Populism and the pandemic

It’s too early to write off Europe’s far-right, crowd-pleasing politicos

So far, populist leaders have not had a good pandemic. First, the happy news. A combination of disease denialism and woeful incompetence did for Donald Trump, and it is likely to doom Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. The year 2020 saw the disruption of the disrupters, and according to a recent YouGov/Guardian poll, there has been a decline in support for the basic tenets upon which the politics of ordinary people versus elites rely. Fewer people believe that conflict between “elites” and “ordinary people” matters as once they did. Nor do they blame the EU for their woes. Accordingly, across Europe the electoral fortunes of insurgent parties have markedly flagged as voters looked for managerial competence as they prioritised public health and the ability to lift economies out of deep, COVID-19-induced recessions. There is also a new respect for medical and scientific expertise, even if scientists do not always agree with one another.   

Many factors could explain why the “populist wave” of the 2010s seems to have abated. Since populists are “political entrepreneurs”, they almost inevitably generate competitors. For example, having been around for so long, France’s Marine Le Pen faces stiff competition from the freakish Éric Zemmour, darling of Britain’s elite-populist Spectator, and the free-floating (or freeloading) Nigel Farage has a smoother rival in Mr Richard Tice, the businessman and leader of Reform UK. 

Nor did it help the populists’ cause that the pandemic massively restricted anything resembling the 2015 migration wave, while until recently draconian lockdowns inhibited mass populist gatherings. Maybe more profoundly, with their nerves shredded by fear, people wearied of the monotonal shoutiness of so many populist leaders – the Trumpian perpetual noise – the Italians, for example, preferring the quiet and solid competence of central banker Mario Draghi, the elite’s elitist, to the serial stunts of the Lega’s Matteo Salvini. Indeed, with great skill, Draghi absorbed both Salvini and the Five Star leaders into his technocratic cabinet, virtually obliging them to act like adults rather than angry adolescents.

But if this gives cause for optimism, I’m afraid that longer term, the outlook might not be so rosy, especially as we are going to have to live (and die) with this virus for a long time. Governments are also ideologically split – think of Europe’s so-called “frugals” and “spendthrifts” – over the role of both the state and taxation.

One major effect of the pandemic has been an expansion of state control over our everyday lives. In the latest twist, several countries have also made participation in social events or the world of work contingent upon being fully vaccinated, with officials checking one’s mandatory certificazione verde or passe sanitaire. Lockdowns and mandatory vaccines have inevitably become rich hunting grounds for those who believe that elites have used the pandemic not only to control people’s lives but also to actively harm them. Superstitions are rampant. Whereas in olden times it was an aged woman down the lane who lamed your cow with herbs and spells, nowadays it is Bill Gates – big in vaccines as well as computer software and 5G – who is allegedly trying to sterilise you.

So far, the political effects of resistance to lockdowns and vaccinations have been episodic, though they have now taken the form of mass protests and violent riots in Brussels, Kassel, Rotterdam and so on. Only in one case did an anti-vaxx protest this October morph into an echo of Trump’s 6 January coup, when neo-Fascists tried to storm Rome’s Palazzo Chigi, but the Italian police were robust, and the Forza Nuova party was proscribed. There was even a QAnon Shaman, complete with fur hat and horns, though this was pizzeria owner Ermes Ferrari copying the jailed Capitol rioter Jacob Chansley (aka Jake Angeli). Meanwhile, and mercifully, in Germany only one person – a cashier at an Aral petrol station in Idar-Oberstein – was shot dead by a drunken customer who did not like being excluded for not wearing a mask. 

Well, one might say that’s Italians for you, though this stereotype is quite wrong. Organised revolt against lockdowns and vaccines is especially rife in “Germanic” Europe, meaning southern and eastern Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and German-speaking Switzerland. Even in Italian Trentino-South Tirol it is the 70 per cent German-speaking majority who protested in the capital Bolzano, rather than the Italians who make up almost a third of the population. 

The Germans call these protesters Querdenker or “lateral thinkers”. They tend to be aged over 50, and about half of them are university graduates. They are basically libertarians, often wedded to homeopathic cures and new age mumbo jumbo, though there is also a solid extreme right presence at almost every demonstration with fascists crying “Freedom!”. They presumably think it ironically clever to wear Nazi-era yellow stars stamped “unvaccinated”. Whereas in the former East Germany or DDR anti-vaxxers tend to be working class, ill-educated and supporters of the anti-EU and anti-migrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in rich Baden-Würrtemberg they are often Green-or-left-party-voting body-spiritualists who are switching straight over to the AfD.

As it is, we can dimly see how populists might politically capitalise from the pandemic by blending nationalism with libertarianism. Spain’s leftist coalition government of Pedro Sanchez has been very thorough in its anti-Covid measures, though crucially local administrations retain the right to deviate from government policy. The biggest deviant has been the Popular Party’s Isabel Diaz Ayuso, incumbent head of the regional government in Madrid. In March Ayuso secured a landslide after running on the platform of “freedom” from Spain’s socialist lockdown oppressors, and she governs in conjunction with the far-right VOX party. Her success was due to keeping bars and restaurants open so that Madrid became Europe’s party capital of the pandemic. Madrid’s hospitality sector named a beer and tapas dish Calamares a la Ayuso in her honour even as the city’s hospitals filled with Covid cases. Branded as Spain’s (albeit hedonistic) “Iron Lady”, she may win the next general election in 2023.

Something similar is afoot in France. The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) were mainly rural protesters against green-driven rises in diesel costs. Although President Emmanuel Macron rescinded the taxes in a week, they kept protesting for a further 53 weeks on roundabouts or in the boulevards of Paris. They have duly mutated into being enthusiasts for liberté rather than fraternité, despite the majority of French people supporting Macron’s stern insistence on mandatory health passes and restrictions on the unvaccinated. 

The Gilets Jaunes are a portent of a further mutant form of populism which might seek to capitalise from government-driven climate amelioration. The latter will inevitably involve serious costs for ordinary people: less meat eating and more home insulation, renewable boilers and electric vehicles for starters.  There is a potential for discontent upon which some populist demagogues are already alighting – for example, the old UK European Research Group (ERG) have flocked to the new Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Tory MP Mr Steve Baker. Meanwhile, the environmental movement has found itself with some opportunistic new bedfellows, some of whom are exploiting it for their less admirable ends. Erstwhile climate change deniers such as Marine Le Pen now claim that “Environmentalism is the natural child of patriotism . . . if you’re a nomad, you’re not an environmentalist.”  

Among some of the large and populous countries of the Middle East the effects of global warming are already catastrophic

The nomads referred to here are the world’s refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. Manifestly, climate change has joined war and civil strife to add to the numbers of those seeking refuge or a viable way of life. Among some of the large and populous countries of the Middle East – notably Iraq and Iran – the effects of global warming are already catastrophic. Life in what was the biblical Garden of Eden is now akin to surviving in an oven. The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan is also likely to result in more refugees on the move, not to mention ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, Libya, Mali and Sudan. Some claim that by 2050, a staggering 1.2 billion people could be uprooted. 

Of course, migrants can also be weaponised, as we have seen in the unedifying shunting of them on the forest frontiers of Belarus and Poland where normally bears and wolves are the only “transients”. Will the EU agree to fortify its external borders, or can it use lavish structural funding to coerce Warsaw (and Budapest) into the orderly absorption of refugees, who will then end up in Frankfurt and Rotterdam, or indeed on France’s Normandy coast?

Anti-scientific superstition has already combined with talk of “freedom” and “choice” to oppose collective defences against the pandemic. But one can already discern another powerful populist gambit in which opposition to the costs of environmental measures will combine with a folksy, nativist version of “greenery” – each to his or her walled patch – with migrants viewed as the villains rather than the victims, for absurdly they are now being blamed for the environmental depredations of the developed world.

Michael Burleigh’s “Populism: Before and After the Pandemic” is published by Hurst

Current Affairs

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