Method To Their Madness: Why The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Far From The End For Populist Strongmen


The COVID-19 pandemic has served to expose the incompetent nature of populist governments across the world. Many factors are affecting countries’ abilities to deal with the coronavirus crisis, governance, resources, luck, and timing being chief among them. For Brazil and the United States, we have seen that leadership – or lack thereof – has played a defining role in the inefficacy of their national responses to the pandemic. Yet, worryingly, the strategies of chaos employed by their populist leaders, Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, are polarizing their respective populations more than ever before. In conditions so suited to populist politics, their respective grips on political power are far from loosened.

That the federal governments of the United States and Brazil have made woefully inadequate attempts to control the pandemic is plain to see. The U.S. leads the world in its number of reported coronavirus cases, with 1.5 million people infected and nearly 90,000 people having died of the disease. Although Brazil’s testing capacity is 32 times less than that of the United States, it is suspected that at least 800,000 people are infected with the virus, and over 15,600 people have now died. It is worth noting that Brazil and the United States are not the only nations with populist strongmen currently leading them: Prime Ministers Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary are others. Johnson has overseen a chaotic pandemic response in the U.K., while his proclivity for lying and abnegating his responsibility shows his willingness to delve into the populist handbook. Orbán, meanwhile, has used the crisis to pass emergency laws that vastly extend his executive powers.

Nevertheless, particular focus upon the United States and Brazil is warranted, due to the influence their leaders hold over global geopolitics. The importance of each country’s upcoming elections in determining future international cooperation over issues such as climate change and economic globalization cannot be understated. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a political vacuum that Trump and Bolsonaro are currently failing to fill in their countries; but their reliance on strategies that can circumvent normal political debate make them dangerously well-placed to turn this tide.

In order to understand why Trump and Bolsonaro continue to pose such a threat in the current pandemic and post-pandemic future, we must first look at the populist strategies that have determined their responses to the pandemic. “Populists are suspicious of expert opinion . . . preferring ‘alternative facts’ tailored to their own liking”, writes Max Boot of the Washington Post. Such a characteristic was present in the rulership repertoires of Trump and Bolsonaro long before the Coronavirus crisis. As part of his efforts to “drain the swamp” of political elites in America, President Trump attacked expert health institutes throughout his tenure. He dismantled the Global Health Security Unit in 2018 and ceased funding for Epidemic Prevention Programme run by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the same year. This forced the CDC to downsize in 39 countries: including China. His trade war with China, as part of his campaign to put “America First,” has resulted in hugely diminished cooperation during the current crisis.

Brazil’s current president was elected on a similar mandate, promising to boost Brazil’s economy by deregulating key state companies, stripping the Amazon rainforest of environmental protection, and promoting similar philosophies of isolationism and exceptionalism. Bolsonaro has, for example, heavily criticized China, in line with Trump; while Brazil’s economy simultaneously enjoys the fruits of being the world’s top exporter to China for goods such as soybeans. He also oversaw a R$13 billion reduction in funding for Brazil’s health service in 2019, as he seeks to roll back the state in society.

The nationalistic and anti-expert rhetoric of both government administrations has resulted in each leader pursuing what Deisy Ventura of The Conversation refers to as “a strategy of chaos.” Both have politicized the pandemic for personal gain. Following his dismantling of much of the CDC and Global Health Security Unit, Trump treated the coronavirus threat with alarming yet fitting facetiousness. Despite being warned by the security services of the dangers posed by the virus as early as November 2019, Trump was still referring to the disease as “a common flu” by 9 March 2020, arguing that the mainstream media was overplaying its threat.

In near-parallel, Bolsonaro issued a shocking televised address to the Brazilian public on 23 March, ordering people to return to work and schools, calling fears about the virus “media hysteria”. Although Trump made an about-turn and implemented a lockdown on 17 March, he claimed he had “always known” the virus was a pandemic and has since renamed it the “Chinese virus.” Such claims resonate strongly with the respective support bases of these leaders, as they dismiss expert opinion and attack the global media.

Both leaders have exported culpability for the origins of this pandemic to various foreign outlets; be it the international media or foreign nations. Trump has since gone further, insinuating that China created the COVID-19 virus in a lab and, whether on purpose or by accident, allowed it to escape. It is wishful thinking to assume that all people of the U.S. and Brazil dismiss these wild accusations and finger-pointing strategies as false. This is due to powerful and coordinated misinformation campaigns that Trump and Bolsonaro are embarking on during this pandemic.

Both U.S. and Brazilian state governors have defied the orders of their presidents and implemented lockdowns using their regional powers. 26 out of 27 of Brazil’s governors have gone even further, signing an open letter to their president, condemning his inaction over coronavirus. American governors have pursued the same strategy, ignoring Trump’s anti-lockdown directive, and forcing lockdowns in their states. 17 U.S. governors have formed an alliance to coordinate their lockdown strategies. 60% of people in both Brazil and the United States are in favour of measures taken by their regional officials. Nonetheless, Trump and Bolsonaro have placed themselves in purposeful opposition to the lockdowns enforced in most states, as they seek to distance themselves from the economic downturn caused by anti-coronavirus measures.

Brazil’s president has called his governors “job exterminators,” while Trump has tweeted about his support of protesters who are rebelling against lockdowns in various states across America. Ominously, attacks against these governors, particularly in America, are being conducted along party-political lines. As Boot indicates, short-term economic performance is vital to the popularity of populist strongmen. While this is unattainable, Bolsonaro and Trump have been able to rely on political polarization to largely shield themselves from responsibility for the economic downturn.

The current popularity of each leader testifies to the worrying effectiveness of this strategy. Trump’s approval rating stands at 44%, the highest he has gained since coming into office, while Bolsonaro’s remains consistent at 33%. As these ratings are either the same or higher as when the leaders first claimed power, onlookers would be right to feel concerned. As we look to the future of the post-pandemic political landscape, the outlook is bleak.

The UN has warned that “a tidal wave of hate is gripping the world” due to the pandemic and that global cooperation is at an all time low. These are conditions that can be weaponized by Trump and Bolsonaro, who have managed to escape culpability for the purposeful lies they have spread throughout this crisis. The world has already forgotten Trump’s claim that injecting disinfectant into the body can cure it of COVID-19, despite several people losing their lives after following this advice. Brazil’s current president has seemingly been forgiven for his spreading of false videos purporting to show empty markets caused by state lockdowns.

With each lie told and forgotten, the leaders of the United States and Brazil move ever closer to their goal. Sharing misinformation is rapidly becoming the new normal. In the United States, this provides Donald Trump with a dangerous advantage over his democratic rival Joe Biden, as they prepare for what are likely to be online election campaigns for the November 2020 election. Biden, as a moderate rival, is expected to conform to political expectations of honesty in a post-truth era, while Trump benefits from his own dismantling of truth in the online world. Bolsonaro and Brazil’s political future look set to move to even further extremes, as the President recently warned the Brazilian military would “remain on my side,” should he be impeached. Ominously, 9 out of the 22 positions in Bolsonaro’s cabinet are occupied by military officials; all of whom have links to Brazil’s old military dictatorship of the 1980s.

It is unclear how many government officials and members of Brazil and the United State’s general populations will continue to believe the triumphalist and anti-expert rhetoric of their populist leaders. Nonetheless, if enough people do, Trump and Bolsonaro stand poised to refill the pandemic-induced power vacuums currently gripping their countries. If they succeed in doing so, their future presidencies look set to be more politically extreme and globally damaging than their first.

Louis Platts-Dunn

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