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  4. Romance in the Time of Coronavirus

They live inside of magical, exceptional realms where their people—the collective embodiment of a hazy national identity—are clearly defined and heroic. Their politics is not the complicated, imperfect work of negotiating among competing interests for some common good. For them, it is more akin to college sports: all home teams and zero-sum games. They offer the comfort and clarity that nature cannot provide, but which romance delivers reliably.

To be fair, they aren’t alone in this. Galvanizing communities is a frequent aim of politicians, and some measure of romanticism often appears in the effort to bring people along; however, right populists do more than chide and cheerlead—they make ‘us vs. them’ central to their programs. They conflate their constructions of identities and nations with a truth so great and unassailable that it crushes mere facts beneath its heel. They sell their ideals via impossible slogans. “Italians first” proclaims the Lega—assuring us that there is consensus about what those vague terms mean. “Make America Great Again” proclaims Trump, presuming the same agreement on some unidentified, bygone greatness, which must now be reclaimed. And if you question the fantastical nebulousness of it all, or just try to pin it down? Well, you make yourself a nasty person, to use President Trump’s preferred pejorative, or—for both Salvini and his far-right counterparts in Germany—a “do-gooder” (buonista).

For those who embrace the politics of sloganeering and insults, the benefits are clear. They get to bypass the uncertainty and complexity of investigation and go straight to the emotional reward. Relieved of the need to work towards a material accomplishment, or to consider the role of provenance in their good fortune, they may instead pat themselves on the back for they have succeeded simply by belonging to an elite community. Here they are safe, and never at fault. If not actually heroic, certainly, they are better. The appeal is easy to understand: the wish to feel belonging is primal. But what happens when the threat to their community comes not from some hazy group of outsiders and enemies, but from nature itself?

As the coronavirus began its spread, the experts spoke out. The WHO warned that the pandemic would expand. No one was immune. They urged countries to shield themselves, take precautions, hunker down. If one thing is anathema to romantics, it’s pragmatism. Experts, local bureaucrats, international organizations, all find themselves in the right populists’ crosshairs. The coronavirus has provided no exception to this. In true romantic fashion, the right populists, at least at first, dismissed the pragmatists and attempted instead to spin the crisis away. Trump assured his national audience that there would be no pandemic. The “China virus” (blame the outsider) would go away like “a miracle” (in his magical land). Bolsonaro called the coronavirus “a little flu” and assured his followers that Brazilians would overpower it; they might even be naturally immune, he suggested. In Italy, Salvini, in a fit of predictability, framed the virus as a problem to be solved by banning migrants. From a better leader, this might have been an attempt to protect those refugees and economic seekers, considering that Italy has been an epicenter of infection; alas, in reality, his was an attempt to place blame where there is no evidence it lies. Le Pen didn’t even look so far afield and took the opportunity to blame the virus on the borderless EU. But within the European Union, the virus seems to have been spread mostly by ski vacationers—would she propose to solve disease with an end to winter sports?

In every case, the formulation politicized the pandemic; in none of them did a coherent strategy to combat the pandemic follow from that politicization. This is because nature is never game to play along with a fairy tale version of itself. Where the virus has been fought (as effectively as it’s possible to do), it’s been down to the efforts of rational leaders who listened to and amplified, the recommendations of epidemiologists and medical specialists. The less romantic politicians of the center—in Germany, or New Zealand, or South Korea—have proceeded without boasting. They’ve embraced frankness and uncertainty. They’ve spoken to their supporters honestly about the danger and what is needed to protect themselves. Where borders have been closed, it has been to stop the virus spreading with the movement of populations overall, and not as an effort to shift blame onto infected “outsiders.” The leaders of the center, rather than finger-pointing and pressing for emergency powers, have deferred to expertise and deployed bureaucracies—what Trump derides as the ‘deep state’ --in coordinated attempts to test and track and treat. They have dealt with the virus on its terms, as an apolitical artefact of nature. They seem to understand what right populists are loathed to acknowledge: that epidemics tested Europe, and the world, relentlessly, long, long before the Schengen area was established, long before Syrians fled their homes in terror, or the Dutch flew off to ski vacations. Viruses operated indifferent to politics then, and they do so now. Unfortunately for their populations, the expertise, the humility, and the pragmatism needed to combat them, for right populists, are decidedly off-brand.

But does that mean the pandemic crisis will prove deadly to their politics of mythologizing?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I can imagine two scenarios in which the pandemic yet provides right populists with an opportunity to flourish.

 

Opportunity One: Emergency Powers 

Declaring “war” on the virus could empower presidents or chancellors to lead their governments down the road to dictatorship. In the last half-century, dictatorships in Egypt and Syria, for instance, justified the suspension of constitutional rights their countries with ‘states of emergency’ premised, in theory, on war with Israel. In both cases, emergency rule exceeded active warfare by decades. Without pretending that they provide a perfect comparison, these cases tell us plainly that, in the wrong hands, states of emergency can long outlive any actual emergency. When it comes to the coronavirus, Viktor Orban has invoked emergency powers in Hungary. He now has the right to rule by decree and imprison journalists deemed to be spreading false information for years. While Orban has promised to return all powers to the government at the end of the crisis, he has spent his tenure to now actively weakening the judicial and parliamentary checks on his power. This is worrisome. Donald Trump, some would argue, has acted in his presidency with a similar, if less pronounced, indifference to law and convention. He has recently begun referring to himself as a “wartime president.” It remains to be seen what ambitions may, or may not, lay behind such pronouncements.

 

Opportunity Two: Economic Volatility

While the threat of emergency powers might not be at issue in places where right populist parties are out of the government or are minority members of coalitions, that doesn’t mean there is no route for them to take to power. It is possible that the recession, or depression, that most economists surmise will follow from this crisis will create an instability not seen since the interwar period of the 1920s and ‘30s. 

While I don’t support the notion that history repeats itself, either as tragedy or as farce, it does appear to be true that economic instability in that period helped boost right-wing populists around Europe. Polling data from Germany in that era show the population veering sharply to the fringes of both right and left in line with economic downturns. Economic historian Niall Ferguson echoes and expands on this and similar evidence, emphasizing the three “E”s to explain how countries went down the path to the Second World War. He cites empires in decline, ethnic hatred, and economic volatility as the catalysts for disaster. Arguably, the first has an analogue in our time with the waning of Pax Americana, evident before the crisis in Trump’s tariff wars and his skepticism of both the post-War alliance between Europe and the United States and the international institutions established to keep peace. The second element is visible in the migrant crises facing Europe and the United States—until now, the bread-and-butter of right populists when stirring popular sentiment. If managed poorly, the fallout from the coronavirus and its prolonged economic shut-downs might bring the final factor into play. If no safe route out of quarantine is found, depression might be inevitable. In this scenario, right populists might do better even in places where they aren’t already governing.

Historical comparisons should not be taken as predictions but as warnings. They tell us, at least, what is possible. Too much has changed, and there are too many other variables at work to feel confident of likelihoods, but whether or not the romanticism of right populists prove injurious in the event, it may regain its luster in the aftermath.

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