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The Pandemic Is the World’s Long Overdue Reality Check

Populists came to power peddling political fantasies—but the coronavirus has broken the fever.

President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive for a bilateral meeting during the G7 summit on Aug. 25, 2019 in Biarritz, France.
President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrive for a bilateral meeting during the G7 summit on Aug. 25, 2019 in Biarritz, France. Pool/Getty Images

Something may have broken—or rather, begun to break—last month when U.S. President Donald Trump held an indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in open defiance of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and found, to his shock and outrage, that his own supporters had failed to show up. That something is the politics of alternate reality that he and other illiberal populists have ridden to power in recent years.

It has long been understood that totalitarian leaders sustain themselves through the manipulation of reality; that, after all, is the theme of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Orwell, who understood clearly the power of language to obscure rather than reveal, would hardly have been shocked to see the practice transposed to democracies, but it didn’t fully happen in his day. Perhaps it awaited the shotgun marriage of extreme polarization and social media.

Over the last few years, Trump, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and others have carried out an experiment in the mass manufacture of alternative realities in a democratic society. Their success has forced a question: What reality, if any, will prove so terrible that it will expose their game? Americans have experienced a few false starts, including an impeachment trial, that have only proved that much of what transpires in political life does not reach people intimately enough to dispel the shadows. Nothing, however, is more intimate than the prospect of sickness and death.

Three of the four largest democracies run by illiberal populists—the United States, Brazil, and the U.K.—now rank one, two, and three in deaths from the coronavirus. (India currently lags behind but is moving up with frightening speed.) That is not a coincidence, for the leaders in each country have tried to minimize the gravity of the disease or—in Bolsonaro’s case—deny it altogether. Populist leaders deny COVID-19 for the same reasons they deny climate change: first, because acknowledging a force beyond their control might break the spell of omniscience in which they have bound their followers; and second, because deference to science and logic undermines the emotional sources of their appeal. If Anthony Fauci is right, Trump must be wrong.

The overwhelming signs that the world is warming have done nothing to break the hold of the populists, perhaps because few of their followers have experienced climate change as a personal catastrophe. At first, while it chiefly affected a handful of wealthy nations and blue states in the United States, the same was true of the coronavirus. But we have entered a new phase where the disease has become ubiquitous and ill-prepared countries are paying a terrible price. The connection between state failure and death has become too obvious to ignore.

The political consequences of this dawning recognition have become clear in the last few months as populist leaders and parties have suffered a serious erosion of support. The New York Times reported last week that Trump has fallen a staggering 14 points behind Joe Biden in the presidential contest as voters have spurned his response both to the pandemic and to the killing of George Floyd. Since the spring, Boris Johnson has lost 20 points both in approval of his response to the coronavirus and in his Conservative Party’s lead over Labour. Bolsonaro’s approval rating has dropped eight points since the beginning of the year as virtually all Brazilians disagree with his open contempt for social distancing. Even Vladimir Putin, who pioneered the techniques of fabrication that the populists now emulate, has seen his popularity fall to the lowest levels ever as coronavirus cases have surged in Russia.

The major European right-wing parties that have thrived in recent years—first by insisting that the European Union gravely threatened national sovereignty and then by stoking apocalyptic fears over the influx of refugees and immigrants—have similarly fallen back in the wake of the pandemic, especially in countries where citizens have found the government response reassuring. A recent poll showed the Alternative for Germany party enjoying the support of only 9 percent of Germans, its worst result in two and a half years. The far-right Sweden Democrats, tied in polls with the ruling Social Democrats at the outbreak of the pandemic, have now fallen 11 points behind.

A poll, of course, is only a snapshot in time. Trump could still beat Biden, and Bolsonaro, as Foreign Policy recently observed, still has a vast reservoir of support. The immense charisma of successful populists makes them almost immune to mistakes that would destroy a lesser figure. But democratic leaders have, of course, a smaller margin of error than do true autocrats; they depend on good luck to hide their shortcomings. What is now clear, at least in the United States, is that for three years Trump enjoyed a charmed life in which no real crisis challenged his simple-minded answers to complicated problems; now the law of averages has caught up with him.

It is true, of course, that populists on the left can prey on widespread resentments as easily as can those on the right; dangerous leaders from the time of Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat have exploited hatred of the entitled and the rich. The rising intensity of feeling on the left implies that such a world may lie before us; it is not, however, the one we live in. When Bernie Sanders blames corporate greed for the plight of the working class, he is advancing an arguable, if perhaps hyperbolic, proposition; when Trump describes Mexican immigrants as rapists and gangsters, or peaceful protesters as violent radicals, he is inviting his listeners to enter a parallel world. Leaders on the left in the United States do not traffic in hate as do leaders on the right.

It is true as well that we will never lack for politicians prepared to peddle pernicious fictions so long as citizens have powerful motivations to embrace them. People who feel left behind by immense changes in the economy and in social values will continue to grasp for satisfying explanations of their plight; social media will presumably only get better at magnifying grievance and vindicating conspiracy theories. Nations with strong democratic institutions and widely held democratic norms manage to confine this kind of demagoguery to the margins, but those with weak institutions, like Brazil or Poland, or states where norms have lost their cohesive force, like the United States and perhaps the U.K., will continue to be prey to the politics of resentment. If Poland’s liberal secular Civic Platform defeats the ruling Law and Justice party in elections this month, millions of Poles who are neither liberal nor secular will continue to believe that a German-led EU is plotting to destroy Poland’s Catholic values and traditions. If Biden defeats Trump in November, millions of the president’s supporters will continue to regard climate change as a hoax perpetrated by left-wing scientists in league with China.

Nevertheless, leaders shape norms: Trump is a cause as well as a consequence of American derangement. For that reason, one can at least hope that a clear-cut victory for Biden based on the growing recognition that the pandemic cannot be wished away, and that a history of racism cannot be wished away, will start to dispel the noxious pollutants from our mental atmosphere.

In Plato’s famous allegory, prisoners chained inside a cave since childhood mistake the flickering shadows they see on the wall before them for the reality of things. When one prisoner finally escapes and brings back the news of the world of tangible things, the prisoners refuse to break their chains for fear of being blinded by the sun—they cannot bear the full light of the real. Plato had a very dim regard for the wisdom of the people and thus for the idea of popular self-government; he assumed that democracy would bring forth the likes of Trump. But democracy has the capacity to cure its own ills, and that is its saving grace.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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