Analysis |

COVID-19 Failure of Right-wing Populists Like Trump and Netanyahu Hardly a Coincidence

The world’s worst-performing countries against the pandemic are all led by self-centered authoritarians

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his nickname "Bibi" on his hand after exit poll results, March 2, 2020
Supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his nickname "Bibi" on his hand after exit poll results, March 2, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The country with the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world is the United States, which is led by an authoritarian right-wing nationalist and populist, Donald Trump. Second place belongs to India, which is led by the authoritarian right-wing nationalist and populist Narendra Modi. Next in line is Brazil, led by the authoritarian right-wing nationalist and populist Jair Bolsonaro.

In fourth place – and possibly higher, if its data is fabricated, as alleged – stands Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, who has already achieved the kind of absolute power that other authoritarian, right wing, nationalist and populist leaders, including Trump, Modi and Bolsonaro, aspire to.

LISTEN: How COVID killed Bibi’s legacy and resurrected his archrivalCredit: Haaretz

The dishonorable place of these countries at the top – or bottom – of the world’s COVID-19 rankings is a direct result of their leaders’ dismal failures in warding off the disease but also, of course, a function of their bigger populations. On a per capita basis, at least among democratic countries as well as members of the OECD, the country with the highest number of infections overall as well as the highest rate of new infections is, by far, Israel. It too is led by an authoritarian, right wing nationalist and populist leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The data cannot be denied or dismissed as sheer coincidence: The countries with the worst performances in the battle against COVID-19 are all led by authoritarian, right wing, nationalist and populist leaders. All five – Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Putin and Netanyahu – are the objects of a cult of personality, rely on fanatic political bases, detest criticism, hate liberals and are slowly but surely dismantling the constitutional, civil and democratic foundations of their respective countries.

The record of individual U.S. states corroborates the link between politics and pandemics. True, the states with the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths to date are mostly managed by Democrats, from New York to California. These, however, accumulated their bitter statistics in the first wave of the pandemic before the scope and nature of COVID-19 were properly understood and before their governors stopped following Trump’s calming messages from the White House. Most have since instituted restrictions, including lockdowns and mandatory masks and social distancing, and have largely succeeded in taming the deadly virus.

The pandemic, which started in the Democrat-controlled West and Northeast, has since spread into the Republican heartland. The two states with the highest absolute number of cases and deaths in the second wave, besides California, are Texas and Florida, both controlled by Republican governors and legislatures.

Seven of the ten states that are now experiencing the fastest spread of the disease – North and South Dakota, Missouri, Utah, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa – are also under total GOP control. The other three – Montana, Wisconsin and Kansas – have Democratic governors who are constrained by Republican legislatures. None of the 15 states in which Democrats control both branches of government are on the list of states in which the disease is spreading fast.

Protests against Netanyahu, in JerusalemCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Most Americans recognize the direct link between Trump’s denial of the disease and aversion to universally accepted precautions and the 200,000+ American deaths from the pandemic. Over 80% of Republicans, however, tell pollsters that they are satisfied with Trump’s performance, don’t hold him responsible for the administration’s dismal response to the disease and see no reason that COVID should influence their vote on November 3.

Which is why, despite overseeing a medical, economic and social catastrophe that has dumbfounded the rest of the world, Trump’s standing in the polls is still strong enough to render him a viable contender in the elections. By the same token, Netanyahu’s Likud has lost ground in the polls but still garners more than any rival, garnering 29 mandates in the latest Channel 12 poll, a drop of six since the March elections. Most of their support comes from the 27% of Israelis that continue to express confidence in Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though it has dropped precipitously from 56% in April, according to a recent poll published by the Israeli Democracy Institute.

Bolsonaro, for his part, is more popular than ever, according to polls published in Brazil this week. Like Trump, the Brazilian populist initially dismissed the threat from the disease and continues to disdain social distancing, but he has dispersed financial aid generous enough to sustain public support, endangering Brazil’s future economic recovery in the process.

Like his similarly inclined peers, Bolsonaro maintains his strength by virtue of the unyielding loyalty of his conservative base, which views his culture wars against the liberal left as a holy crusade that justifies any and all sacrifice. Like them Bolsonaro is endowed with an inflated ego bordering on megalomania, identifies his personal and political fate with his country’s fortunes and places his own survival above all else.

Netanyahu, with wife Sara and son Yair, meet PutinCredit: Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik Krem

There’s a world of difference, of course, between the U.S., India, Brazil, Israel and, to a lesser degree, despotic Russia, but the common denominators that characterize their leaders can nonetheless help explain their miserable failure to contain the spread of COVID-19.

They all rule, to one degree or another, via their fanatic base, which has imposed a reign of terror on their political parties and, by extension, enabled them to exert near total control over their executive and legislative branches. They have all distanced other politicians who are potential rivals from the centers of power, depriving their governments of their talent, experience and potential for expanding public support in the fight against the disease.

In their stead, Trump and Netanyahu et al have appointed mediocre figures whose only talents are flattery and blind obedience. Their purges invariably extend to the civil service as well, with the gradual displacement of experienced professionals who stick to their guns and their replacement with talentless sycophants instead.

Authoritarian leaders, especially those prone to perpetual paranoia, don’t recognize the existence of constructive criticism; in their eyes, critiques are subversive by nature. If Trump says masks are superfluous, hydroxychloroquine is a wonder drug and a miracle vaccine is just around the corner, he expects his professionals to back him up, no matter what. When they fail to do so, Trump attacks them in public and distances them from decision-making, as he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci and others. By politicizing both the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Centers for Disease Control, Trump has already tarnished their hitherto stellar reputation and undercut their credibility in the eyes of America and the world.

Populists wage constant war on “elites” and incite their followers against them. The inevitable result is the distancing of said “elites” from governance, which decreases effectiveness and invites increasing disdain for official guidance. They undermine oversight and ignore separation of powers, depriving decision making of essential give and take that makes for better policy. They thrive on division and govern by divide and rule, fragmenting society at a time when unity is required to muster all available forces against the pandemic.

They are all disciples, to one degree or another, of unbridled capitalism and are fierce opponents of government intervention. They are forever cutting public expenditures in general and on health in particular, leaving hospitals and medical facilities woefully underfinanced and understaffed to cope with routine healthcare, never mind the kind of national medical emergency posed by COVID-19.

Unlike more social-democratic European governments, right-wing populists degrade ancillary structures of community and social support, rendering their countries incapable of meeting the needs of those experiencing psychological trauma in the face of the pandemic.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with a face mask in the press in Brasilia, Brazil, March 20, 2020. Credit: UESLEI MARCELINO / REUTERS

Trump and Bolsonaro, more than Netanyahu and Modi, are constantly denying established scientific facts and in the process undermining their followers’ distinction between truth and falsehood. In Trump’s America, established procedures meant to ward off COVID-19 are perceived as false propaganda aimed at weakening their adored leader. Flaunting elementary but life-saving precautions, such as wearing masks, has turned into a source of pride and expression of loyalty.

Trump and Netanyahu are not averse to exploiting the pandemic to rally their fans and tarnish their opponents. Both have baselessly depicted protestors as disease spreaders and demonstrations as super-spreaders, seeking to shift blame for the resurgent disease and to provide their base with convenient villains to funnel their frustrations and anger. Along with Bolsonaro, they repeatedly exempt themselves from their own government’s guidelines, serving as bad role models and encouraging followers to follow in their footsteps.

Personal and political benefits invariably cloud their decisions and, in some cases, eclipse concern for the public’s health. Netanyahu steadfastly refused to hand over responsibility for managing the coronavirus crisis to the army and defense establishment for fear it would strengthen his Defense Minister rivals, first Naftali Bennett and now Benny Gantz.

The Israeli prime minister has repeatedly succumbed to demands of ultra-Orthodox leaders, even though his capitulations have accelerated the spread of the disease, for fear that his partners would abandon him as he tries to wiggle out of his impending criminal trial. And as his own ministers attest, Netanyahu’s main impetus for pressing for the total lockdown that began on Friday was his yet to be realized wish that it would enable him to stop the protests against him.

They will continue to absolve themselves of responsibility, incite against rivals and waste their time and energies on fortifying themselves at the expense of their countries’ battle against COVID-19 – and will continue to do so until they are deposed and replaced.

First in line is Trump, if he loses on November 3 and fails to carry out his threats to reject the results of the elections and thus plunge the U.S. into an unprecedented crisis that will further weaken its resistance to the disease. As in the infamous Communist era “domino theory,” if Trump goes, his authoritarian, right wing nationalist and populist counterparts and groupies are eventually sure to follow.

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