“That’s exactly what he wanted. It’s not like people say he responded in a great way, but all he needed was for people to say, ‘That’s just the way it is’ and ‘Some will die, but at least we won’t lose our jobs,’” Stuenkel told me.
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Trump, meanwhile, dug his heels in every step of the way when it came to the American response to COVID-19, minimizing the threat and mocking the fearful. He tested positive after returning from one of his many campaign rallies (which themselves flew in the face of his own government’s recommendations), and went for a joyride after being admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, near Washington, D.C. His show of strength at the White House after returning from the hospital—marching up to a balcony facing the South Lawn and ripping off a medical mask—and his message to Americans not to let the virus “dominate you” were his declaration to the world that he was not a changed man, fitting neatly in this trajectory of how coronavirus-infected strongmen react.
Both Stuenkel and Ximénez-Fyvie told me that in their countries, there had been hope that illness would humble their leaders, encouraging them to show more empathy and exhibit a deeper understanding of the coronavirus threat.
That great humbling never happened. Part of this likely comes down to self-belief: These leaders, like most who ascend to the highest position in their country, are certain in their course of action and trust their instincts, which is how they have succeeded thus far.
There is, however, a narrower political calculus. Bolsonaro is up for reelection next year, and his handling of the pandemic may well be a major issue in the campaign. But because of how divided domestic politics in Brazil are, he faces no serious opposition at the moment and has managed to consolidate alliances with right-wing parties in the country’s congress. The most likely scenario, Stuenkel told me, is that Bolsonaro will be reelected with a plurality of the vote yet again.
In Mexico, presidents are constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, and López Obrador’s term won’t expire for another four years. His party’s control of Congress will be up for grabs in midterm elections this year, though because the pandemic hasn’t dealt a blow to López Obrador’s popularity, his alliance is a favorite to win the most seats and expand its control of governorships. “There’s something very, very dangerous happening in Mexico,” Ximénez-Fyvie said. “People adore him. It’s like a portion of Mexicans had been taken into a cult.”
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For Trump, too, the political reasoning to not admit error had a certain logic: His handling of the pandemic was on the ballot and he was facing a united, organized Democratic Party. A sudden about-face would have offered ammunition for his critics and perhaps weakened his base of support. In the end, he lost his bid for reelection in November, but nevertheless came within 43,000 votes of winning—hardly a resounding defeat.
Together, these leaders’ paths—from infection to empowerment—point to the durability of their brand of politics. That even a brush with COVID-19, albeit one in which they had access to better medical care than most, was not enough to force a change in tactics indicates that little will cause them to shift their stance on the coronavirus. In fact, if the cases of Trump, Bolsonaro, and López Obrador are any evidence, it may lead to a greater emboldening.