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How populist leaders exploit pandemics

The coronavirus crisis exposes blowhard leaders such as Donald Trump for the charlatans they are. Yet the widespread mood of fear and anxiety plays to their strengths as borders close and normal life breaks down.

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What did the world do to deserve Donald Trump as the president of the United States during a near-unprecedented outbreak of a lethal disease? If it currently seems hard to imagine a leader less suited to the moment, Trump is with every passing day making it more difficult. Over January and February, as thousands were infected and died in Asia, the president dismissed and joked about coronavirus. He variously called it a “hoax”, predicted “it will disappear” or that it would be “close to zero” in days, and lashed out at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention following its warning that the outbreak could turn into a pandemic. 

With that warning now borne out, Trump continues to expose his inadequacy at his every public appearance. A speech to the nation on 11 March announcing a ban on passenger traffic to and from Europe required three subsequent official clarifications. At an appearance on 16 March, when the number of confirmed cases in the US had reached 4,500 and was rapidly rising (at the time of writing 24 hours later, there are 5,243 cases), Trump said the virus was under “tremendous” control. The president’s claims came as Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was conceding that hundreds of thousands could die. It was and is farce and tragedy rolled together. 

History will surely judge it a calamity that Covid-19 struck at a time when nationalist populists such as Trump had secured either national power (the US, Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines), sub-national power (Spain, Italy, Austria) or an otherwise influential position (Britain, Germany, Sweden) in so many democratic and semi-democratic countries. Such politicians vary from place to place, but they also have common and discernible ideological traits – not least when it comes to their instincts on illness, medicine, science, crisis and global governance. Those traits will shape their and thus the world’s response to the pandemic.

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The political genius of populism, and the root of much of its appeal, is that it manages to reconcile individualist and collectivist political instincts through a sleight of hand described by Jan-Werner Müller, a philosopher and the author of What is Populism?, as the “populist logic”. Think of it as a storytelling technique, a way of fitting things into a certain narrative about the world. 

This tells any given member of a social majority that their outlook, their common sense and their scepticism of the established order comprise a collective identity. In their very individuality, according to Müller’s definition, they are thus also part of a “single, homogeneous, authentic people”, which shares interests, preferences and grievances. Those who do not share those things are by definition not of “the real or true people” and are therefore “others” who do not belong. In the populist story a corrupt and monolithic establishment has sold out the people to these others, as well as to external threats. That necessitates the populist leader, a sort of heroic Super Everyman, who can channel the people’s will and combat those threats on the public’s behalf.

In its nationalist variant populism imposes a narrow definition of the nation, implicitly or explicitly excluding racial or other social minorities. It proposes to liberate the people from an establishment (experts, the mainstream media, judges, universities, non-nationalist parties) deemed to be in hock to those supposed internal threats or to external ones like migrants, the EU, globalists, George Soros or any number of other convenient bogeymen. It offers a narrative framework, a simple, all-encompassing story with recognisable stock characters and tropes, into which the complex stuff of politics and statecraft can be slotted. 

Take, by way of example, the nationalist populist affinity for the anti-vaccination movement. Leaders such as Matteo Salvini in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France and Trump himself – who once said he dislikes “injecting bad stuff in your body” – have flirted with the view that jabs should not be compulsory and even that they are dangerous. This fits the populist framework perfectly. Vaccinations, after all, are promoted by mainstream political leaders, scientists, other experts and international organisations. They require the majority of us who are not experts to put our faith in those authorities and override the common sense wisdom that says that “injecting bad stuff in your body” is unwise. Vaccines can easily be construed as distractions from the migrants and other foreigners coming from outside, with the establishment’s blessing, and infecting the population with disease (“bacterial immigration”, Le Pen has called it). To be anti-vaccination is at once to exalt individual sovereignty and to proclaim the collective oneness, pureness and sovereignty of “the people”. It is the populist storytelling machine at work. 

The factors that make the anti-vaxx movement such fertile terrain for nationalist populists in normal circumstances, when in rich countries at least typical outbreaks of illness can be contained and their effects mitigated, also make nationalist populists ill-suited to the task of managing an out of control, global pandemic. The appeal to gut feeling and “common sense” over science and fact, the blustering rejection of mainstream technocracy, the arbitrary definition of “the people”, the opportunism and inconsistency, the division of the world into convenient insiders and outsiders: all of it makes a neat tale in normal times. But times are no longer normal.

As coronavirus has spread, many prominent nationalist populists have followed the same trajectory. Like Trump, they started off by dismissing fears. Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, breezily insisted “everything is well… there is really nothing to be scared of”. Meanwhile Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, called the outbreak a “fantasy” and “not all the mainstream media makes it out to be”. Populists including Trump and Bolsonaro have made similar statements about climate change; another looming scientific reality that does not always square with what seems obvious and correct to the man in the street.

Now, as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates, populists around the world are pivoting to the framework they know best. Recent weeks have seen Trump tweet “we need the wall more than ever!”, Salvini baselessly link Italy’s outbreak to a government decision to let a migrant rescue ship dock in Sicily, and Le Pen blame “the religion of borderlessness”. Elsewhere the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has declared universities virus-prone as “there are lots of foreigners there”, Spain’s far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal has accused the country’s leaders of being “too caught up in removing borders to take basic common sense measures”, and Alice Weidel, the Alternative for Germany party’s co-leader in the Bundestag, has attacked “the dogma of open borders”.

Note the common tripartite structure: the common sense of the people betrayed by a corrupt establishment in league with the internal and external enemies of the people. With populist and mainstream governments around the world now closing borders, the crisis might have been expected to be a moment of triumph for such entreaties. But for now at least, it is not. 


Rise of the technocrats: Emmanuel Macron addresses France about the coronavirus crisis

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The speed, volume and severity of events are proving too much for the populist storytelling process to fit into its usual framework. It is often claimed that populists cannot govern and remain popular, that their fictions vanish on contact with the levers of power. That is wrong, as is shown by long-serving populists such as Orbán or, previously, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Populists can govern, but they need to be sufficiently in control of events as to keep ordering them into their story; reconciling them with the notions of the common sense individual, of the pure-but-betrayed people, of the corrupt establishment and its malign co-conspirators. That is simply not possible in the current circumstances. So Trump is left to look shambolic. Likewise, once-swaggering Duterte is now under fire for his rambling and inconsistent advice to Filipinos and Bolsonaro was made to look ridiculous when he was said, in now-contradicted reports, to have contracted the virus himself and to have potentially passed it on to Trump during a meeting in Florida. 

Even the border closures do not fit neatly into the nationalist populist ideal. In that story, strong borders keep the people pure and, when not undermined by malevolent mainstream leaders, protect it from outsiders. That is patently not the case at the moment: the virus is spreading in countries with ostentatious border restrictions (such as the United States) and has seemingly been brought under better control in countries (such as South Korea) without them. Even in Hungary and Russia, the international pin-ups for the close-the-drawbridge brigade, infections are now rising. 

The case for imposing restrictions at national frontiers is practical – to help jurisdictions manage the crisis on their patch and contribute to broader “social distancing” measures – rather than ideological. The case for coordinating global responses to the crisis will remain overwhelming. “Institutions matter,” wrote Thomas Wright and Kurt Campbell for US magazine the Atlantic. “There is such a thing as the global community. An enlightened response, even if it’s unpopular, matters. The system must be made to work again.” 

All of which makes a mockery of distinctions crucial to the national populist framework. Covid-19 knows no borders, physical, cultural, ethnic, national or otherwise. Nor for that matter does it recognise an epidemiological distinction between a benighted people and the gilded establishment. Among the thousands to have been infected are many ordinary people but also the former Nato chief Javier Solana, the wives of the Canadian and Spanish prime ministers, the actor Tom Hanks, the Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta, and Nicola Zingaretti, leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party. 

And as for the simple, everyday wisdom? Just as few voters would pick a folksy, “common sense” airline pilot or heart surgeon over an “establishment” one, the flattering appeal to everyday gut wisdom loses its appeal when loved ones are so obviously at risk. As Peter Wehner, a contributing writer to the Atlantic, puts it: “Trump is in the process of discovering that he can’t spin or tweet his way out of a pandemic.” 

It is Italy, deep into the coronavirus nightmare, that best illustrates the shift in the political environment. For Salvini’s Lega is in a difficult position: it is not in power nationally but is using untypically cautious language in its attacks on the government, both because it wants to avoid the impression of undermining national unity and because it runs local governments in many of the northern regions, such as Lombardy and the Veneto, where the outbreak has been most severe. As the situation has worsened in Italy, the Lega’s preferred territory of culture-war issues has, in the public’s order of priorities, given way to what political scientists call “valence issues” – those on which voters share a common preference – such as competence. As this has happened, the approval rating of Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s technocratic prime minister, has risen. By contrast, Salvini’s has fallen and the Lega’s polling numbers have fallen below 30 per cent. Elsewhere, the two newest polls in Germany both show support for Merkel’s governing Christian Democrats tick up, while in France Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating has risen for the first time in six months (with 72 per cent saying they are convinced by government efforts).

For, now, then, many nationalist populists appear wrong-footed by the coronavirus crisis. Where they are in government they are looking more politically vulnerable. Where they are in opposition they are finding it harder to take on mainstream governments. In neither position does their distinctive narrative framework, their way of ordering the world, lend itself to a neat and convincing story about the pandemic. 

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And yet we cannot project any of this forward with certainty. The political ramifications of the financial and economic crisis played out not the weeks and months after the collapse of the bank Lehman Brothers in 2008, but over the subsequent decade. It is entirely possible that the impact of coronavirus crisis will be even bigger, and take even longer to realise. But we do at least know three particular areas where it is too early to tell the outbreak’s implications: the “known unknowns”.

First, it is too soon to say what the geopolitical impact of the crisis will be. It is obviously straining global governance. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been criticised for excessive deference to the Chinese government during the early phases of the virus’s spread there. The EU stands accused of letting borders go up by failing to coordinate the bloc’s response, and – especially by both Salvini and more mainstream figures in Rome – of doing too little to help Italy while China, perhaps spying a diplomatic opening, sent face masks and doctors. Norms are fraying: on 15 March it was widely reported that Donald Trump had tried to poach a German pharmaceutical firm to produce a vaccine exclusively for Americans. The global community, such as it is, may now be creaking into action – Macron convinced G7 leaders to convene for a video summit on 16 March – but could easily stall amid rising borders and tit for tats.

Second, it is too early to tell what cultural impact the outbreak will have. If historical pandemics have anything to teach, it is that people rapidly search for a group to blame. The Black Death prompted witch hunts and anti-Jewish pogroms. A plague in Milan in 1629-31 saw residents turn against foreigners and particularly the city’s Spanish rulers. Captured in Alessandro Manzoni’s 1829 novel The Betrothed, this moment became a rallying point for Italian nationalism. 

Today the beginnings of a coronavirus blame game are already present: American rightists have been pointedly calling the disease “the Wuhan virus”, with Donald Trump referring to it as the “Chinese virus” in a tweet on 16 March. Chinese diplomats meanwhile are openly criticising the US for its slow reaction, and Hungary’s government has rolled out anti-Semitic tropes about George Soros. One only has to imagine a new surge of migrants on Europe’s fringes this summer, say, to realise how quickly the virus could acquire an ugly new cultural dimension. 

And third, it is too early to know what political impact the virus will have within countries. For now electorates seem to be putting their faith in governments and supporting the restrictions. But how will the boredom and limitations mount over the coming weeks and months? How will the likely recessions, rising unemployment and accentuated social divides play out? Will public patience snap, causing a backlash against the scientists and experts steering official responses? And when will the opportunities for new social control and authoritarian centralisation inevitably produced by the outbreak – witness the new powers accruing to President Xi Jinping in China – present themselves to the world’s Salvinis, Trumps, Dutertes and Le Pens? 

So it remains perfectly possible that a crisis that, for now, appears to be showing up the democratic and semi-democratic world’s nationalist populists as blowhards will eventually turn out to be an historic opportunity for them. All that fundamentally needs to happen is for events – geopolitical, cultural and political – to align with their narrative. The simple gut wisdom of the man in the street needs to be seen to be confirmed; perhaps, say, by a perception that the experts and the wider establishment have failed. 

That puts an onus on those opposed to nationalist populism – those who believe in expertise, pluralist societies, strong institutions, checks and balances and international cooperation – to develop their own, better story. They could even adapt elements of the very framework the populists themselves use. They, too, can tell of a single people arrayed against a common foe. After all, what does a pandemic that knows no borders reveal more starkly than a common humanity, a “people” defined not by borders or national or cultural distinctions but by shared vulnerabilities, hopes and fears?

And what common enemies could be more truly fearsome than the virus and the ignorance, irrationalism and chaos that aid its spread? 

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning