Will the coronavirus 'kill populism'? Don't count on it

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

While epidemiologists are still trying to come to grips with the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, with different models predicting different outcomes, the pundits are already certain “coronavirus will change the world permanently”. Social and traditional media are also full of hot takes, mostly that coronavirus will change globalization “hugely for the better” and that it could “kill populism”.

Unlike these pundits, I don’t have a crystal ball, but comparative analysis and historical experience warn against such big expectations. On the former, let’s just look back a mere 10 years, and see how much “globalization” has changed since the Great Recession. The answer is: not much. In the US, banks are bigger than ever, Wall Street is handing out near-record bonuses again, and almost no one of significance went to jail.

But if the structures remain unaffected, will the players be changed? Will “populism” be the “next victim” of coronavirus? Many hundreds of columns have been written about the “incompetent” and “dangerous” responses by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, who, we are told, have shown us the “limits of populism”. But, despite the obsessive coverage of these two leaders, they are not the only populist leaders – they are and not even the best examples of populists.

If we look a little bit further, we see very different responses by populists around the world. There are some highly prominent examples of the stereotypical approach, ie populists denying reality, distracting the public with conspiracy theories and offering slow and halfhearted policies. Far-right presidents like Trump and his Brazilian wannabe, Jair Bolsonaro, are much-cited examples, though the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a nominal leftwing populist, is hardly better.

But other populists have taken the threat much more seriously. In fact, in the Netherlands, the populist radical right Forum for Democracy (FvD) and Party for Freedom (PVV) have criticized the mainstream coalition government of conservative Mark Rutte for being too lax, and have been urging him for weeks to not just close the borders, but adopt similar “lockdown” policies to those most other EU countries have enforced. And let us not forget that the hardest-hit country in Europe, Italy, which has in many ways set the tone for responses elsewhere on the continent, is governed by a coalition of the center-left Democratic party and the populist Five Star Movement.

Similarly, in India, Narendra Modi, one of Trump’s biggest allies and the leader of the largest populist radical right party in the world, has locked down his country of 1.3 billion people for 21 days. “Every state, every district, every lane, every village will be under lockdown,” Modi stated. To be fair, this kills two birds with one stone, as his government has faced mass street protests over a host of issues in recent months, which will now become impossible.

Other populist leaders have used the coronavirus to push through authoritarian “emergency measures” too. Viktor Orbán is continuing his transformation of Hungary into an authoritarian regime with draconic new measures, while Benjamin Netanyahu has used the coronavirus to execute an autogolpe (self-coup) in Israel, suspending the courts and parliament. But many non-populist leaders have declared states of emergency too, whereas some populists, including surprisingly Trump, have (so far) done little.

In short, there is not one single “populist response” to the coronavirus pandemic. There is not even a single “rightwing populist response”. Populist parties and politicians have responded very differently, in part depending upon whether they are in government or opposition. They are also faced with very different contexts, both in terms of number of infections and control of the media.

For example, while Johnson and Trump are criticized daily by the majority of their respective national media, and have to rely on the uncritical loyalty of their supportive conservative media complex, populist radical right leaders in Hungary and Poland have full control of the state media, which boast about the low level of infections, without telling their audience about the low level of tests in the country.

It is far too early to make grand predictions on how the coronavirus will change the world. But we can already say that it will almost certainly not “kill populism”, for the simple reason that “populism” does not have one, unitary response to the pandemic. Based on recent historical experience, I would put my money on the coronavirus crisis having at best a moderate overall effect on populists: some will win, some will lose and some will stay the same.

  • Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia