Many populist-led countries are among the most affected by the Corona virus outbreak, as the USA, Brazil, Russia, the UK, and India illustrate. Although these countries’ governments do not have a unitary response to COVID-19, crisis management has been particularly challenging for them, due to varying combinations of denial and inconsistency, blame-shifting, lack of transparency and overall hostility to science. Such practices are not exclusive to populists, but they are more likely to face serious problems in dealing with the crisis because of their worldview.
The populist worldview separates society between “the people” and “the elite” on moral grounds and considers them homogeneous and antagonistic groups. Populists argue that politics should be the expression of the general will of the people and that they are the only ones to represent this will. It is too early to say that the pandemic has triggered an end to populism. Even if some populists have struggled to manage the crisis, it is not yet possible to claim that populism itself will disappear in a post-corona world. Studies argue that crises, such as the global economic downturn in 2008-09 and the surge of refugee flows in 2015, contributed to accelerate the rise of populism.
Populists can take advantage and even amplify crises to mobilise supporters. During the pandemic, Brazil’s president has opened parallel fronts of crises. By claiming that he is the only advocate of “the real people”, Bolsonaro engaged in conflicts with governors, the parliament and courts. He attempts to drive media attention away from the COVID-19 mismanagement by making frequent polemic statements, like defending access of the population to guns. Bolsonaro mobilised his supporters to the streets against lockdown measures taken by governors and mayors and blames them for the economic recession. Despite the fast increase in cases and deaths in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have not dropped as expected, remaining around 30 percent. None of the impeachment requests have so far thriven. US President Trump shifted the focus of crisis management to the origins of the pandemic, blaming it on China. He condemned the World Health Organisation for mismanagement and claims it is controlled by Chinese interests, a narrative that resonates among his far-right supporters and provides substance to his “America first” rhetoric.
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This blog first appeared on the DIE site.
Author: Aline Burni, DIE.
Image courtesy of photoheuristic.info via Flickr.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.