It was early fall in southern Florida, and a standing-room-only crowd of about 300 gathered at a steakhouse to see a right-wing presidential candidate whom most experts were dismissing as too radical, divisive, and inexperienced to win office.
The candidate was not Donald Trump but Jair Bolsonaro, a retired Brazilian army captain and longtime member of congress whose tough talk about corruption, praise for Brazil’s former military dictatorship, and promises to give police “carte blanche” to kill drug traffickers and other suspected criminals were, by October 2017, already beginning to propel him upward in polls. Many in the crowd had themselves fled Brazil’s spiraling violence and the worst recession in its modern history, which had caused the economy to shrink nearly ten percent on a per capita basis from 2014 to 2017. The 300,000-strong diaspora in Florida, like many of their relatives back home, were hungry for the most anti-establishment figure they could find.
Bolsonaro took the stage 40 minutes late and delivered a speech unlike that of any significant Brazilian presidential candidate in recent memory. He defended the legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship, vowed to protect the country from communists and “thieves,” and slammed “fake news” back home. “What I’m saying there [in Brazil] is very similar to Trump here,” Bolsonaro concluded. “If I’m elected, you can be sure Trump will have a great ally in the Southern Hemisphere.” And then, as the crowd chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” Bolsonaro turned around and saluted a TV image of a waving American flag.