Brazilians Want Their Own Donald Trump

“The country is a mess. It needs someone to clean it up.”

Illustration by Steph Davidson; Photo: Getty Images

If Brazilians were ever shocked that the U.S. decided to put a onetime star of The Apprentice in the White House, they’re over it.

Two popular potential candidates for the 2018 contest in Latin America’s largest country are former hosts of O Aprendiz, the local version of the show. Another with an enthusiastic following is a Twitter-happy congressman who has said the military dictatorship in the 70s erred when it tortured dissidents; it should have just killed them. Then there’s the plastic surgeon known as Dr. Hollywood who, despite his heavily American-accented Portuguese, figures he has a shot.

Why not? Brazil is desperate for a leader “from outside of politics,” said Jefferson Santos, a 29-year-old kitchen assistant from Planaltina, one of the poor, violent satellite cities orbiting the capital of Brasilia. “The country is a mess. It needs someone to clean it up.”

The disdain for governing-as-usual has been building for years in Brazil, like in much of the rest of the world. The economy nosedived into the deepest recession on record in early 2015—a hangover from the last decade’s commodity boom—and hasn’t come out. The massive Carwash corruption probe has ensnared powerful players including former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached last year. The current leader, Michel Temer, is attempting to stabilize the country’s finances by implementing draconian austerity measures amid a swirl of corruption scandals that felled six of his ministers in less than eight months. His ratings, not surprisingly, are in the tank.

“Brazil is going through a crisis of representation—voters do not feel they are represented by their politicians,” said Alessandro Janoni, head of research at the polling company Datafolha. Municipal elections three months ago showed how little people like their choices: Voting is obligatory in Brazil, and a record number cast blank or voided ballots.

Brazilians have made showings of being fed up before. In 1988, the chimpanzee Macaco Tiao, a resident of Rio de Janeiro’s zoo, placed third in the mayoral election with 400,000 write-in votes. In 2010, a circus clown whose stage name is Tiririca was sent to Congress with more votes that any other lawmaker after running on the slogan, “It can’t get any worse!”

But it did, and the national mood has opened the door for a presidential circus colorful even by Brazilian standards. “Everyone knows this will be a crazy election,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an assistant professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a business school and think tank.

Lula, set to stand trial on corruption and money-laundering charges that could send him to prison for years, actually has the lead in recent polls. Following closely: Jair Messias Bolsonaro, a former army parachutist who has represented Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies since 1990 but portrays himself as an anti-establishment outsider.

Bolsonaro is famous for, among other things, telling a colleague during a dispute on the chamber floor that she didn’t deserve to be raped by him. (He explained to a newspaper that this was because she was ugly and not his type, later saying he was being sarcastic.) He wants to reinstate capital punishment, loosen gun controls and keep out immigrant “scum.” During the impeachment, he dedicated his vote to the colonel who four decades ago oversaw the torture of Rousseff and other leftists.

“It’s very similar to the Trump phenomenon,’’ said Alessandra Orofino, executive director of Nossas Cidades, a coalition of political non-governmental organizations. “Having someone like Bolsonaro speak publicly like he does and still be a big deal and a politician validates the people who are breeding that kind of anger in Brazil. And there are many of them.’’

In fact, Bolsonaro has compared himself favorably to Trump, saying they’re both “explosive.” Back in 2015, he posted a picture of himself on Instagram and Twitter doing push-ups on the beach wearing a sunga (think Speedo, but cut just a bit more loosely), saying he was prepping for 2018.

The newly installed Mayor of Sao Paulo, Joao Doria Jr., is also hugely popular, and very wealthy, but unlike Bolsonaro no fan of the U.S. president-elect: “I don’t identify with him at all.” A former journalist and owner of a marketing company, he’s the author of several get-rich-quick books, including Success with Style, and the publisher of the magazine Caviar Lifestyle. He hosted O Aprendiz from 2010 to 2011.

“I am not a politician,” Doria said on the TV program Roda Viva after his victory on the Social Democracy Party ticket. “My soul is not political. I am not right or left. I am a Brazilian.”

Sao Paulo's mayor Joao Doria joins cleaning personnel during the launch of the campaign 'Clean City,' in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Jan. 2, 2017.
Fernando Bizerra Jr./EPA

That, and promises to combat rampant crime and tackle a dangerously crippled health-care system, struck chords. The 59-year-old made history by winning in the first round, taking all but two districts, from the wealthy center to the impoverished periphery. He may have persuaded the latter with his populist pledge to, somehow, force private hospitals to open their doors to the public at night to clear waiting lists at city-run facilities.

Many in Sao Paulo are poor, and the media reported relentlessly on Doria’s penchant for cashmere sweaters and horror of pasteis, a deep-fried street snack. But the people brushed that off. While he’s said he won’t run for president next year, analysts aren’t so sure and his adoring supporters don’t want to believe it.

“He’d win the presidency,” said Jorge Lopez, 22, serving up fresh-squeezed orange juice at a snack bar downtown, a dilapidated area Doria has vowed to clean up. He echoed what many Americans said about Trump when he explained his devotion to the mayor. “Doria isn’t involved in politics. He already has money so he doesn’t have to steal.”

Other ingenues are testing the waters. Roberto Justus, a millionaire and star of O Aprendiz from 2004 to 2009 and again in the 2013-2014 season, told the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that he’s considering a run. Justus, 61, made his money in public relations; a brief singing career resulted in the easy-listening album So Entre Nos (Just Between Us) in 2008.

Roberto Justus
Source: FotoArena/CON/LatinContent/Getty Images

“We need to take the management of the country out of the hands of politicians,” he said in an interview, sketching out a program that would sell state-run enterprises such as the oil giant Petroleo Brasileiro SA.

In Planaltina, Valda Rodrigues de Sousa said the debonair Justus is the only one who could take her vote away from Lula. “Everything he does works out,” said Rodrigues, who lives with Santos, the kitchen assistant, in a house whose crumbling plaster walls are adorned with a single photograph, from the day she earned her high school diploma in 2015, when she was 39.

That was her proudest moment. Her happiest was in 2002, when Lula was elected. Here was someone poor like her who made it to the top. “I ran out into the street screaming for joy.” Her affection for Lula and the Workers’ Party has dimmed with the economy. At least 10 percent of the 35 million people who emerged from poverty in the decade through 2014 have fallen back down the ladder. Unemployment has nearly doubled in the past two years. The middle-class is being squeezed.

Roberto Miguel Rey.
Samir Baptista/Agencia Estado via AP Photo

Anyone with enough name recognition and cash who can tap the national frustration should be able to compete with more traditional politicians who may be in the mix. Roberto Miguel Rey, the plastic surgeon, has declared his intention to give it a try, though he failed miserably in a run for Congress. “I am going to offer hope to this generation,” he said recently as he signed copies of his autobiography at the upmarket beach resort of Buzios, once a favored haunt of Brigitte Bardot.

Born in Sao Paulo, Rey, 55, was raised in the U.S. and has his practice in Beverly Hills. But like Doria and Justus, he has TV cred: He’s been on Dr. 90210 on E! since 2004.

Pollsters haven’t bothered to assess his support. Santos said that at this point nobody should be ruled out. “At least he might make the country prettier.”

—With assistance from Blake Schmidt