Populism gone viral

We live in an age of populism. The last five years alone have seen leaders elected to power in Brazil, Poland and India who vilify the establishment and champion “people power.” Some of the world’s most ‘respected’ democracies recently experienced harsh backlash against the status quo and the people who sought to preserve it, in the 2016 Presidential election and Brexit referendum respectively. Until now, there has been little to unambiguously indicate the failure of such movements. In fact it seemed as though despite the endless hand-wringing and outraged posting, these movements were more symbolically than practically disruptive. The present coronavirus pandemic proves otherwise.

One of the key characteristics of a populist is to distrust and vilify the “establishment.” This can take various forms, from attacking judges in Poland to blaming ‘Brussels’ in Britain. The general rhetoric of a populist, particularly if they reach the national stage, fosters widespread distrust in society. Suddenly, career bureaucrats warning about foreign policy seem to have an ulterior motive. Scientists who warn about the climate or technologies are charged with pursuing personal interests. 

This hyperactive distrust is never beneficial, but when it comes to a global pandemic, it is particularly dangerous. In some ways, populists fall into a trap. If their electoral win was based on a rejection of career bureaucrats and scientific consensus, to whom can they turn in a crisis? In the USA, when the virus was first detected in January, President Trump’s response was not (publicly) led by experts, it was led (surprise, surprise) by himself and then Mike Pence, of all people. 

Perhaps this is the real danger. Populist leaders were often elected with a heavy reliance on their personality. Boris Johnson with his characteristic bluster and blunder, Trump with his penchant for saying whatever he thinks (and Jair Bolsonaro for saying even more). What their policies were, mattered less than their embodiment of disruption. Whilst (evidently) successful in an election, how does such a personality hold up in a crisis?

One of the side-effects of such a candidate is that their government is usually as centered around their trademark personality as their campaign. And the track records of such leaders to transform into a detail-oriented head of state has so far been patchy at best. Instead, the tendency is to rely further on their personality. Trump rallies raged, his press conferences were shouting matches and everything his administration did was praised to the high heavens. Bolsonaro too has shown no signs of tuning down his rhetoric.

But in a public health crisis, that only goes so far. In fact, it can even be detrimental. Boris Johnson’s foray into national ‘herd immunity’ individualism (short-lived as it was) may have had dire consequences on the UK’s capacity to deal with the virus. Similarly, President Trump’s reassurances that “It’s going to be just fine” mirrored the administration’s slow response. Bolsonaro has been even more extreme, urging his country to relax quarantine measures and finger-pointing at the media. All responses were based on economic worries, rather than public health concerns. All were concerned with standing out and doing things differently.

However, what was arguably more damaging was the effect on public trust. Ironically, populists who ran on a platform of distrust may themselves fall victim to it. It didn’t help that in the UK, the government soon dropped their herd-plan, and announced stricter lockdown measures. Also in the US, history was rewritten with Trump claiming he knew it was “a pandemic, long before it was called a pandemic.” 

In times of national (and global) crisis, what is needed is trust in government, regardless of who is in charge. Such a pandemic cannot be overcome without big government action, which relies on the cooperation of its citizens. When populist governments focus on the economy over the well-being of their citizens, eyebrows are justifiably raised. When they make abrupt volte-faces and send conflicting messages, how can their citizens be expected to trust them to effectively deal with this crisis?

Image: The White House via Wikimedia Commons 

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