The Pandemic Isn’t a Death Knell for Populism

Just because populist leaders haven’t fared well against the coronavirus doesn’t mean their opponents should count them out.

Buda Mendes / Kevin Frayer / Scott Olson / Getty / The Atlantic

In many ways, the coronavirus has been irrefutably bad for populists. It has bolstered the popularity of establishment darlings such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte. It has brought once-anonymous health experts, including the United States’ Anthony Fauci and Britain’s Chris Whitty, to the fore. It has cast some of populists’ favored wedge issues, among them immigration and the European Union, to the wayside.

At the same time, populist-ruled countries such as the U.S., Brazil, and India have been among those worst impacted by the pandemic. Surely, the argument goes, their mismanagement exposes the fallacy of the populist promise. When competent governance and expertise are at a premium, and favored antiestablishment talking points have been overshadowed, what credible chance does populism stand?

The reality is not so simple. This crisis is poised to plunge the global economy into the deepest recession since World War II—one that the World Bank projects will be more than twice as bad as the 2008 financial crash. Trust in institutions such as the World Health Organization and the European Union have been challenged. The rally-around-the-flag effect that many world leaders enjoyed early on has started to wane.

Populism won’t be killed off by this crisis. To the contrary, it flourishes in crises.

What is often lost in debates over populism is how deeply embedded it is in modern democracies. Though the term has become a popular catchall for everything disruptive and unexpected—most notably, the twin 2016 shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election—it is more accurately understood as a style of politics that pits the will of “ordinary people” against a “corrupted elite.” As an intellectually thin ideology, it manifests itself in a number of different ways, such as the left-wing populism of the Syriza party in Greece and of Podemos in Spain and its right-wing variant in Italy’s League and France’s National Rally. Many, though not all, of these parties are nationalist. While some remain on the political fringes, others have advanced to the national opposition. More still have ascended all the way to the seats of government.

Those in power—particularly Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Trump—have invited the most speculation about the longevity of populism in the aftermath of this global emergency, and it’s easy to see why. The U.S. and Brazil hold the titles for the highest and second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, respectively. Their leaders have cast doubt on the severity of the virus, peddled questionable medical advice, and called for reopening their economies despite rising case numbers. And, in true populist fashion, both Trump and Bolsonaro have set out to depict their national crises as ones not of their own making, diverting the blame instead to the WHO, to their political opponents, to public-health officials, and, in Trump’s case, to China.

But the conclusion that populists’ shambolic handling of this crisis must be bad for populism as a whole is ultimately flawed. For one thing, it ignores the fact that populism has been a permanent feature of modern democratic politics—particularly in Europe and Latin America—for decades. Even if leaders the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro were to lose power, that wouldn’t necessarily mean their exit from politics, full stop. As populist figures in Britain, Germany, and Italy have shown, they can prove just as effective on the sidelines, simply by setting the terms of public debate. Though they may leave office, their ideas and provocations have a much longer shelf life.

The notion that populism is in peril also overlooks all the ways in which the pandemic has been a boon for this brand of politics. It led to the closure of the European Union’s internal borders, emboldening right-wing populists who have challenged freedom of movement on the continent, and it demonstrated the importance of the nation-state over and above any international body. “The Europe that for 30 years I thought was irreversible, it reversed in an afternoon,” Michael Ignatieff, the president of the Central European University in Budapest and Vienna and the former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, told me. “When citizens are in deep trouble … they turn to the political institution that grants them their passports and is supposed to protect them, and that is the nation-state. Everybody does: Liberal states, authoritarian states, conservative states, progressive states—they all go back to the nation-state.”

And though the pandemic returned a modicum of respect to experts, whom populists have long derided alongside the elite, it also made them a target. Trump, for example, has made a concerted effort to undercut Fauci—even going as far as to publicly counter the doctor’s assessment of the situation as, simply, “wrong!” Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is on his third health minister since the outbreak began. (The first was ousted for challenging the Brazilian president’s depiction of the coronavirus as a “little flu”; the second quit.) In this way, the pandemic has enabled populists to do what they do best: campaign against those who disagree with them, peddle their own version of the facts, and advance conspiratorial thinking over scientific opinion.

In other populist-ruled countries, the public-health emergency has given leaders cover to further entrench their power. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu shut down the country’s Parliament and court system, enabling him to postpone his own criminal trial over corruption charges—efforts his critics have likened to a coup. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party seized on the pandemic to bar public events, making the opposition’s campaigning for the recent election virtually impossible, whereas the Law and Justice–backed incumbent, Andrzej Duda, was given free rein to utilize press conferences and state-controlled media. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán used the emergency as a pretext to grant himself sweeping powers, including the ability to rule by decree indefinitely. Though some of these emergency powers were overturned, Ignatieff said the fact that Orbán could conceivably get away with such measures in the first place proved the damage had been done.

Yet perhaps the greatest reason that populism isn’t going anywhere is what might come next. A historic recession is already under way, and when our societies do overcome the ongoing health crisis, they will still have to contend with mass unemployment and poverty—a situation populists (particularly those who opposed national shutdowns on economic grounds) will no doubt exploit. Prolonged downturns have been proved to increase political fragmentation and polarization, providing ripe conditions for antiestablishment rhetoric to thrive.

“Mobilizing majorities against self-dealing, entitled elites is the entire political game,” Ignatieff said. “And the crux of the populist appeal is that that resonates deeply with people whose voices have not been heard.”

Tapping into frustration over the way the pandemic has been dealt with won’t be difficult; neither will exploiting whatever economic or institutional damage it leaves behind. Many things will have been lost to the coronavirus; populism is unlikely to be one of them.