Much has been written about the American failure to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, with a death toll over 465 000 and rising. Much has also been written about Trump’s own role in that failure, refusing to publicly acknowledge the threat and rally support for preventative measures.
The problem wasn’t Trump as a person.
The problem was Trump as a populist. The problem was Trump, the problem was Bolsonaro: populists the world over opted for ‘trial by fire’, hoping to brave the storm with minimal protective measures and minimal economic damage.
There are two key factors that make a populist vulnerable to a pandemic: pride and malice.
The first comes from the simple reality that preventative measures, as we’ve heard ad nauseam over the past year, can generally only ‘flatten the curve’. That isn’t to say that eliminating community spread through mask-wearing and social distancing is impossible – with New Zealand an often-cited point there – but that, given the measures politically palatable in a democratic ‘loose society’, it is unlikely.
And that means that the leader must spend months encouraging the population to stay strong just a little longer, and must spend tremendous political capital – the leader must beg with no guarantee of success. That is unacceptable for a populist leader having built his entire reputation around personifying the strength and ‘alpha’-ness of ‘his people’.
Instead, by bluffing that his current efforts are sufficient, the populist leader can simply remove himself from the game: rather than failing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he simply isn’t trying. It may be childish and petty, but in the narrative spun by those leaders, it works.
More than that, it allows those leaders to mock political opponents who do implement restrictions, yet fail to completely stop the spread. Those political opponents are lampooned for offering bad from both worlds – continued contagion paired with life-altering restrictions – while the populist leader fights for ‘freedom’. The leader might even actively undermine the restrictions, for example by hosting crowded political rallies, in order to flaunt his resilience. (The impact on infection rates has not yet been fully determined, but it seems a fair assumption to make that these rallies served as ‘superspreader events’, making Trump’s opponents seem even more ineffective in their attempts to ‘slow the spread’.)
The populist looks strong, his opponents look weak; pride is preserved.
The other element is malice. And that malice becomes obvious when we look at who is most affected by the pandemic: urbanites, given the greater population density and thus greater potential for contagion, who typically voted against the populists; and ‘Others’, typically a racialized group, who are systematically disadvantaged when it comes to securing aid or treatment, and who are excluded from the populist’s ‘Nation’.
In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, one such group of ‘Others’ are the indigenous peoples in Amazonian territory. Bolsonaro, as part of an “institutional strategy”, sabotaged attempts by these peoples to prevent the spread of the disease within these communities, which consistently opposed his plans for rainforest development.
In other cases, such as in the United States, the three categories intersect. Black and Latino Americans have found themselves assailed from all sides, living largely in Democratic-led cities and excluded from ‘white collar quarantines’ due to the manual jobs held by many, and have suffered death rates nearly three times higher than those of non-Hispanic Whites.
On the flip side, the rural populations that forms the backbone of these right-wing populists’ electoral constituencies are much better insulated, if only due to lower population density and their ‘in-groupness’ offering them better access to care and treatment. That protection doesn’t last forever, but it shields ‘the base’ from the mediatized consequences of the pandemic.
The ‘Nation’ led by the populist is protected; the ‘Others’, described as preventing society from returning to its glory days, are suffering. Malice gloats.
Pride, and malice. Pride and prejudice, one might say, if this were a lighter topic. It isn’t a pretty picture. As much criticism as our leaders may deserve for their handling of the pandemic, at the very least we should be grateful they aren’t worse.