Populism, the charismatic spectre haunting the Western world, was forced into the shadows at the outset of the pandemic. In the face of an entirely unfamiliar crisis, citizens turned to the stability of traditional politics, producing a ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect and leaving populists in opposition with little dissatisfaction to exploit. Undermining support and exposing the inadequacy of short-term, popularity-seeking populist policies, the pandemic dealt a severe blow to populists. 2020 saw Trump, a figurehead of the latest ideological wave, voted out of office, while the populist Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s standing in the polls dropped below 30%, the lowest level since he came to power. In India, Prime Minister Modi, another populist leader, is experiencing his lowest polling support in two years. The waning of an ideology that posed such a threat to mainstream politics in 2016 causes us to wonder: is this the death of populism or will it resurge with even greater force?
An ideology that thrives on dissatisfaction and a prevailing sense of government negligence, populism builds a rhetoric of conflict between the infallible and homogenous ‘people’ and some ‘others’: elites or outsiders who seek to exploit and capitalise on the people’s misfortunes. Framing themselves as the sole saviours of the people, populists propagate this crisis narrative in order to gain support and challenge traditional democracy.
Given its tendency to benefit from a climate of crisis, the pandemic initially appears the ideal catalyst for a populist wave. In its early stages, however, such support for populist politics was glaringly absent. The pandemic lacked the crucial ingredient for populist exploitation: dissatisfaction with the government. Support for leaders across the world soared, as the ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect was fueled by high levels of insecurity, a rise in patriotism, and the pushing aside of partisan divisions. With health concerns eclipsing all else in the public discourse, traditional cultural, socio-economic, and antiestablishmentarian resentments, traditionally capitalised on by populists, this ideology was forced out of the limelight. Populists had little to exploit. With the people placing trust in their governments rather than the more radical views proposed by populists and adopting a united front to face a common enemy, the ‘people’ against ‘others’ conflict narrative lost most of its potency, resulting in a decline of support for populists.
When this initial unification had begun to deteriorate and the pandemic became increasingly politicised, government criticism returned to the detriment of populists in power. The top five countries by mortality rate, the US, Brazil, Mexico, India and Britain, all have leaders with populist tendencies and all came under attack for their inadequate handling of the pandemic.
In the face of such a crisis, requiring a coordinated technocratic response, populists across the globe reverted to their characteristically oversimplified and inadequate solutions. Ignoring and undermining expert advice, Trump suggested using strong light and injecting disinfectants to combat Covid, while Bolsonaro advocated various antibiotics and vitamins as ‘miracle cures’ and Modi proposed yoga as an effective treatment. Not only entirely ineffective, these ‘solutions’ caused many to underestimate the severity of the crisis and disregard scientific advice, exposing the dangers of misleading populist guidance.
Rather than addressing the severity of the situation, populist leaders have tried to create the illusion that it is contained and under control. A large part of the populist appeal relies on their claimed unique ability to handle crises competently and so, when this is not the case, populists turn instead to optimism and exaggeration to obscure the extent of the peril. Accordingly, Trump, Erdogan, Johnson, Modi and Bolsonaro have all downplayed the crisis while boasting about their successes. Bolsonaro called Covid a ‘little flu’ and claimed that Brazilians were immune. Trump insisted that the virus was less deadly than the seasonal flu and even overtly lied, claiming ‘We (the US) now have the lowest Fatality Rate in the World’. Meanwhile, in India, Modi declared India free of Covid by early 2021; claims all rapidly belied by record death tolls. In their desire to perpetuate the illusion of strength, populist leaders’ refusal to admit their mistakes, boundless self-assurance, and seemingly unwarranted confidence in their ability to solve even the most intractable problems obscured the reality of the situation and obstructed progress in combating the spread of the virus. This hubristic downplaying of the severity of the crisis bred complacency, even a feeling of invincibility, among the people, encouraging them to embrace conspiracy theories and disregard policies when they were eventually put in place.
Slower to respond to Covid than their non-populist counterparts, populists’ reluctance to impose unpopular policies which might damage their public image resulted in delays in imposing lockdowns, acquiring PPE, and developing testing services and vaccines. A striking example was India where, despite being one of the largest exporters of vaccines, by May 2021 only 1.9% of the population was vaccinated. Once Covid regulations were eventually put in place, populist leaders flaunted them by holding mass political rallies, blatantly refusing to wear a mask and encouraging anti-lockdown protests. Many populists leaders including Trump, Lukashenko and Bolsonaro all held unmasked political rallies, while Modi actively encouraged citizens to attend the Kumbh Mela festival celebrations despite a daily rise in Covid cases of 300 000 and overflowing hospitals. Trump and Bolsonaro went as far as encouraging and, in Bolsonaro’s case, even attending anti-lockdown rallies, capitalising on the unpopularity of restrictions at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives. According to a model by the University of Colombia, if Trump had imposed social distancing even one week earlier, 36,000 lives would have been saved. Such mishandling of the pandemic and the catastrophic loss of lives that has resulted has left the people with chronic mistrust and resentment which will not be easily overcome.
The pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of these populists’ ability to handle a crisis. Their shortsighted, self-interested politics has cost lives, something the people will not easily forget. The ideology which has run rampant through Europe for the last decade is, however, far from quelled. As the tide of Covid recedes, the political landscape is littered with debris: debt-filled economies, nationalism and the return of strong anti-government sentiments – the ideal atmosphere of crisis for populists to feed on. While those in power have been suffering from criticism, those in opposition are now eager to accentuate the political aspects of the crisis and draw the discourse back to their traditional strongholds.
This rise of anti-government sentiments has been embraced by populists in opposition, who adopt a rhetoric of crisis in blaming government incompetence for the high death rates and calling for the dismissal of those allegedly responsible as a result. Posed as the sole solution to the problem and the only ones who understand and act on the people’s will, populists stand as the radical alternative. Criticising those in power for doing either too much or too little to combat the crisis, populists in opposition capture support across the spectrum. Le Pen has epitomised this paradoxical form of criticism, drawing on her traditional xenophobic and anti-globalisation narrative to call for tougher Covid measures and the closure of borders, while criticising the elites for the globalisation and immigration which have supposedly made France vulnerable to the virus. Simultaneously, she has accused the government of taking overly invasive measures, such as health passes which she calls a ‘backwards step for personal freedoms’. Such patterns of criticism are shared by populists in opposition around the world. In Spain, Abascal attributed the high death toll to ‘sectarianism and criminal negligence by this Government’ while accusing the government of restricting personal freedoms, calling lockdowns ‘mass house arrest’. Undermining the government and highlighting their inability to handle the crisis, populists exacerbate the perception of governmental negligence and propose themselves as the only solution, playing on the crisis to capture the support of the resentful people.
Economic destabilisation leads to support for unconventional politicians, with the people turning to more radical solutions when the government appears to fail. The 2008 financial crash fueled the wave of populist in the early 2010s. The post-Covid economic downturn is projected to be even worse. Favouring unsustainable economic policies such as a combination of flat tax rates and tax cuts with increased spending on public services and benefits, populists make unachievable promises which are highly appealing in times of economic crisis. Pressure to stabilise the economy may lead governments to relax their financial support and impose austerity measures, leaving people vulnerable and providing fertile ground for populists to exploit.
While in many countries government care packages have alleviated some of the economic impact of the pandemic, it is projected that global unemployment will have increased by 20 million by 2022, with an additional 108 million workers falling into ‘extreme poverty’ from pre-pandemic levels. The scale of the downturn and extent of government debt mean that immediate measures like care packages are temporary and limited. The mitigating policies do not combat the drop in social status associated with unemployment. This breeds resentment against the meritocratic tone of traditional politics, which often makes people from lower socioeconomic brackets feel humiliated and detached, and therefore increases support for the populist championing of the sovereignty of the people. Impacting primarily those working for a lower wage, such as small business owners, manual production workers and service sector workers, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on people already disproportionately dispensed to support populists.
More indirectly, the Covid pandemic has heightened geopolitical friction, providing renewed ammunition for populists to attack their greatest bete noire: globalisation. Since travel aids the spread of the virus, populists claim that globalisation is responsible for the rapid proliferation of Covid cases and leaves their countries vulnerable to future pandemics. Salvini called for harsher border controls and accused immigrant ships from Africa of bringing Covid to Italy. Opposition leaders Salvini, Le Pen, and Abascal have all condemned technocrats and champions of globalisation, attempting to delegitimise the government and blaming them for subordinating the needs of the people to those of ‘outsiders’ or the economy. Furthermore, in Europe, the dramatic failure to coordinate an international response to the pandemic, and even the introduction of restraints that slowed down countries’ responses, has fueled Eurosceptic attitudes. The European Commission faced severe backlash over its slowness in approving and acquiring vaccines, leading to delay in vaccine rollouts because of bureaucratic red tape. Meanwhile, the WHO has been condemned for deferring the declaration of the pandemic as an international emergency and its slow imposition of travel restrictions caused by convoluted regulations. Validating the long-running populist vilification of supra-national organisations, these inefficiencies and failures of existing structures have increased scepticism and the desire for independence, intensifying the populist appeal.
The nationalistic elements of the pandemic have renewed such anti-globalisation resentments. Anti-China sentiments especially have allowed populists to villainise globalists for creating the economic structure which turned China into a superpower. Salvini made claims that the outbreak began due to experiments with coronaviruses taking place in Chinese labs. Abascal went as far as claiming the Chinese had created the virus and were using it to establish a globalist tyranny in Europe. Other populist parties including the French Rassemblement National, Swedish Democrats and Alternative für Deutschland called for an international investigation into the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak. By condoning and intensifying conspiracy theories about the threat from China, populists are perpetuating a crisis narrative that will outlast the pandemic, creating a long-term source of populist support and allowing them to draw xenophobia firmly back into the public discourse and reignite anger over globalisation.
The dire mismanagement of the crisis by populist-led governments has temporarily exposed the delusion of the populist promise, driving the people towards more conventional politics. However, populists in opposition are and can expect to continue seeing a surge of support, with the pandemic providing the ideal environment for them to exploit. Long after the pandemic is over, populists will continue to propagate a sense of crisis, creating a ‘permanent crisis cycle’ which will allow them to capitalise on the aftermath of the pandemic for years to come. The ideology of populism is far from dead and will continue to haunt the globe, ready to rear its head for many crises to come.