Holding out for a hero?
Crises have a remarkable effect of shining a light on the quality of a leader, and there are few as bright as the life and death decisions that have been made during the COVID-19 pandemic. It just so happens that this crisis has come along while strongman and populist leaders are having something of a moment. Drawing from and feeding into a wave of nationalist, anti-establishment and often anti-liberal sentiment, leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán have managed to reframe democratic discourse within their respective countries. They have reached demographics previously hostile to their parties, appealing to voters who have become increasingly suspicious of traditional authority. Yet we should not assume that these politicians hold the same measures of success as the legions of well-meaning pundits and columnists who analyse them. Even in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, their focus has not been on providing better leadership than those they replaced, but on the manipulation of public sentiment and media discourse to further their own aims. Taking just a handful of examples, it becomes apparent that the strongman politics makes for weak governance and strong spin, and that the institutions are actually very important indeed. While there is no uniform response among populist leaders, there have been several unifying threads, including denial, blame-shifting, selective PR and outright political opportunism.
Failing public health response
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro was utterly dismissive of the coronavirus threat from the beginning, comparing COVID-19 to an ordinary seasonal flu. He attacked Brazilian media, accusing them of creating hysteria and indicating it was under control. Even as his own health ministry instructed people to avoid gatherings, he attended a political rally rally where he shook supporters’ hands. This week, as Brazil recorded its deadliest day, Bolsonaro has been fighting with state governors, after he issued a decree urging certain business to be reopened. Like everything in the UK these days, the coronavirus response is coloured by Brexit. For years, Eurosceptics have systematically undermined the value of expertise in public policy. Now in power, Boris Johnson’s government has infused this with a jingoistic dismissal of international institutions. They ignored the World Health Organisation’s advice on mass testing and social distancing measures in favour of an unsubstantiated drive towards “herd immunity”. When the UK was not included in an EU-led procurement of personal protective equipment, Johnson said the UK had not been invited because of Brexit, when in fact the UK had ignored correspondence from Europe. On the week the UK surpassed Italy’s death toll from COVID-19, Conservative-leaning media facilitated government deflection tactics, leading with coverage of a senior scientist’s extra-marital affair. Throughout his tenure, US President Trump has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to deflect blame, and maintain the loyalty of his support base in the face of myriad controversies. As the coronavirus arrived in the US, he downplayed the risk. As it spread, he deflected blame towards China as the originator of the virus, the Democrats for criticising his response, and the WHO, whose funding he has revoked. As the US became the global epicentre of COVID-19, it emerged that decisions he took, including a reduction of funding for the National Security Council and the abolition of its office dedicated to epidemics, have grossly undermined the US pandemic response.
Reframing and manipulation
Yet Trump has an impressive ability to manipulate both the media and his support base. When, in the midst of abject failure, he felt emboldened to speculate on possible treatments for the virus, one wonders whether his unqualified musings are actually as stupid as they first appear. These, and his conflicts with journalists seem instead to be part of a communications strategy to steer media coverage towards his ridiculous remarks and away from his actual performance as President. In so doing, he is using the well-worn “dead cat on the table” to shift the ground to where he is more comfortable: campaigning. While high-risk and polarising, his exhortations to his supporters to break the lockdowns in Democratic states and cities (in defence of “constitutional freedoms”) is, in essence, a gambit at re-election. Combined with his dominance of media coverage through daily press briefings, he is attempting to take the initiative against his rival Joe Biden. The extent to which this works outside his most loyal supporters will be the ultimate decider of the 2020 election. Other countries have seen leaders take advantage of the crisis to undermine constitutional norms. The Polish government under Mateusz Morawiecki’s Law and Justice party has introduced laws prohibiting abortion in almost all cases, and used the restrictions on gatherings to avoid public protests. Hungary’s parliament passed a law to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree, as well as a curtailment of press freedom, hot on the heels of restrictions to LGBTQ rights. The curious aspect of all of these measures has been that they have nothing to do with the response to the coronavirus. Similar to Trump, they are taking advantage of the crisis to advocate a particular socio-political worldview; using the tactics of culture wars to place themselves in a more politically advantageous position.
How are they judged?
One might think that poorly performing political leaders suffer poor electoral outcomes when the time comes. However, the examples provided here attained their positions through manipulation of media and political institutions. They and their supporters will not judge success on public health outcomes but on the political advantage for their tribe. In the sharp light of a life-and-death crisis, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro have failed their countries on public health metrics. They have emerged as weak leaders who have only been counterbalanced to some degree by institutions they have sought to weaken, whether state legislatures, courts or parliamentary norms. Poland and Hungary have fared slightly better against the virus, but their leaders have been deeply opportunistic, advancing unrelated culture war agendas and undermining the rule of law. Yet a fractured and polarised media landscape has enabled underperforming and opportunistic leaders to manipulate coverage of their response to the crisis. It is from here, above all, that the modern-day strongman derives his potency.