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In the first few months of the pandemic, a host of pundits and politicians declared the crisis a vindication of populist politics in the West. To contain the virus, borders were shut and migrants plunged deeper into limbo. To mitigate the economic toll of lockdowns, national governments across the political spectrum unfurled far-reaching stimulus measures. The editor of the right-wing National Review proclaimed that “we are all Orban now,” a nod to the illiberal, anti-immigrant Hungarian prime minister. Others of his ilk pronounced globalization to be in profound retreat and cast the institutions of internationalists as suspect or irrelevant actors amid a crisis only nation-states could handle.
A few months later, though, that worldview has fallen apart. Governments are desperate for global trade to return to previous levels and for global travel to resume as it once was. Some are already working toward equitable, fair global distribution of a possible future coronavirus vaccine. And, in real time, certain prominent populists are providing case studies in how not to reckon with a pandemic.
The leaders of the Western Hemisphere’s worst-hit nations, President Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, are both hard-bitten nationalists who have raged against the guidance of scientists and sought to play down the public health emergency, eager instead to wage culture wars against their domestic rivals. They have battled with their own chief medical offices and blamed foreign powers or international organizations for their woes.
In both instances, body counts and confirmed cases soared, while public approval of the presidents plummeted. Critics argue that the dithering and denials by Trump and Bolsonaro may have cost tens of thousands of lives. Bolsonaro has even contracted the virus and continues to tout from isolation the use of unproven and potentially dangerous drugs as a panacea. Unbowed by the evidence, Trump and his allies are pressing for schools to reopen even as the first wave of the virus surges through parts of the United States.
In Western Europe, Trump’s ideological brethren have slumped. Far-right parties in Italy and Spain, two countries once at the epicenter of the pandemic, failed to make significant political gains as left-leaning governments struggled with the crisis. Their posturing on immigration or identity meant little to a public eager for calm, solidarity and scientific expertise to flatten the curve.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the consummate anti-populist, has emerged as one of the political heroes of the past few months. Though in the twilight of her career, Merkel has gained in popularity once again for her technocratic handling of the pandemic in Germany, which rolled out a swift, extensive testing and contact tracing system.
“Merkel was able to give a calm and clear explanation of the mathematics of infection rates and to act upon it; Trump complains that the U.S. is doing too many tests,” observed Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. “Merkel has also surged in the polls — recording her highest approval ratings for many years. By contrast, Germany’s populist Alternative for Deutschland party — traditionally hostile to the establishment line on everything from the E.U. to vaccinations — has slumped.”
Merkel made the point herself. “Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits,” she said in an address to European Union partners last week as her country takes the reins of the rotating E.U. Council presidency. “In a democracy, facts and transparency are needed. That distinguishes Europe, and Germany will stand up for it during its presidency.”
A bigger political test is still on the way. On Friday, European leaders are slated to convene in person in Brussels for the first time in four months. It’s a pivotal summit, as my colleague Michael Birnbaum reported, with the bloc’s 27 member states set to “haggle over a potential pot of $2 trillion, a combination of their coronavirus economic rescue plan and the ordinary E.U. budget that sets up winners and losers for the next seven years.”
By showing support for an enormous effort to pool European debt in a post-coronavirus world, Merkel may be breaking ground. “Expectations are high,” said Thomas Heilmann, a parliamentarian with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, to my colleague Loveday Morris. “And if Germany fails to get things done, people will question, ‘If Merkel can’t do it, who else will do it?’ ”
Earlier intra-E.U. disputes over debt-sharing and fiscal policy helped stoke the rise of populist parties in various parts of the continent. Beyond economic differences, the broader nationalist turn in countries through Central and Eastern Europe remains a pressing challenge to continental cohesion.
“Europeans want cooperation in these unprecedented times,” the council’s Susi Dennison said in an emailed statement. She warned that a failure for meaningful collective action could provoke a new wave of Euroskepticism: “Leaders, this week, should be mindful of this and come together to build a Europe that not only protects its citizens, financially, but provides them with a strong voice on the global stage.”
Other experts suggest that the trauma of the pandemic, and the legacy of those who bungled the response, may have a lasting political impact. “This covid epidemic may actually lance the boil of populism,” Francis Fukuyama, a Stanford University political philosopher, told the BBC last month. “I don’t think there’s any correlation between being a democracy and doing well or poorly [in dealing with the coronavirus]. But there’s definitely a correlation between being a populist leader and doing badly.”