President Donald Trump is handling the coronavirus more like the world’s authoritarian rulers than its democratically elected leaders.
Since the start of the crisis, advanced democracies — even those ruled by right-leaning parties — have listened to public health experts and taken drastic steps to safeguard both their residents and their economies. In the United Kingdom, for example, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is offering laid-off workers80% of their salaries if their employers keep them on the payroll.
The world’s authoritarians, on the other hand, have responded to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, with tantrums of paranoia and denial. As recently as last week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wascalling coronavirus a “little cold.” Vladimir Putinclaimed that Russia had conducted 200,000 tests but had found just 495 COVID-19 cases. In Turkey, President Recep Erdogan delayed imposing a full lockdown order,insisting that “the cogs must keep turning under every circumstance and every condition.”
By any rational calculation, authoritarian leaders should be using the virus to boost their own popularity. Instead, they’re taking a stance that will allow COVID-19 to ravage their populations and destroy their economies — both of which risk sparking popular movements against them.
Trump is following the same playbook. Though tackling the virus and offering generous relief to workers would likely improve his chances of winning the election in November, Trump has spent the last two months denying the virus’ existence, then downplaying its significance, then signing a skimpy relief package.
The effects of this mismanagement are already showing up in the polls. Nearly every world leader, democratic and otherwise, has seen a bump in their approval rating over the last 30 days. Trump’s bump was one of the smallest — and is already starting to fade.
Authoritarian populists don’t trust science and expertise in general and they mistrust scientific evidence. It’s a philosophy that defines how they approach everything they do.
Pippa Norris, Harvard political scientist
To most people, this represents a paradox. Why would Trump handle COVID-19 in a way that’s almost guaranteed to cause the most deaths, irritate the most voters and maximize his chances of losing the election?
To researchers of modern authoritarianism, however, Trump’s actions aren’t so confusing. The last 30 years have given rise to a new type of leader and a new way of doing politics. From Putin’s Russia to Bolsonaro’s Brazil to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, a global drift away from democracy has changed the way experts think about dictatorships.
“If you check the boxes, Trump fits the classic description of a populist authoritarian,” said Ronald Inglehart, a political science professor at the University of Michigan and the author of “Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World.”
“The message is always ‘rally behind a strong leader who will protect you from dangerous outsiders.’ That’s where we’ve been since his campaign started.”
A New Kind of Authoritarian
Dictatorships are not what they used to be. Since the end of the Cold War, authoritarian regimes have changed in two fundamental ways, both of which have profound implications for the global spread of the coronavirus.[the_ad id=”36113″]
First, modern dictators are more likely to mimic the characteristics of more liberal countries.
“Most dictatorships these days pretend to be democratic,” said Erica Frantz, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “They didn’t use to do that.”
As opposed to old-school authoritarians like Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong or Joseph Stalin, modern dictators are more likely to hold regular elections and allow popular protests. Their goal isn’t to terrorize their own populations. They simply want to convince them — through state propaganda and misinformation — that they’re doing a good job.
“It’s a more subtle and smart form of authoritarianism,” Frantz said. “In the past, there was no fooling ordinary people that the regime was repressive. Now, when it comes to things like restricting the independence of judges or shutting down political opposition, authoritarians are careful to maintain plausible deniability. The smartest dictators have huge numbers of citizens who don’t think they live in a dictatorship.”
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