Adapt or die: how the populist right is reacting to coronavirus

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The populist right has built their electoral strength on boisterousness and arrogant self-confidence. Yet, amid the coronavirus pandemic, figures such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro seem to be confounded. They are either desperately clinging to a narrative of normality (it’s just a flu), or have already been forced to make embarrassing U-turns acknowledging the gravity of the crisis.

Boris Johnson had to abandon the government’s “herd immunity” strategy when new scientific evidence made apparent its horrific human cost. He recently tested positive for the virus and is now accused of complacency and lack of leadership. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party and former deputy prime minister, appears downbeat, unable to wear the robes of the responsible statesman this emergency calls for; his unabashed criticism of government has even earned him the label “unpatriotic”. In France, Marine Le Pen seems to have vanished altogether from the media, while Bolsonaro’s persistence in denying the crisis is leaving him increasingly isolated.

In the US, Trump’s strategy has been zigzagging. After downplaying the significance of the virus for weeks, he was forced to declare a national emergency. Having backtracked last week, asserting that the lockdown would end by Easter to avoid damaging the economy, he has now conceded it will have to last until the end of April. It is true that his approval ratings have gone up, paralleling what happened with George W Bush after September 11. But Trump is clearly worried about the electoral consequences of a massive death toll and a recession that could see unemployment of over 20%.

The difficulties experienced by national populists are unsurprising given they are no friends of the issues at the heart of this crisis: health, welfare and science. On the health front, the crisis reveals the folly of decades of underfunding and privatisation of the health system. Trump, Johnson and Salvini have embarrassing questions to answer in regard to their record as enemies of public healthcare. Furthermore, the crisis calls for a sea change in economic policy that is at odds with the ideological premises of national populism, which combines chauvinism on the cultural front and ultra-neoliberal policies on the economic front.

The glaring need for state protection of strategic national industries, starting with health equipment and pharmaceuticals, is no anathema for national-populists who have already embraced trade protectionism. But the populist right has strongly opposed welfare measures that are becoming a matter of necessity to avoid social catastrophe. Having repeatedly branded these policies as “dangerous” and “anti-patriotic”, these politicians find themselves in the embarrassing situation of having to espouse them.

Another skeleton in the closet is national-populists’ disparagement of science. The coronavirus emergency confronts us with a threat that is best understood and measured through the lens of science. Epidemiologists and virologists have acquired media prominence and the public has been diligently following their recommendations. It is not clear whether this will lead to greater public trust in science and an erosion of the anti-science attitudes that national populist leaders have toyed with. However, it can be expected that citizens will take more heed of the risks flagged by scientists, including the climate emergency, which is also bound to exacerbate the spread of diseases.

National-populists are well known for stoking people’s fears. But the fears now prevalent are not of the kind these leaders are best positioned to exploit. Due to the urgency of health and economic worries, migration – the populist right’s main enemy – has fallen in the list of priorities. Travel bans, and the fact that Europe and the US are the present focus of the pandemic, are leading to a drop in migration to these regions. In fact, we are now witnessing a historic reversal, with Mexico aiming to block the border with the US and African countries suspending flights from Europe, while UK farmers are organising charter planes to fly in farm workers from eastern Europe to prevent fruit and vegetables being left unpicked. However, if the global economic crisis results in a new wave of migration like that of 2015, this scenario could drastically change – national-populists will try to validate their narrative of cosmopolitan globalisation as a dangerous vector of all sorts of ills.

If the coronavirus crisis has momentarily disoriented the populist right, this does not mean it is vanquished. It would be misguided for the left to believe that this crisis will work out in its favour. The health crisis is bound to be followed by a deep economic crisis, more similar to the Great Depression than to the 2008 financial crisis, and the populist right has already demonstrated its ability to prey on popular despair and find social scapegoats for economic ills. It can be expected that it will go down the same road, if anything becoming even more vicious.

The authoritarian measures implemented on Monday by Viktor Orbán in Hungary, with the suspension of parliament and the introduction of government by decree, may be the shape of things to come. In Italy, Salvini had no qualms about applauding Orbán’s move. We are also likely to see an exacerbation of anti-Chinese rhetoric. Trump made no apologies for calling Covid-19 “the Chinese virus”, while Steve Bannon argued that Covid-19 is a “Chinese Communist Party virus”. Salvini has proposed that “if the Chinese government knew [about the virus] and didn’t tell it publicly, it committed a crime against humanity”, and allies in Brazil and Spain are adopting a similar line.

Given the ties among national-populists, including their botched attempt to establish a “nationalist international” under the auspices of Bannon’s Movement, this synchrony should not be taken as accidental. It has all the look of a coordinated strategy to channel the rage and despair caused by the crisis’s brutal human and economic toll towards a racial and ideological enemy conveniently identified in the Chinese government. Along with self-proclaimed socialists, all opponents are likely to be smeared as “Chinese collaborationists”: centrist US presidential candidate Joe Biden has already been termed “China’s choice for president” by the conservative National Review.

What may be in store is thus something much worse than the populist right of the 2010s: an extremeright using the whole arsenal of the red scare and rightwing authoritarianism to intimidate opponents and defend its interests from demands for meaningful economic redistribution. Though it has been confounded by this crisis, the populist right has not been suppressed. It is just mutating.