Populists hate to be unpopular. That is why they have proven so bad to deal with Covid-19, a crisis that brings nothing but grim news – death, economic destruction and limited freedoms.
Donald Trump, the US president, and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, are two most prominent populist leaders in the Western world. The disastrous results of their approach to coronaviruses are now evident. Last week, Brazil became the second country in the world, after the United States, which recorded more than 50,000 deaths from Covid-19.
The hallmark of the Trump-Bolsonaro approach to Covid-1
Mr. Bolsonaro has been even more flamboyantly irresponsible – dismissing Covid-19 as a mere sniffle, addressing anti-lockdown protests and equipping two health ministers.
Both men now pay a considerable political price for their incompetence. Trump follows in the polls ahead of the November presidential election. Bolsonaro has also seen his approval rating decline – amid talk of injustice and investigation of corruption in his inner circle.
In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson has been more respectful of the scientific consensus. But early in the crisis, the prime minister succumbed to one of the biggest shortcomings of the populist approach: a dangerous reluctance to act on bad news. When other European nations were arrested, he proclaimed that "we live in a land of freedom" and deferred measures. 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.
In contrast, Angela Merkel – who is discouraged by Trump and many other populist leaders – has had a good crisis. Germany has one of Europe's lowest death rates per capita. When Johnson protested in parliament last week that it is not the only example of a country with an effective tracking app, Opposition Leader Sir Keir Starmer replied in one word: Germany.
The contrast between Merkel's performance and populist results shows that an ability to understand evidence is a useful trait of a leader. The German chancellor has a doctorate in chemistry. By contrast, Trump is a real estate developer, Bolsonaro is a former Army captain, and Johnson has a different class of classics. Ms Merkel was able to provide a calm and clear explanation of the mathematics of infection rates and to act on it; Trump complains that the United States is doing too many tests. Ms Merkel has also stepped up in the polls – and recorded her highest approval rating in many years. By contrast, Germany's populist alternative to the Deutschland party – traditionally hostile to the establishment line for everything from the EU to vaccinations – has fallen.
In light of this pattern, Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University recently speculated to the BBC: "The Covid-19 epidemic may actually launch the rush of populism." Matthew Goodwin, co-author of National Populism – The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy recently released a chain of completely plausible events that would change the tone of world politics over the next few years. These will include the election defeat of Mrs Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron in France and a drop in support for the AfD. Overall, Goodwin suggests it will mean: “Liberalism is back. Populism is out. "
In particular, Trump's defeat would have global implications – since he has served as an inspiration to" national populists ", including Mr Bolsonaro, the governments of Hungary and Poland, and the radical right in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
The Left has good reason to hope that populism will emerge seriously damaged by Covid-19. But they should not celebrate too soon. Trump has had very bad months. But the prospect of a "culture war" in America – centered on emotional issues such as race and national symbols – may help his campaign.
The forces that first propelled populism have also not disappeared. As Mr Goodwin points out, some of the social groups most drawn to populism – people without university education and poorly paid – will be hit particularly hard by a financial downturn.
And then there is the possibility that in the midst of a crisis, the norms of democratic politics will simply collapse. Trump has already despaired many political observers with his repeated claims that the November election will be rigged. Bolsonaro has wrapped his cabinet with generals, saying 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 in fact be rejected by voters in the wake of Covid-19. But there is no guarantee that populists will go quiet.