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.
Read: Where the pandemic is only getting worse
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.”