Plenty of observers have rushed to predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will seriously harm the political fortunes of populists, or even make populism the outbreak’s first “ideological casualty.” Populists, they assert, vilify experts; now we are all learning that the price of not listening to experts may well be our own life. Populists, it is often said, are the great simplifiers; now we need experienced bureaucrats and leaders who can deal with a complex challenge. Yet this valiant attempt to see a silver lining in this political moment is itself highly simplistic. Populism is not primarily characterized by hostility to scientists. Populists in power are likely to benefit from a rally-around-the-flag dynamic, unless they appear as do-nothing retrogrades like Bolsonaro or López-Obrador. More important, populists can still deploy their key strategy of dividing citizens against each other and blaming minorities for all sorts of problems. It is too early to tell whether that strategy will work – much will depend on the length of various lockdowns and the frustrations as well as economic dislocations generated by them. But it is certainly not too early to say that the Panglossian liberal gloating about an end of populism is premature.
Conventional wisdom has it that populism is about opposition to elites. But that understanding is superficial. After all, keeping a close eye on the powerful can just as well be a sign of good, vigilant citizenship. It is true that populist politicians, when in opposition, criticize governments (and other political parties). But they also do something else: They claim that they, and only they, represent what populists frequently call “the real people” or also “the silent majority.” This might not sound so bad; it is not immediately the same as, fir instance, racism or a hatred of global governance. And yet such a claim to a monopoly of properly representing the people has two detrimental consequences for democracy: for one thing, populists declare all other contenders for power to be fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just a matter of differences over policies or even values; rather, other politicians are vilified as corrupt characters. What Trump said about his rival in the 2016 presidential election was extreme, but it was not exceptional: all populists try to convince electorates that other politicians are simply “crooked.”
Less obviously, populists also claim that all those citizens who do not support their vision of the “real people” – and therefore tend not to opt for populists at the ballot box – might not properly belong to the people at all. Trump does not reject criticisms with arguments; he simply labels the critics “Unamerican.” Erdoğan says about himself and his party: “We are the people” and then turns to his critics with the question “Who are you?”
Populists frequently invoke the unity of the people. But it is always unity on their terms. And these terms are political and, in the case of right-wing populists, distinctly cultural, if not outright ethnic. Already vulnerable minorities and opposition voices get vilified, as they do not conform to the image of the people which populists put forward. Thus, dividing the people is the political business model of populists; culture war is not incidental, but an essential part of their strategy: whenever they can, they will try to reduce policy questions to questions of who really belongs to the people and who does not.
It is true that a number of far-right populists used to dominating the news cycle seem to have been sidelined by the COVID-19 crisis. Little is heard these days from Matteo Salvini, the once supposedly inevitable next prime minister of Italy. As one perceptive analyst put it, “Salvini is neither a minister nor someone the media would ask to explain Italy’s strategy on Covid-19. His political megaphone has been confiscated by the Civil Protection Agency, the regional authorities, and the government.” The German far-right party AfD is down in the polls, consumed by infighting instead of capitalizing on any discontent with Germany’s grand coalition government; its most notable contribution to national debate so far has been one if its deputies tweeting that Merkel in self-quarantine was a good start, but that she really should be locked up. Not unreasonably, some observers are starting to ask the question whether all the policy issues which far-right populists appear to “own” are not in fact luxury problems when statesmen and stateswomen focused on life-and-death decisions are needed in politics. Who has time to worry about a few dozen people wearing or not wearing burkas and niqabs, when all of us are ordered to put on face masks in public?
But that conclusion is too hasty. For one, populists in power also benefit from a rally-around-the-flag effect; the sense of being-at-war has hardly been bad for any half-way capable leader. This surge in popularity is virtually guaranteed in countries where populists have radically reduced media pluralism – think Hungary, India, or Russia. Even if governments are badly mishandling the situation, or if the emergency reveals the extent to which, for instance, the kleptocracy of a Viktor Orbán has diminished the public health-care system, any bad news can be effectively buried.
Populists often conjure up pseudo-crises and generate a sense of conflict; at the moment, populist-in-power have a real crisis which allows them to assert what has sometimes been called a primacy of politics. Rather than simply having policy dictated by economic imperatives, governments can demonstrate that concentrated political will can make a difference. This notion of a primacy of politics is not exclusive to populists. As the political scientist Sheri Berman has argued, it also characterized Social Democrats and fascists in the twentieth century; both rejected the subordination of politics to economics (be it in the form of orthodox Marxism or neoclassical economics). The more Social Democrats, as well the center-right, aligned themselves with neoliberalism in the past decades, the easier it became for populists to present themselves as the only actors who retained some faith in politics.
Such a belief in decisive political action has been demonstrated by actors across the political spectrum in recent weeks, albeit sometimes with literally fatal delays. It could seem that some of the action undertaken will play straight into the hands of the populist right: closing borders and putting one’s own nation first. It is true that such measures – especially if they persist over longer periods – can legitimize positions long established by prominent populists: Viktor Orbán built his first border fence in 2015; now visible and invisible walls are going up everywhere.
But this outcome – a global threat legitimizing a new nasty strand of nativism — is by no means inevitable: for one thing, closing-in is clearly not the actual solution to COVID-19. Plus, it was in any case not true that we had a completely open world before. Contrary to the image conjured up self-declared “anti-globalists,” virtually no figure of political consequence had ever advocated a completely borderless world: free flow of goods and capital, up to a point; and also frequent fliers with the right kind of passport (or usually passports, too), but certainly not “open borders” for human beings.
Most important, the outcome of the pandemic – and how its lessons are perceived – are still very much in the hands of political leaders. They can make the case that it was actual cross-border cooperation, not least among scientists, that contributed to overcoming the crisis. Of course, it would help if the European Union demonstrated some capacity to organize financial and other help across borders; so far the replay of the Eurocrisis – cries for help form Southern Europe answered with a firm Nein from Germany and the other members of the frugal four (Netherlands, Austria, Finland) – does not bode well. But even if there won’t be “coronabonds” to deal with the economic fallout, it is unlikely that national autarchy or comprehensive global “de-coupling” will emerge as the obvious panacea from the pandemic.
Depending on how long the emergency persists, populist might use their usual playbook and actively sow division, or even hatred. Orbán not only took advantage of COVID-19 to implement further autocratic measures; he also deployed the usual conspiracy theories according to which criticism of his government is only ever voiced by paid-up members of the George Soros International. He expelled a group of Iranian students, and made a point of saying that his government is focused “on saving the lives of the Hungarian people;” by contrast, the president of his neighboring country, in a televised speech, addressed himself to “Austrians” and “those who live here.” The Hungarian prime minister also strained to equate the virus and migrants: “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.” Trump and his right-wing enablers in turn are super-spreading a vicious language in which “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” are obligatory terms (and a sign of loyalty to the boss). As on previous occasions, the rhetoric at the very top has had effects on the ground, as Asian-Americans are being assaulted. What the philosopher Kate Manne has called “trickle-down aggression” is likely to be a lasting effect of the populist portrayal of COVID-19.
In the United States, the absorption of COVID-19 into the culture war strategy of right-wing populists is already a fact. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh framed the pandemic as a liberal conspiracy; Trump himself called it a “new hoax” by the Democrats to damage him. As recently as March 25tth, he tweeted that “the real people want to get back to work ASAP,” whereas the “LameStream Media” allegedly wanted to keep the country closed as long as possible in order to sabotage the re-election to which Trump clearly feels entitled. The most visible American expert – epidemiology specialist Anthony Fauci – has become a hate figure on the right in ways that remain unimaginable in most other democracies. “Liberal cosmopolitans” and big cities – New York foremost – will also likely be blamed for whatever goes wrong with mitigation.
As a number of important studies have demonstrated, the US is unique in that it features a virtually self-enclosed right-wing media ecosphere whose denizens have virtually no contact even with outlets like the Wall Street Journal which could, at least on occasion, serve as a corrective to conspiracy theories and forms of misinformation (or outright disinformation). In such a context, it is naïve to think that the obvious importance of science (and the obvious incompetence of the Trump administration) would directly translate into a blow against far-right populism. It may well be that, as one global risk consultant noted, “self-isolation provides people with more time to look for information.” But given the shape of the media landscape in the US, plenty of people might simply use all that time to gather even more misinformation and disinformation than usual.
In the same vein, it would be naïve to think that the pandemic will necessarily lead to a greater sense of solidarity – even if it’s become a lot clearer how much citizens depend on each other; Nor will it inevitably result in stronger states. To be sure, in many countries, the crisis has exposed existing structural problems – such as the absence of a proper health care system in the US and the weaknesses of an administrative state purposefully gutted by the Trumpists (remember Bannon calling for the “deconstruction” of the administrative state). It is entirely reasonable to argue that decades of neoliberalism left states vulnerable and exposed. Right-wing populists, even if they often talk the talk of opposing neoliberalism and “international elites,” have usually continued this trend: Orbán criticizes European multinationals, but also rolls out the red carpet for the German car industry and companies like Bosch.
But how these literally fatal legacies of neoliberalism are understood and possibly overcome is very much up to politicians and intellectuals. Less obviously, it will matter whether the left which in theory could benefit from a new emphasis on state capacities can find an institutional form to mobilize citizens. After 2008, it experimented with different movements and parties based on digital platforms which would have made it easier to participate in politics (Podemos and France Insoumise are the obvious examples). These had lasting influence in Southern Europe, but never managed in the end to reverse austerity policies.
It is largely forgotten that not only the financial crisis, but also 9/11 initially unleased an inflationary rhetoric of “shared sacrifice,” collective purpose, and an age of state responsibility replacing a frivolous period of individual hedonism. Yet in the end those who benefited most were private contractors; instead of a collective purpose sustained by the citizenry, particular state tasks were outsourced to the likes of Blackwater.
Such a future of individual contracting instead of collective purpose is also entirely possible as a legacy of the present crisis. The very real suffering caused by COVID-19, rather than inspiring structural reform, might become part of the narratives circulating in a right-wing culture of grievances, carefully tended by populists who make majorities feel like minorities under siege. Even if the enemy is invisible, the lived experience of vulnerability might still be incorporated into the populist playbook.
April 16, 2020.
Jan-Werner Müller is Professor of Politics at Princeton University, where he teaches political theory. His books include What is Populism? (London: Penguin, 2017). From September 2016 to June 2017 he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.
A modified version of this article has been published by World Politics Review.