Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 28 May 2020

In the West, coronavirus is forcing populism to go on sick leave

Leaders who rose to power denigrating expertise and international co-operation are now having to rely on both elements in a time of crisis

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are having to make major adjustments to the way they govern in a time of crisis. AFP
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are having to make major adjustments to the way they govern in a time of crisis. AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has all the elements needed to undo the rise of insurgent, nativist populism in the West. The crisis could prove an incontrovertible refutation of the anti-state and anti-expertise arguments on which such populism is based.

US President Donald Trump embodies the western form of demagoguery that casts itself as championing the “forgotten", supposedly “real” (usually non-urban, white), people against "elites", experts and professionals. It is very different from Vladimir Putin's nationalist populism in Russia, which celebrates the state and even involves nostalgia for the former Soviet Union, or the Chinese variety that venerates the wisdom and authority of the government.

By contrast, Mr Trump aggressively disdains administration and expertise. He invariably asserts that he knows more than seasoned professionals about any given topic and that his instincts and intuition are superior to their knowledge and experience. But this narrative might not survive his mishandling of the coronavirus.

During his White House stint, Steve Bannon campaigned for the deconstruction of the administrative state. Sean Gallup / Getty Images
During his White House stint, Steve Bannon campaigned for the deconstruction of the administrative state. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Mr Trump is a champion of weakening government regulations on businesses. He has in the past dismissed the significance and worth of professional experts, including scientists, military leaders, economists, diplomats, intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as others – often his own appointees.

His first White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, vowed that the main aim of the Trump administration would be what he called "the deconstruction of the administrative state". And, indeed, with the systematic removal of experienced professionals and promotion of a menagerie of cronies and sycophants, this has been accomplished to an alarming degree.

However, it has led directly to the bungling of the coronavirus crisis, particularly the cascading fiascoes over testing, equipment, hospital capacity and medicines. There has been no meaningful overall national policy on the crisis, with local and state officials largely left to fend for themselves as the president frequently dismisses concerns as overblown hype and even a "hoax".

His attacks on the "administrative state” produced this failure and the resulting scope of the healthcare and economic crises.

Ron Klain was once White House Ebola response co-ordinator. His office was done away with by the Trump administration. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
Ron Klain was once White House Ebola response co-ordinator. His office was done away with by the Trump administration. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

A year into his term, Mr Trump eliminated the global health security directorate at the National Security Council, which had been established after the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

It left behind a detailed playbook for dealing with just such a public health security crisis. Yet, not only has the Trump administration not followed these recommendations, in many cases it has done precisely the opposite, especially with lack of planning, inaction and spreading of misinformation. Though repeatedly warned about the coming crisis in January, the administration essentially did nothing for many weeks.

Now, ironically, Mr Trump is relying for his future on the very experts he is usually so ready to deride as nefarious operatives of a fictional "deep state" conspiracy against him.

By November, Americans may have concluded that this “deconstruction of the administrative state” has consequences and that the country desperately needs professional expertise and administrative experience after all.

A similar process is unfolding in the UK, where efforts by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to combat the virus with insouciant nonchalance and a refusal to mandate social distancing collapsed as the real threat to public health and security became clear. This was underscored when Mr Johnson himself tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr Johnson and his Brexit allies have championed a comparable anti-expertise and anti-administration ethos to that of the staunchly anti-science Republican Party under the leadership of Mr Trump.

But a crisis that can only be combated by scientific rigour and professional competence will surely undercut the appeal of this attitude, exemplified by Michael Gove’s notorious declaration that "the British people have had enough of experts".

In some countries with far younger and weaker institutions than the US and the UK the structures of accountable government are being undermined by cynical demagogues.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has effectively suspended the country's parliamentary system and, crucially, closed the courts in which he was supposed to be facing major criminal corruption charges. Ordering a nationwide shutdown, he effectively told Israelis that they have to remain in their homes so that he can continue to stay in his.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban is set to use the crisis to rule by decree.

But in the US, any similar suspension of basic constitutional processes is unlikely to succeed, even under dire circumstances. The public will soon get the opportunity to revisit its recent infatuation with brazenly inexpert and defiantly amateurish governance in the name of a tribal nationalism.

European demagogues such as Italy's Matteo Salvini have tried to link, without evidence, the spread of the virus to migration and refugees. EPA
European demagogues such as Italy's Matteo Salvini have tried to link, without evidence, the spread of the virus to migration and refugees. EPA

Across the West, the champions of parochialism and xenophobia, often tinged with thinly veiled or even open racism, have seized on the pandemic to stoke fear of foreigners and champion closed borders and travel and migration restrictions.

European demagogues such as former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini have tried to link, without evidence, the spread of the virus to migration and refugees. And, when he wants to rile his white nationalist base, Mr Trump refers to the "Chinese virus", although when he is getting along with Chinese leaders he reverts to the standard "coronavirus” terminology.

This massive crisis is likely to prove a defining test in western countries for the populist challenge to centrist and tolerant governance at home and to multilateralism and economic globalisation internationally.

In this initial phase, almost all national leaders are benefiting from an instinctive "rally around the flag" crisis response from the public, although Mr Trump's bump in popularity is strikingly small compared with both his US predecessors and current international peers. In the long run, though, it is hard to imagine a more powerful case against the two main pillars of western populism: the denigration of expertise and hostility towards international co-operation, since successfully combating the virus requires an emphasis on both.

The great political scientist Walter Russell Mead notes that "both the medical and economic dimensions of the pandemic call for expert leadership and international co-operation", and that this could signal a resurgence of “centrist politics and policymaking” in the West and the revival of global multilateralism.

The US election in November, effectively a referendum on Mr Trump, will be the clearest indication of whether populist demagoguery in the West will be the coronavirus' most consequential victim.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: March 29, 2020 05:11 PM

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