Rightwing populism in a time of crisis

When the smoke clears, let’s hope the scales fall from the eyes of their supporters and the only recently growing phenomenon of rightwing, anti-science populism is consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.


While the frightening rise of far right populism around the world has been eclipsed by our current circumstances, those leading the movement in various countries have been at the forefront of efforts to fight, or, in too many places, ignore, the ongoing pandemic. What this has revealed is a style of politics that’s uniquely unable to confront a real crisis, especially one that requires a willingness to take expert advice to fight.

Whether in Hungary, the U.K., the United States or Brazil, the standard playbook of scapegoating minority and immigrant groups and denying science has been deployed to varying degrees and has seen some success in the short term. Calling the disease the ‘Chinese’ or ‘Wuhan’ virus, as officials in the current U.S. administration, up to and including the current president and many of his allies in other countries have done, has ratcheted up tensions at a time when international cooperation is vital to stopping the diseases’ spread.

Worse, although the lack of information provided by both local authorities in Hubei province and by China’s federal government as the disease emerged should be the subject of widespread criticism, people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to everything from racist language to physical assault, much of it the result of the unhinged rhetoric of rightwing politicians and conspiracy theorists.

Although the current occupant of the White House, who has at times seemed to spout misinformation with the misguided goal of reassuring people, has seen his polling and ‘ratings’ go up as he’s taken center stage with daily press briefings, this may turn out to be very temporary as major networks turn away and the crisis intensifies.

Not to be outdone by the U.S. president, some of the more cynical (and some might argue, more intelligent) rightwing populists around the world have seemed even more willing to use the crisis for dubious political ends. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces seven criminal counts, including bribery and fraud in two corruption cases, has managed to stitch together a unity government with his main opponent Benny Gantz after failing to achieve power in three elections over the course of a year.

An added bonus for the man who is something of a template for many figures on the right in recent years has been the shutdown of the country’s courts, which have been suspended until at least May 24th, giving him at least a temporary respite from the charges he faces.

Another leader friendly with both the American president and Israel’s prime minister is Hungary’s, Viktor Orban, who has taken unprecedented powers as Europe has become the epicenter of the crisis. Something of a political chameleon, the Hungarian prime minister has traded political identities as a matter of convenience for three decades; for example, the former atheist now portrays himself as a defender of ‘Christendom’ against the ‘Islamization’ of Europe.

This week, Orban’s government passed legislation canceling all upcoming elections and allowing him to rule by decree, in effect turning an EU member state into at least a temporary dictatorship. The vote passed with more than the two thirds majority required and will need a similar number of votes to bring to an end.

As explained by Lili Bayer of Politico, the law also allows for attacks on freedom of the press and, more broadly, basic free speech rights, “…individuals who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail.”

While it’s important in this moment to have accurate information and stop snake oil salesmen from putting people at greater risk and profiting off of the crisis, it may be almost as dangerous to allow purveyors of the ‘fake news’ narrative like Orban the power to silence critical voices or suppress facts they don’t like.

Nearby, in the U.K., a different, less authoritarian conservative populist of convenience, Boris Johnson, at first seemed to have decided to follow the advice of the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, who counseled a Darwinian approach to dealing with the viral outbreak called ‘herd immunity’, in which as many as 60% of the country’s citizens would be infected and through this process immunize the country.

Against the advice of public health officials around the world, at least until the Conservative government reversed course on March 16th, Johnson and others were encouraging people to go out to pubs and restaurants rather than avoiding crowds and staying at home to shorten the crisis and mitigate the inevitable strain on the country’s National Health Service, which has been severely cut through austerity measures for many years.

The plan to accelerate herd immunity, which the U.K. government insists was misinterpreted, could also have been more truthfully called a ‘culling’.

Boris Johnson has also displayed a level of personal irresponsibility that should worry the country he was elected to lead, visiting at least one hospital and shaking hands with patients as health officials were warning the country about the spread of the disease, trying to portray this as bravery and leading some to believe that a stiff upper lip alone could offer protection from infection.

The Prime Minister was diagnosed with COVID 19, the disease caused by the virus, soon after and went into isolation on February 27th. At present, three members of his cabinet, including the country’s health minister, have also announced they have gone into self-quarantine after showing symptoms of the disease in the days that followed.

Despite the terrible decisions being made by rightwing populists internationally, perhaps the place being worst served by its leader is Brazil. After a team of advisors, including one of his sons, contracted (or spread) COVID 19 during a visit to the United States, where they attended the CPAC conference and mingled with the country’s most powerful conservatives, 4 members of the delegation were either diagnosed or had symptoms and went into self isolation when they returned home.

What followed was bizarre, even by the standards of the erratic Bolsonaro administration, with his son Eduardo first saying that his father’s test had come back positive in a phone interview with Fox News, a statement that his father soon denied. While we don’t really know which story is true, Eduardo walked back his statements and blamed ‘fake news’ for what he had said, even though the initial interview was with a very friendly outlet, writing on Twitter, “Too much lies and little information. Coronavirus exam done with the team that were with JB [Jair Bolsonaro] in the U.S.A. have not yet been completed

There are always those people who tell lies in the media and if the story is confirmed they say “I told you!”, if not will be just 1 more fake news .”

Despite the risks and whether or not he had tested positive, the Brazilian president, who has called the virus a small flu, attended a rally with his supporters in Rio de Janeiro on March 15th when he should have still been in quarantine due to his contacts with infected people, taking a leaf from Boris Johnson’s book and shaking hands and taking selfies with is devotees.

Throughout the crisis, the Brazilian president has surpassed his ideological fellow travelers in terms of minimizing the disease, picking fights with state governors and the country’s courts in the process. While the current U.S. president has had his own spats with governors, precedent is being set in Brazil, where state governors have gone against the central government in requiring citizens to stay at home despite the Bolsonaro repeatedly calling for the country to get back to work.

As reported by Reuters, the Bolsonaro government even created a social media campaign called “Brazil can’t stop”, “suggesting to most Brazilians that there was no need for isolating themselves at home, [which] was banned by Judge Laura Bastos in Rio de Janeiro at the request of federal prosecutors.”

While the global emergency may have been unavoidable due to the connectedness of the contemporary world, with leaders like these in major countries who have spread misinformation and used the crisis as an opportunity to try and seize more power for themselves, it’s likely been made worse than it might have been. When the smoke clears, let’s hope the scales fall from the eyes of their supporters and the only recently growing phenomenon of rightwing, anti-science populism is consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.


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