In the age of coronavirus, this one thing unites populist leaders

Authoritarian premiers have responded differently to the outbreak but share a common disregard for their people

April 15, 2020
 Marcos Correa/DPA/PA Images
Marcos Correa/DPA/PA Images

Just before Easter, two particularly grim things happened in Brazil. It became the first country in the southern hemisphere to confirm over 1,000 deaths from coronavirus; and its president, Jair Bolsonaro, happily mingled and shook hands with supporters on the streets of Brasilia. The two events may or may not be linked. The key point is that the question did not trouble him.

Coronavirus is not only a global human and economic catastrophe, but a series of political earthquakes. Part of that is geopolitical, in the sense that it appears to be reshaping global and regional power dynamics in real time. But more immediately, the virus’ speed and force is exposing individual political landscapes. People often remark that a crisis will reveal our true selves: our instincts, values and priorities. Most of us will experience those truths in private, but national leaders will do so on a rather bigger stage. The world’s most ego-driven premiers have been confounded by something they cannot control, imprison or eliminate. Although they are responding differently, they seem to have quite a lot in common.

On one end of the spectrum we see the leaders who have downplayed the crisis or ignored it outright. Bolsonaro has dimissed coronavirus as “hysteria,” a “media trick” and a “little flu,” and encouraged people to flout state governors’ regulations. In Belarus, normally dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship, President Alexander Lukashenko (now in his 26th year of power) has described the virus as a “psychosis,” encouraged people to drink vodka and attend saunas to resist it, and as recently as Monday declared that nobody in his country would die of it. Third, of course, we observe President Donald Trump, who initially, like Bolsonaro, compared the illness to a common flu, branded Democrats’ response a “hoax,” and said the virus would “disappear.”

At the other end, we find leaders who have accompanied lockdowns with strong impositions of state power. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party has passed legislation in parliament allowing the prime minister Viktor Orbán to rule indefinitely by decree. Further measures of jail time for people who “spread false information” appear to be directly targeting government critics and independent journalists. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police to “shoot [trouble-makers] dead.” And in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has overseen the arrests of several hundred people for so-called “provocative” posts on social media.

Erdogan falls somewhat between the two camps. On 26th March he announced that “by breaking the speed of the virus’ spread in two to three weeks, we will get through this period as soon as possible and with as little damage as possible.” Turkey has since seen one of the world’s worst outbreaks and introduced tight restrictions. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has hedged his bets. Initially he called the virus a “foreign threat,” then downplayed the lockdown as a “non-working week,” and has now dramatically increased restrictions as the outbreak escalates.

Various factors explain the differences. Trump and Bolsonaro, and their supporters, are waging a culture war, in which the virus constitutes a conspiracy by liberal health-and-safety zealots to clamp down on “our way of life,” by the left to destabilise the economy, or by the Chinese to usurp the west geopolitically. Putin and Erdogan have sought to frame the disease as something external in order to avoid blame. Trump has enlisted direct racism to brand it the “Chinese virus.” But ultimately their responses are quite similar. This is an expression of two kinds of power: that of the strongman, and of the man.

These leaders have privileged bravado and ego over science. On a basic level, it is about masculinity. Disease is not a war you can fight with guns and bombs. Its heroes are not soldiers and military commanders but nurses and carers. The battlefield not only lacks overtly masculine symbols but seems to threaten masculinity altogether. Bolsonaro has explained that “as an athlete,” he “would not feel anything” if infected. Trump initially declined to get tested and, contrary to his own government’s advice, has refused to wear a mask. A strongman without physical fortitude and prowess cannot, after all, be very strong.

We have perhaps seen this machismo most clearly with the discussion of our own prime minister. Even when Boris Johnson fell seriously ill, Downing Street insisted that he would continue working, and when he went into hospital, his stand-in Dominic Raab declared that the PM would beat the virus because he is a “fighter.” That was not just a profound insult to the people who do not survive, but tapped into something essential about the treatment of disease itself: its equation with weakness, character failing and, above all, femininity.

The one thing more important than sexism is self-interest. For Trump, it has proven a question of electoral calculus. He wants this disease to go away because he perceives a risk to his forthcoming campaign. When, on Tuesday, he announced that he would halt funding to the World Health Organisation, he was not merely deflecting attention and blame from his own mismanagement, but subordinating millions of lives to his own personal ambition.

For other leaders, the power is more abstract. The only question is how they can preserve it. These men expect to control not simply their response to events, but events themselves. Some have decided that, since they cannot control coronavirus, they must simply deny it. Among those who have chosen to confront the disease, Erdogan has simultaneously countered any threat to his political power, while Orbán has seized the opportunity to consolidate it.

Johnson is not in the same league as these men, and he has more direct understanding of the virus than any of them. His recovery is excellent news. But he, too, is a populist, and he, too, initially saw the virus as a threat to his power. Before he fell ill with it, he was wishing it away. At first he boasted of shaking hands with Covid-19 patients and suggested we might “take it on the chin.” Then, in the days before lockdown, he declared we would “get this thing done.” That lockdown, in the end, came too late because the government had not taken the virus seriously at the start. It was as if Johnson refused to believe that what he saw hurtling down the track could really be happening.

This is not to suggest that world leaders actively want their citizens to come to harm. For a start, many of Trump and Bolsonaro’s target voters are the most vulnerable. Equally, not many outside Fidesz contend that Orbán is taking such extreme anti-virus measures to help his people. The point is that the people are a secondary concern. When it comes to this virus, aggressive denial and aggressive containment are two sides of the same coin. It is not about the interests of the people being led but the people who lead them.

For the most part, populism is the wrong name. Some may care about the people, others may not. In the end they only really care about themselves.