Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro have been complacent. Now the pandemic has made them all vulnerable

Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro have been complacent. Now the pandemic has made them all vulnerable

The world’s strongmen may well end up paying a political price for their cynicism and incompetence

If Boris Johnson is mishandling the pandemic, he is not alone. Falsely claiming everything is under control, dodging responsibility, hiding from public view, exploiting the crisis for political gain, mounting artificial distractions and blaming the media: these are common behaviour patterns exhibited by some of the world’s most powerful – and shifty – leaders.

Will they pay a price for their lethal incompetence and cynicism? It’s possible some will, though it may take a while. The pandemic is changing political calculations around the globe. Leaders who looked invulnerable suddenly appear less so. That in turn could shift the strategic calculus and alter the balance of power between countries in ways both unexpected and permanent.

Donald Trump’s performance is a lesson in how not to handle an emergency. It may become a compulsory case study for future students of crisis management. Trump minimised the threat early on, offered phoney assurances, and failed to make a plan. He has since accused China of deliberately spreading “plague” while weaponising the crisis to smear his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

The president’s myriad character flaws need no rehearsal here. But it seems a desperate Trump will stop at nothing to re-boot his re-election prospects. If that means fomenting a cold war with China, or stoking racial divisions and anti-migrant, anti-Muslim bias, he’s up for it. And if all that fails, he may try to delay November’s election, a scenario not ruled out by his sycophantic son-in-law.

Coronavirus has made a sort of leper of Trump. A lack of federal leadership and his support for prematurely ending state lockdowns he never truly supported appears to be propelling a rise in Covid-19 cases in small midwest towns and rural communities from Iowa to Texas. These are the heartlands of Trump’s America, where his most loyal voters live.

As a result, Republicans running for Congress are running away from Trump, fearful of infection from the miasma of lies and distrust enveloping the White House. As jobs disappear by the tens of millions, Democrats’ hopes of winning the Senate are rising. Biden’s lead in key battleground states is widening, fuelled by economic meltdown and Trump’s gaffes.

Vladimir Putin is another leader in serious viral difficulty. Only months ago, he looked invincible. All the talk in Russia was of constitutional “reforms” that would effectively make him president for life. Those plans are now on hold, perhaps permanently. Putin’s decision to shield himself from harm, isolating away from Moscow, has badly dented his image as fearless tough-guy leader.

After weeks of complacency at the top, Russia finds itself with the second fastest rate of Covid-19 infections in the world. Putin’s hand-picked prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, is in hospital, as is the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. In video conferences held to discuss the crisis, Putin has looked more bored than concerned. Empathy was never his strong suit.