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Graffiti of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective mask in Rio de Janeiro. Graffiti of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective mask in Rio de Janeiro, April 7, 2020 (AP photo by Silvia Izquierdo).

How Populists Will Leverage the Coronavirus Pandemic

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Plenty of observers have rushed to predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will seriously harm the political fortunes of populists, or even make populism the outbreak’s first “ideological casualty.” Populists, they assert, vilify experts; now we are all learning that the price of not listening to experts may well be our own lives. Populists, it is also often said, are the great simplifiers; now we need experienced bureaucrats and leaders who can deal with a complex challenge.

Yet this valiant attempt to see a silver lining in this political moment is itself highly simplistic. Populism is not primarily characterized by hostility to scientists. Populists in power are likely to benefit from a “rally 'round the flag” effect, unless they appear as do-nothing retrogrades like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. More importantly, populists can still deploy their key strategy of dividing citizens against each other and blaming minorities for all sorts of problems. It is too early to tell whether that strategy will work—much will depend on the length of the various lockdowns to contain the pandemic and the frustrations as well as economic dislocations generated by them. But it is certainly not too early to say that the Panglossian liberal gloating about an end of populism is premature. ...

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