Coronavirus-19’s victims: Populism

Jair Bolsonaro. Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters

In late 2018, a majority of Brazilians elected Jair Bolsonaro president of the republic. By now, they probably wished they had never heard of him. In the current coronavirus crisis, Bolsonaro has joined the gallery of toxic leaders, in line with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Unlike the latter, Bolsonaro seems completely immune to any sense of reality. As late as March 29, Bolsonaro dismissed the crisis, exhorting Brazilians to continue doing business as usual. Twitter went so far as to erase two of his messages that raised doubts about the necessity for isolation. And one of the country’s courts ruled that the president had to stop opposing restrictions on people’s movements in the country. Unfortunately, the president is not the only Bolsonaro to significantly compromise the wellbeing of the Brazilian population. Two weeks ago, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, went on record – in a sycophantic nod to Trump  – blaming the Chinese Communist Party for the propagation of the coronavirus.  Hardly surprising, the Chinese authorities were not amused. Unfortunately these days, the only country capable of supplying medical equipment vital to combat this crisis is China.  Brazil is unlikely to be in the front of the line.

On the Hollowness of Populism

The case of Bolsonaro is arguably the most egregious example of the utter hollowness of contemporary populist “politics.”  Populism is defined as a political doctrine based on the notion that there is a fundamental conflict between “ordinary people” and the elite. Populists claim that they will return power to the people and, in the process, restore genuine democracy. Populists also claim that they trust the “common sense” of the people rather than the ideas of experts supposedly out of touch with the real every-day experiences of ordinary people. Unfortunately, in this situation, the common sense of ordinary people has absolutely nothing to contribute to alleviating the crisis.

On the contrary. Those who have based their legitimacy on the common sense of ordinary people have been on the forefront of disseminating public denial, misinformation, and utter disregard of the wellbeing of their fellow citizens. It cannot be repeated enough that just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus crisis as a “hoax” fabricated by the “liberal media” and the Democrats to subvert his re-election. Similarly in Britain, Boris Johnson dismissed the seriousness of the crisis, propagating the insane notion that if everybody got infected, everybody would get immune. Boris Johnson, of course, got elected because of Brexit. Unfortunately for him, in this situation, who cares about Brexit? ? In Australia, Pauline Hanson, a member of the country’s Senate, used the crisis – which she neither denied nor took lightly – to promote her agenda. First, she suggested that the crisis was hyped-up in a manner similar to climate change and global warming (she has dismissed the notion that humans bear responsibility), as if “the world is coming to an end”. Later on, she sought to reap political gain from the fact that Chinese students were allowed to “sneak back” into Australia amid the crisis. Finally, she warned that Australia was facing the threat of a “mass buy up” of the country by China and other countries, which, she vowed, she would not tolerate.

What about the Western European Populist Right

A few months ago, radical right-wing populism was the talk of the town all over Europe. Parties, like the AfD in Germany, were seen as a fundamental threat to democracy in advanced liberal democracies in Western Europe. The dramatic gains of the AfD in Germany and of VOX in Spain were seen as a fundamental watershed in European politics, putting to rest the legacy of Europe’s ignominious past.   The coronavirus crisis has been a fundamental “game changer.”  It has exposed the inanity of slogans such as “[France/Austria/Hungary/Italy] first.” Nativist slogans go nowhere in a situation that requires nothing more than international solidarity and cooperation. “Making America Great Again” loses all of its meaning when the immediate future of the wellbeing of the population crucially depends on the availability of face masks from China. Priorité nationale becomes meaningless when there is nothing to distribute to safeguard the safety of the population. Prima gli Italiani has become an empty phrase in a situation which pushes a country to the precipice of national disaster.

This is not for nothing. In Western Europe, the radical populist right’s response to the crisis has been rather subdued. To repeat, populism derives its impetus from mobilizing resentment against “the elite” – defined as those who not only know things better but use their knowledge to further their own particular interests. This has been most pronounced in the populist right’s campaign against “climate change science” dismissed as the latest pet project of the “globalist” liberal elite. In the current crisis, this kind of narrative lacks traction, if only because of the rising death toll, which cannot be dismissed as a hoax.

To make things worse (for the radical populist right), the current crisis has met one of its central demands, namely to close national borders and, thus, close access to Europe for potential migrants from outside of the region. Under these circumstances, what has been the response of the Western European populist right to the coronavirus crisis? In general, the radical populist right has kept a low profile. And for good reason. In general, the radical populist right has been as much caught off guard as all the other political parties – with at times drastic consequences. In France, Marine Le Pen subjected herself to self-quarantine after a meeting with a right-wing politician tested positive. In Spain, each one of VOX’s 52 members of parliament went into self-quarantine, together with their staff, after the party’s general secretary tested positive for the virus. In addition, the party publicly apologized for having held a party rally in mid-March, which might have contributed to spreading the infection.

Against that, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) appears to have been one of the few parties to anticipate the seriousness of the situation. As early as January, the party called for measures to meet the potential threat posed by the virus. Unfortunately, the other major parties refused to take the threat seriously – only to adopt the demands advanced by the FPÖ.  Similarly in Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, was way ahead of all other parties to warn of the potential dangers the virus might pose to Italy, after two coronavirus cases were confirmed in Rome. Ironically enough, it was their xenophobia, which informed these parties’ quick response to the crisis.

In Switzerland, home of Western Europe’s arguably most successful radical right-wing populist party — the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — the radical populist right has been careful to cultivate its image as a reliable government partner (the SVP holds two seats in the Swiss federal government consisting of seven portfolios).  Right from the start, the SVP acknowledged that the coronavirus represented a serious threat.  In fact, Blocher’s daughter, Magdalena Martullo-Blocher, was the first – and only –MP to wear a face mask to protect herself against potential infection in the Swiss parliament.  She was asked to leave by the president of the national assembly so she would “not disturb” the debates (she was allowed to return for voting).  One of her colleagues went so far as to suggest that an MP wearing a face mask might create the impression that “the situation is worse than it really is.”  This was at the beginning of March.  Some three weeks later, Switzerland had turned into a major “hotspot” in Europe;  schools, universities and stores were locked down and the population asked to stay home.

In response to the worsening situation in neighboring countries, the SVP demanded in mid-March the immediate closing of Switzerland’s borders with its neighbors (especially Italy) in order to stop what it referred to as “health tourism”.  At the same time, the party asked the federal government to immediately adopt stringent measures, i.e., a federation-wide lockdown, in order to slow the progress of infections and thus protect the Swiss health care system from collapsing.  Not everybody in the party leadership agreed, however. Roger Köppel, the influential editor of the right-wing weekly Die Weltwoche, publicly dismissed drastic measures as “nonsense” charging the “antiliberal panic package” would cause more damage than good. A few days later, Christoph Blocher, the SVP’s gris eminence, reaffirmed in an article in Die Weltwoche that the crisis once again demonstrated that Switzerland’s strength crucially depended on its determination to safeguard its independence and sovereignty, particularly with regard to the European Union.[1]

Obviously enough, it is too early to assess the impact of the current crisis on the future of populism.  Cursory observation, however, suggests that populist “leaders” are unlikely to come out of this crisis pristine. On the contrary. The crisis has been ruthless in exposing the vacuous nature of contemporary populism. Populism’s appeal crucially hinges on stirring up latent resentment against those who pretend to know better. In the current situation, those who pretend to know better actually do. This is why Dr. Anthony Fauci is trusted, while Donald Trump is not. This is also why Dr. Anthony Fauci has become the new target for the lunatic far right who still peddles the notion that the world is flat, that life started some 10,000 years ago and that Jesus rode a dinosaur. One might hope that the current crisis, once resolved, will once-and-for-all establish that there are some people who deserve to be listened, their advice heeded – if for no other reason than self-preservation.

Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.

© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[1] A few days later private Swiss initiatives secured desperately needed medical equipment from China.