Thu | Jul 2, 2020

COVID as disinfectant for populism

Published:Friday | June 5, 2020 | 12:16 AM
Police clash with anti-government demonstrators in São Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday, May 31. Police used tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters in Brazil’s largest city as they began to clash with small groups loyal to President Jair Bolsonaro.
AP Police clash with anti-government demonstrators in São Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday, May 31. Police used tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters in Brazil’s largest city as they began to clash with small groups loyal to President Jair Bolsonaro.

Populism is an appeal to the lowest common denominator.

It is not an ideology or a set of values or even a form of thinking. It is a mechanism to extract political support from the masses. In an era of mass communication, with channels such as Facebook and Twitter, it is an effective form of aggregating widespread support.

Modern leaders throughout the developed and the developing world have used it successfully. From Putin and Trump, to Chavez and Uribe, to Duterte and Erdogan, insipid individuals have been able to rally the masses by appealing to their most basic instincts.

Just as civilisation becomes more complex through the advancement of technology and global competition, these individuals have been able to harvest the essential fears that scar the lowest elements of society.

However, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may mark an important crossroads for populism. On one hand, it may be an important focal point to rally more support for benighted ideas. On the other hand, it may be a situation which alienates the poor or provides an opportunity to demonstrate the horrendous costs of banal incompetence.

One of the dark truths of the novel coronavirus is that it cannot be manipulated. It strides confidently according to its own sinister dynamics. Attempts to will it away, in countries such as the United States, Mexico and Brazil, have resulted in disastrous consequences. Epidemiologists argue that US President Donald Trump’s slow reaction to the outbreak of the coronavirus was the main reason it hit the US so hard. Brazil and Mexico have become the new focal points of the pandemic, after their respective leaders downplayed the impact of the disease.

The fact that Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador are the leaders of these three countries comes as no surprise. As the most populist leaders of the Western Hemisphere, their power rests on their supremacy over everything else. It is the natural result that occurs when a society suffers a devastating blow to its values and belief system.

The US had already suffered several setbacks with the loss of the Vietnam War and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, but the economic devastation of the financial crisis of 2008 shattered the public’s belief in its enviable economic model. Likewise, the collapse of the PRI, the political institution that defined Mexico for most of the 20th century, and its inability to regain its authority, was a direct hit to the essence of the nation.

Last of all, the unabashed corruption that occurred under the command of the PT evaporated Brazil’s trust in democracy.

Therefore, it was no surprise that into the vacuum, populist leaders appeared who ignored the existing institutions and took all power into their own hands by controlling and dictating the narrative. Some commentators believe that the coronavirus will only strengthen their ability to dictate terms and exercise control. However, as stated before, this is a virus that cannot be manipulated.

This is why it may mark a turning point against populism. Governments that have addressed the problem from an institutional perspective have fared well. The state of New York is a case in point. Although slow to initially react, once it began to enforce social-distancing rules and impose widespread testing, it was able to rein in the disease and its disastrous effects.

Other parts of the country chose to ignore the rules and are now paying the bitter consequences.

Moreover, most populist leaders derive their political support from the poor, but they are the ones who have suffered the most, due to crowded living conditions and inadequate savings. This is another reason why populists have been loath to acknowledge the disease. Unfortunately, slums have become hotspots for the virus, and it is laying low the population.

In an attempt to limit the spread, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez was forced to use his security forces to cut off one of the poorest slums in the Province of Buenos Aires. Not only does this add to the sense of desperation for the inhabitants, it reignites images of the ghettoes of World War II.

The irony here is that these are the very people that six months ago swept President Fernandez into power, and there will be a day of reckoning in the elections ahead.

The rise of populism should come as no surprise. It was predicted by two of the leading philosophers of the 20th century: Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt. The demise of the value system brought by the Enlightenment and the rise of liberalism created a void that could be easily filled by opportunistic charlatans. This was made worse by the advent of the democratic system that allowed rule by the masses, a political system that was utterly despised by Plato.

The hope here is that the success of institutionally minded leaders in combating the COVID-19 disease will restore the public’s confidence in government, and deafen the siren’s call of populism.

Dr Walter T. Molano is a managing partner and the head of research at BCP Securities