Chaotic, combative style of populist leaders has failed in pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has tested the resolve of governments throughout the world and it has exposed the failings of populist leadership, writes ANTHONY ANGELINI
Chaotic, combative style of populist leaders has failed in pandemic
President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at the White House this week. The political successes of this new wave of populist leaders have been built on a distrust of authority; associating expertise and intellectualism with elitism, says Anthony Angelini

IN THE midst of the current Covid-19 crisis, a number of countries have reacted responsibly and effectively. Germany, New Zealand and South Korea have shown how the virus can be pushed back; through the combination of medical expertise and organised, efficient governance.

However, there are some countries whose governments have failed to stem the tide. The United States, Brazil and the United Kingdom are among the countries with the highest death and infection rates.

The U.S leads the world with Coronavirus cases, with 3.37 million cases and over 137,000 deaths. Brazil has the highest case numbers in South America with approximately 1.87 million cases and 73,000 deaths. The UK has topped the number of cases and deaths in Europe with 290,000 cases and approximately 45,000 deaths.

The leaders of these countries have been heavily criticised for their disastrous response to the pandemic.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro mishandled the outbreak from the start. He continuously downplayed the seriousness of the virus, which he initially described as a “little flu” Bolsonaro fired one health minister and another resigned. He has repeatedly called for states to end stay-at-home orders; even attending anti-lockdown protests. His government were taken to court for attempting to block publication of daily infection and death rates.

As Brazil’s cases rocketed, Bolsonaro’s carelessness and lack of empathy has led to a significant decrease in his support across the country. Last week, he announced that he had tested positive for the virus.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)

In the United States, Donald Trump initially rejected the advice of experts, suggesting concerns about the virus were the Democratic Party’s “new hoax”. He spent months resisting calls to wear a mask in public; effectively turning mask wearing into an anti-Trump symbol.

As states closed down across the country to halt the virus spread, Trump sent out tweets calling for the liberation of a number of Democrat-run states; thereby undermining the Government’s own messaging. As the cases have risen, Trump has focused on apportioning blame; taking aim at the former Administration, the Chinese Government and the World Health Organization; a near pathological quest to avoid responsibility. He is now trying to downplay the virus; fearful that any further lockdowns will further damage the economy and ruin his prospects for re-election.

There are new reports that the Trump White House is actively working to undermine Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading epidemiologist. Fauci is trusted by the overwhelming majority of the American public and has used his platform to warn the public about the dangers of the virus; at times contradicting Trump’s attempts to downplay the nature of the threat.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s government initially encouraged people to continue socialising, even as other countries were locking down. Johnson ignored early warnings about social distancing; he boasted that he would continue shaking hands; a decision that would backfire when he was hospitalised with the virus. The UK went into lockdown too late, a decision that the former government modeller Neil Ferguson believes has cost tens of thousands of lives.

These three leaders were elected as disruptors to change the status quo and bring down the old administrative state, but destroying institutions is much easier than building them up. When confronted with obstacles, these leaders have intentionally side stepped traditional political structures. They have instead chosen to construct alternative realities that explain away any source of political discomfort. As a result, bad news is treated as lies (or fake news) and the distributors of this news are attacked as unpatriotic or as tools of some larger globalist agenda.

The political successes of this new wave of populist leaders have been built on a distrust of authority; associating expertise and intellectualism with elitism. These leaders have also knowingly embraced conspiracy theories. In his 2017 book, the Death of Expertise, the author Timothy Nichols, warned of the danger this kind of thinking can have on the US populace: “The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture, and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. This is a remarkable change in our public discourse. This change is not only unprecedented, but dangerous”.

This denialism is not just an American issue, it has grown and infected politics across the world. Conspiracy theorists litter the internet with outlandish theories that Covid 19 is a creation of the “global elite”; designed to expand government control. This seeding of distrust in objective facts and authority has made it more difficulty to implement effective, life-saving public initiatives.

At an event to present her country’s priorities for its six month EU Presidency, German Chancellor Angela Merkel highlighted the inability of populist rhetoric to counter the reality of the pandemic: “We are seeing at the moment that the pandemic can’t be fought with lies and disinformation, and neither can it be with hatred and agitation,” she said.

“Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits. In a democracy, facts and transparency are needed.”

The inflammatory, emotion driven rhetoric that underpinned the election campaigns of Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson is starkly contrasted by the cold, hard reality of a global pandemic. Controlling the virus involves co-ordinating local and national government; keeping the public informed with clear advice and constantly re-examining the government response to improve its efficiency. Errors are there to be learned from, not to be ignored.

The chaotic, combative style of the populists, built around an us ersu them narrative, has proven to be completely unsuited to the current crisis. These leaders presented themselves as men of the people, fighting for the disenfranchised, but through a combination of incompetence and wilful ignorance, their response to the virus threatens the lives of the very people they claimed to represent.

Anthony Angelini holds an Mphil in International Peace Studies and an MA in Journalism and New Media.

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