The Coronavirus Is Exposing Populists’ Hollow Politics

As the crisis worsens, even more extreme groups may prosper.

By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, and Carisa Nietsche
Fellow members of his party congratulate Italian  far-right League leader Matteo Salvini after he addressed the Senate in Rome on Feb. 12.
Fellow members of his party congratulate Italian far-right League leader Matteo Salvini after he addressed the Senate in Rome on Feb. 12. Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

At first, the spread of the coronavirus seemed like a boon for Europe’s populists. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party, used COVID-19 to advance his xenophobia. Salvini circulated a video of a migrant ship arriving in Italy, falsely implying that migrants were responsible for the outbreak. Along with other far-right leaders in Europe, Salvini also used Europe’s border closures as another opportunity to vilify the European Union and its commitment to the free movement of people.

Yet the continuing crisis is having the opposite effect—it’s exposing Salvini’s shortcomings and undermining many of the drivers that fueled his support. Since the start of the pandemic, Salvini’s public support has fallen to its lowest point since July 2018. But rather than ushering in gains for Italy’s more centrist, mainstream parties, Brothers of Italy—a party to the right of even Salvini’s League, with ties to fascism—has gained in the polls.

Italy’s experience may very well foreshadow how populism will evolve in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, both costing the populist parties of the moment support and potentially pushing these parties to adopt more nationalist and overtly authoritarian positions.

As in Italy, the pandemic is eroding many traditional pillars of populist support. Populism divides society into two homogenous groups: the pure people and the corrupt elite. In the current crisis, this antagonistic framing doesn’t resonate. Unlike the 2008 global financial crisis, which accelerated Europe’s populist surge, the coronavirus cannot easily be blamed on the elite. If anything, the urgency and magnitude of this shared crisis have demanded unity and reduced the polarization that populists thrive on.

The shared nature of the COVID-19 crisis undermines another key driver of populism: identity politics. Populists have long sought to instill fear within dominant groups that their status is being threatened by outsiders or minority groups, such as by the influx of Syrian migrants into Europe. But the coronavirus knows no borders and affects all of society, regardless of race or identity.

The pandemic is also renewing faith in mainstream political parties and experts. Populists have long benefited from voters’ disenchantment with parties in the political center. But populist leaders not just in Europe but also farther afield—from Brazil to Indonesia—have failed to adequately respond to the crisis. In this way, the coronavirus is exposing the empty rhetoric of these parties and leaders and underscoring the need for competent and capable governments. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s catch-all center-right Christian Democratic Union is climbing in the polls.

The coronavirus is changing Europe’s political landscape. As a result, many existing populist parties and leaders are likely to suffer. But as the case of Italy underscores, it would be unwise to assume that what follows today’s populists would translate into gains for liberal democracy. To remain politically viable, the new populists who emerge will adapt to changes in the post-coronavirus environment, ushering in a new brand of populism.

The new crop of populists will benefit from the economic challenges that the pandemic will leave behind. Research shows that crisis-driven unemployment and economic insecurity are correlated with populist voting. Likewise, inequality is likely to grow—the pandemic disproportionately affects low-income workers, for example—aggravating divisions that new populists can exploit. But trends emerging in Europe’s democracies suggest that future populists will likely take on more nationalist or overtly authoritarian characteristics.

As the traditional sources of support for populism erode, the next generation of Europe’s populists will seek to exploit the growing nationalism that the pandemic has produced. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, accused the EU of profiting off of Italy’s difficulties by aiming to purchase the country’s strategic assets. Although some European leaders have warned against giving in to such coronavirus nationalism, the pandemic is pulling at divisions within the EU. When the Italian government first activated the EU’s solidarity mechanism, not one country came to its aid. Some countries banned the export of crucial medical supplies. Borders have been reerected. Faith in the EU has diminished. A recent poll shows that 67 percent of Italians believe being an EU member is a disadvantage for Italy, up from 47 percent in November 2018. If divisions among nations grow, the new populists could step in and exploit them. Brothers of Italy has shown how political fortunes can rise amid growing nationalism.

The new political context is also likely to usher in populists with more overtly authoritarian tendencies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has highlighted the direction that things could go. Orban passed a bill allowing him to rule by decree for an indefinite period and jail journalists who publish what the government deems to be false information. Even in the United Kingdom, Parliament rushed through a bill that gives the government the power to detain and isolate people indefinitely and ban public gatherings, including protests, all with little oversight. Moreover, governments across the globe are deploying surveillance and other technologies to contain the virus in ways that strain the balance between privacy and public health and safety. If in power, the next crop of populists would likely seize on these currents to consolidate their control.

Yet these are the early days of a long crisis, and it is premature to entirely write off the possibility that the erosion of populism’s pillars of support could create an opportunity for liberal democracies. Europe’s democracies were slow out of the gates to respond to the pandemic, but cross-border cooperation is ramping up. France donated 1 million masks to Italy, hospitals opened up across borders, and the EU announced a $110 billion job support program for its hardest-hit member states. Now, proceeding with the so-called coronabonds—a funding mechanism to mitigate the economic fallout from COVID-19 and shore up European unity—is a critical next step. If Europeans emerge from the crisis recognizing the importance of cohesion, inclusiveness, and the government institutions that populist leaders revile, then the pandemic could usher in a truly post-populist era in Europe.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @AKendallTaylor

Carisa Nietsche is a Research Associate in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.