- Just because populist leaders haven’t fared well against the coronavirus doesn’t mean their opponents should count them out.
In many ways, the coronavirus has been irrefutably bad for populists. It has bolstered the popularity of establishment darlings such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte. It has brought once-anonymous health experts, including the United States’ Anthony Fauci and Britain’s Chris Whitty, to the fore. It has cast some of populists’ favored wedge issues, among them immigration and the European Union, to the wayside.
At the same time, populist-ruled countries such as the U.S., Brazil, and India have been among those worst impacted by the pandemic. Surely, the argument goes, their mismanagement exposes the fallacy of the populist promise. When competent governance and expertise are at a premium, and favored antiestablishment talking points have been overshadowed, what credible chance does populism stand?
The reality is not so simple. This crisis is poised to plunge the global economy into the deepest recession since World War II—one that the World Bank projects will be more than twice as bad as the 2008 financial crash. Trust in institutions such as the World Health Organization and the European Union have been challenged. The rally-around-the-flag effect that many world leaders enjoyed early on has started to wane.