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un?), particularly Putin. In 2018, he even publicly sided with Russia’s autocrat against the U.S. intelligence community on questions of Russian intelligence operations targeting U.S. elections. (A bipartisan report from the Republican-chaired Senate Intelligence Committee released in 2020 supported U.S. intelligence’s account with considerable detail.)
According to Trump staffers, he considered withdrawing from NATO multiple times during his presidency, noting he didn’t see the point of the alliance. In 2020, Trump reportedly said he wanted to pull out of NATO (as well as America’s alliance with South Korea). When top aides argued that it could harm his reelection bid, he reportedly said, “We’ll do it in the second term.”
Whether or not Trump would have followed through, we may never know. But it’s safe to say Trump never would have gone to bat for Ukraine. Apart from his admiration for Putin, he also has disdain for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy because Zelenskyy refused to oblige Trump when Trump asked him to manufacture an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine. Trump withheld military aid that Congress had authorized—and he had signed—to Ukraine pending Zelenskyy’s compliance, which led to his first impeachment. Trump eventually removed the hold, but only after getting caught trying to extort Zelenskyy.
It is conceivable that Putin might not have invaded Ukraine if the NATO-skeptical Trump were America’s president. But it is equally conceivable that anticipating little American pushback on his imperial designs, Putin would have been even more emboldened. It is also possible that Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians would’ve been less defiant without the United States on their side, and the war would have been quickly over. But that would have spelled the end of Ukraine’s fledgling liberal democracy, added a destabilizing threat to America’s allies in Eastern Europe and encouraged aggressive authoritarians worldwide.
The more likely scenario is Ukraine would have resisted fiercely, but would have faced longer odds and won fewer battles due to less American support. And the absence of American aid would have left too big a hole for Europeans to fill. They also would have been warier about intervening in the first place if the U.S. president were shrugging and saying “not his problem”—or worse, echoing Putin’s rationalizations, as Trump and the MAGA right have often done.
In short, if Trump were in office, the West likely would have splintered instead of unifying to isolate Russia, making Putin’s aggression far less costly to him. Perhaps the U.S. Congress would have picked up the mantle that Trump dropped and insisted on standing up to Putin by approving veto-proof sanctions against Russia, as it did in 2017. But a president unwilling to deliver can find many ways to thwart the will of Congress.
Moreover, Trump would have approached his second term with much greater confidence. He was reportedly preparing a purge of civil servants in various agencies, including the State Department, effectively stacking these agencies with loyalists. This would’ve allowed him to overcome the institutional constraints he experienced in his first term and exercise far more personal control over foreign policy.
If Donald Trump were still president, there is a much greater likelihood that Russia would be occupying Ukraine and that Brazil would be a Bolsonaro-led military dictatorship.
America can be awfully hypocritical when it comes to sticking up for democracy abroad, as its support for authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Chile, Panama and other countries richly testifies. Still, the cause of liberal democracy is much better off without Trump in the Oval Office.