Populists hate to be unpopular. That is why they have proved so bad at handling Covid-19, a crisis that brings nothing but grim news — death, economic destruction and curtailed freedoms.
Donald Trump, the US president, and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, are the two most prominent populist leaders in the western world. The disastrous results of their approach to coronavirus are now becoming apparent. Last week, Brazil became the second country in the world, after the US, to record more than 50,000 Covid-19 deaths.
The distinguishing characteristic of the Trump-Bolsonaro approach to Covid-19 is a fatal inability to face reality. Mr Trump virtually ignored the virus through January, February and half of March. At various times he has suggested that it would disappear by magic and that injections with disinfectant might be a good remedy. As new cases and deaths continue to surge, Mr Trump’s latest bright idea is to argue that America should simply stop testing, in the hope that reality will disappear if it is simply ignored.
Mr Bolsonaro has been even more flamboyantly irresponsible — dismissing Covid-19 as a mere sniffle, addressing anti-lockdown protests and ousting two health ministers.
Both men are now paying a significant political price for their incompetence. Mr Trump is trailing badly in the polls, ahead of the November presidential election. Mr Bolsonaro has also seen his approval rating slump — amid talk of impeachment and investigations into corruption in his inner circle.
In Britain, Boris Johnson has been more respectful of the scientific consensus. But, early in the crisis, the prime minister did succumb to one of the biggest flaws in the populist approach: a dangerous reluctance to act on bad news. As other European nations went into lockdown, he proclaimed that “we live in a land of liberty” and delayed taking action. Partly as a result, the UK has the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe. In just two months, Mr Johnson has gone from record popularity to a negative approval rating.
By contrast, Angela Merkel — who is detested by Mr Trump and many other populist leaders — has had a good crisis. Germany has one of Europe’s lowest per capita death rates. When Mr Johnson protested in parliament last week that there is not a single example of a country with an effective contact-tracing app, Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, responded with a single word: Germany.
The contrast between Ms Merkel’s performance and those of the populists demonstrates that an ability to understand evidence is a useful trait in a leader. The German chancellor has a doctorate in chemistry. By contrast, Mr Trump is a real estate developer, Mr Bolsonaro is a former army captain and Mr Johnson has a second-class degree in classics. Ms Merkel was able to give a calm and clear explanation of the mathematics of infection rates and to act upon it; Mr Trump complains that the US is doing too many tests. Ms Merkel has also surged in the polls — recording her highest approval ratings for many years. By contrast, Germany’s populist Alternative for Deutschland party — traditionally hostile to the establishment line on everything from the EU to vaccinations — has slumped.
Observing this pattern, Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University speculated to the BBC recently: “The Covid-19 epidemic may actually lance the boil of populism.” Matthew Goodwin, co-author of National Populism — The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, recently set out a chain of entirely plausible events, which would change the tone of world politics over the next few years. These would include the electoral defeat of Messrs Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron in France and a slump in support for the AfD. Collectively, Mr Goodwin suggests that would mean, “Liberalism is back. Populism is out.”
The defeat of Mr Trump in particular would have global implications — since he has served as an inspiration for “national populists”, including Mr Bolsonaro, the governments of Hungary and Poland and the radical right in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
Liberals have good cause to hope that populism will emerge severely damaged by Covid-19. But they should not celebrate too soon. Mr Trump has had a very bad few months. But the prospect of a “culture war” in America — centring on emotive issues like race and national symbols — could help his campaign.
The forces that first fuelled populism have also not disappeared. As Mr Goodwin points out, some of the social groups most drawn to populism — people without a university education and the poorly paid — will be hit particularly hard by an economic slump.
And then there is the possibility that, amid a crisis, the norms of democratic politics will simply break down. Mr Trump has already unnerved many political observers with his repeated assertions that November’s election will be rigged. Mr Bolsonaro has packed his cabinet with generals and said that the military will ignore “absurd” rulings “to remove a democratically elected president” — an apparent suggestion that the military would refuse to accept a successful impeachment in Congress.
Populism may indeed be rejected by voters in the wake of Covid-19. But there is no guarantee that the populists will go quietly.