Why populism and nationalism are political viruses that endangerus all– Henry McLeish

Western democracies must wake up to the damage Donald Trump and his ilk are doing, writes Henry McLeish

Donald Trump takes questions from the press during a coronavirus briefing at the White House (Picture: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Life on planet Earth is complex, fragile and unpredictable. Our new millennium has already witnessed terrorist outrages, economic crises and significant threats to global health and wellbeing. Now the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant economic meltdown is delivering an unprecedented post-war challenge to both global institutions and national governments. There is a palpable sense of fear, as every aspect of life in the UK comes to terms with a new normal of dislocation, disruption, uncertainty and, for many, ill health and possibly death.

Amidst this crisis and hurt, the practices of political populism are being exposed. Not just because they are dangerous, but because they are capitalising on the coronavirus for political gain, undermining efforts to respond globally to its spread and endangering lives by disinformation and suppression of the facts.

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Distorting reality

Perilous times are being made much worse by our failure to expose how populists, like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and many others, are turning health emergencies into political campaigns and preventing the world from coming together to address common problems.

Trump carries the banner for populism, in the form of disaffection from mainstream politics and hostility to elites. He has emboldened others. Many western democracies are experiencing this political virus. Manifestations vary from country to country where different histories, ideologies and politics shape populist strategies. Core concerns are easily identified: ethnic nationalism, economic isolationism, authoritarianism, xenophobia – inciting the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign – and racism, are the dominant themes. These are backed up by deliberate efforts to distort reality, attack the mainstream media and blame someone for the misfortunes his “base” is experiencing: this is where the ‘Dear Leader’ succumbs to rampant racism and xenophobia to select the most useful scapegoat.

The US has a history of populism. This has often been a product of the politics of southern states, where race, poverty and white supremacy have boosted the far right and have built upon the legacy of slavery, segregation and fear. Trump has taken populism to new, but different, heights.

What is insidious about Trump is how he exploits the psychology of this pandemic. First, it was a hoax, a fake disease created by his enemies to harm his re-election chances. Second, it was a real pandemic but no need to worry, Trump was in charge, he would tell them his facts and his reality, while the truth was being suppressed, and lies were assembled into a believable narrative. Third, he personalises the issue and enthusiastically takes ownership, now using it as a political weapon to keep his base close and to ramp up his xenophobic behaviour. Fourth, by his actions, populism creates and maintains the political dependency of his base: polls suggest that more than 50 per cent of electors approve of his handling of the virus!

The real narrative is very different. A desperate and out of control president is trying to cover his tracks for the appalling neglect of his responsibilities and turning the United States into one of the most unprepared countries in the world to handle such a pandemic and to deal with the enormous economic consequences that would follow.

Trump is turning a deadly virus into a political virtue. His behaviour shows a lack of understanding of the importance of interdependence, internationalism and how interconnected we are, even in a world of enormous diversity.

Populism, in damaging contrast, promotes a world of conflict, chaos, protectionism and isolationism. For Trump every non-American is an alien, an infected immigrant, a threat to MAGA. Populism is making the world an increasingly dangerous place and undermining efforts to work together for the common good. What does populism look like? It means:

– The expulsion of New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post journalists from China, because Trump described the virus as Chinese.

– Trying, secretly, to obtain a vaccine for the virus from a German company, but for the exclusive use of America.

– Dismissing ideas of global cooperation and mocking the value of G7 and G20 meetings.

– Passing responsibility for the virus to the states of the Union, because he is keen to politically punish California and New York, who refuse to bow to his foolish antics and lack of action.

– That Representative Devin Nunes, a close ally of Trump, is allowed to say to his electors, “go to a local restaurant and enjoy”, maintaining this right-wing belief that despite people dying, you can do what you want.

– That Trump, in the minds of many experts, is so dangerous that he should be excluded from daily press briefings.

Wake up to the damage

Trump’s base still believes that this is not their problem and puts the blame on foreigners, including Europeans. They remain uncritical of Trunp’s moronic interventions and endless lies. Western democracies, including the UK, must wake up to the damage he is causing to the press, media, institutions, the legal system, international organisations and the truth.

Brazilian president Bolsonaro, emboldened by Trump, hates the press and the media and blames them for hyping up the issue and misleading people. He continues with his political rallies and describes the virus as Chinese. A member of the public described Bolsonaro as a “donkey in denial”. Like Trump he spreads disinformation. His role in the destruction of the rainforest is further testament to his unacceptable behaviour.

Finding a silver lining in the darkest of clouds, now engulfing the world, may be premature. But the coronavirus could inspire new ways of thinking about our social, health and economic interdependence and the need for stronger institutions to unify efforts to pursue global wellbeing, contentment and even survival. Populism and nationalism are cynical political exercises that are killing people, corrupting ideas of the common good and destroying efforts to work together under the banner of one planet.

There is an urgent need to counter, nationalism with a renewed sense of interdependence in the face of pandemics, economic crises, global warming and climate change, terrorism, war, poverty, inequality, the nuclear threat and the general abuse of our planet, by humans.

We need to do much more and inspire a deeper, broader sense of humanity that captures the idea of Victor Hugo. One of the great figures of 19th-century France, he worried about the nationalism of Napoleon, and conceived the idea of us all being Patriots of Humanity, rejecting nationalism and embracing an idea bigger than just being a patriot of your own country. What an uplifting idea.

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