The Hucksters of the Right

BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MARCH 25: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks with press at the official residence during the coronavirus  (COVID - 19) pandemic at the Palacio do Alvorada March, 25, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. President Bolsonaro recently defended the nation's return to normality and the end of social distancing and quarantine. (Photo by Andressa Anholete / Getty Images)
BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MARCH 25: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a press conference amidst the coronavirus (COVID - 19) pandemic at the Palacio do Alvorada March, 25, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. Bolsona... BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MARCH 25: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a press conference amidst the coronavirus (COVID - 19) pandemic at the Palacio do Alvorada March, 25, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. Bolsonaro recently defended the nation's return to normality and the end of social distancing and quarantine. According to the Ministry of health, as today, Brazil has 2271 confirmed cases infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) and at least 47 recorded deceases. (Photo by Andressa Anholete / Getty Images) MORE LESS
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It’s a bit off our radar. But I wanted to point your attention to this eye-popping story on defeated former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro embraced the Trump comparison in office and followed that pattern with his own failed insurrection which broke out after he refused to recognize his reelection defeat in 2022. Since then he’s been under a number of investigations into subjects ranging from his failed coup to various Watergate-like infractions in office to other instances of corruption. But the one that is his most immediate threat turns on his allegedly fencing fancy gifts he received from foreign heads of state at stores and auction houses in the United States.

The racket seems to have been that one of Bolsonaro’s personal aides would take the gifts to jewelry stores and sell them for cash. Then Bolsonaro himself would get some or all the money. Apparently they only had luck with the watches. In one example, Bolsonaro aide Lt. Col. Mauro Cid sold a diamond Rolex and Patek Philippe watches to a mall jewelry store in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The Rolex was a gift from the Saudis; the Patek Phillipe was apparently from Bahrain. Once the shit hit the fan, Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef, flew to the U.S. to repurchase the Rolex. He first denied it, then dared reporters to prove it. When they produced a receipt he said he was buying it for himself.

And so the saga unfolds. A one-time head of the state of one of the most populous countries in the world fencing jewelry for cash like a common street hood.

As in the United States, Brazilian law allows heads of state the ability to keep a certain class of personalized gifts of low value. But jewelry in the tens of thousands of dollars is a clear no-no. One of the wrinkles of this story is that Bolsonaro appears to have requested an opinion from one of his cronies classing the jewelry as in the category of items Bolsonaro could keep for himself. But experts on Brazilian law — and apparently federal prosecutors — say that opinion was bogus and clearly contravened Brazilian law. So that opinion, in addition to apparently having no validity, is itself a target of criminal investigators.

This isn’t a new story. It’s been in the Brazilian and other English language press for some time. It hadn’t crossed my radar until I saw the article in the Times which I linked above. If anything this is that rare story in which Trump — painful to say — gets a bit of a bad rap. In relating the long list of similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro, the Times notes that Trump too had some issues with taking some gifts as his personal property. But the ones Trump appears to have taken were of lesser or trivial value (a set of golf clubs and a portrait of Donald Trump) and, critically, there’s no evidence he tried to sell them for cash. When Trump is guilty as sin of so many things, this one is a genuinely iffy comparison.

The similarities that do exist between the two men — and there’s quite a long list — poses some real questions about what we might call the global Trumpist movement. To the extent this is a movement — charismatic, often media-adjacent populist leaders, with far-right nationalist politics — it predates Trump. But he certainly came to embody it and became the symbol of it after his shock 2016 presidential victory. And it’s hard to miss that there’s a pattern of fairly blatant corruption in office, prior to serving and I guess after as well. We know about Trump and Bolsonaro. The late Silvio Berlusconi is another addition to the list. Some of this may be, if not judicial persecution as each man claims or claimed, then political opponents closely scrutinizing their actions once they leave office. But even accounting for some of that, the pattern is pretty unmistakable.

On the domestic front, a related pattern is even more jarring and clear. Over the years it’s been hard to find a single close confidante or aide of Trump who doesn’t have at least one serious accusation of sexual harassment or sexual violence of some sort. Just days ago it was revealed that close advisor Boris Epshteyn was arrested in Arizona in 2021 for allegedly groping two women in a bar. Steve Bannon only got out of one of his major fraudulent business schemes with a Trump pardon. The first two House Republican endorsers of Trump’s 2016 campaign, Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, both ended up doing time for financial crimes. This list is meant to be exemplary, not exhaustive; the numbers are legion.

We all have some natural tendency to believe or want to believe that those who we oppose are not only wrong but bad. It brings a certain easy consistency to our moral universes. It is a reflex that is good to question and counter. Certainly there’s no shortage of left-leaning politicians who’ve gotten in trouble for financial crimes or various kinds of sexual predation. On the foreign front we have ex-French President Sarkozy, of the center-right but no Trumpist, who is serving a year of home confinement for corruption. But the pattern I note above is too strong to be easily dismissed and raises the real question of whether there is some inherent connection between domestic Trumpism as well its foreign counterparts and criminal or transgressive behavior.

That’s a question for another day. But it’s worth considering.

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