Populism 2.0. Why Johnson’s populism survived COVID-19 while Trump’s failed
The pandemic revealed differences between dishevelled, right-wing politicians who were previously very difficult to be distinguished
Ever since 2016, when the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union and Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, attempts have been made to identify key features of populism as a political phenomenon.
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, in particular, facilitated these efforts. They served as bywords for populism to such an extent that people automatically associated populism with a funky blonde hairstyle. Yet, the phenomenon is remarkably widespread, with Hungary, Poland, Brasil, India, Austria, Turkey, the Netherlands and many other countries more or less espousing the belief that there are simple answers to complicated problems.
Populism relies on communication, not on policies – something probably best portrayed by the fact that even Trump’s supporters had not believed his claims, yet they supported them. The objective of a populist leader is to separate politics from reality and to disguise this version of “reality” with his narrative. Both in the case of Donald Trump and the UK’s Vote Leave campaign, an image of corruption and heading in the wrong direction was presented. Both campaigns employed fear of mass immigration and initiated a backlash against the deeper implementation of human rights by claiming that this process results in undermining the “greatness” of the United States or “taking away control” from the UK public.
Simply speaking, the diagnosis of a populist leader to say what his constituency desires to hear has most significance, not the implementation. This is especially correct as neither making America “great again” nor “taking back control” by the UK could ever come true. New enemies could always emerge, keeping the narrative of a need to “get to work” and “get things done” alive, the evergreens of populist statements.
As far as a populist leader is concerned, in a world aroused by his or her words, the reality does not, or even should not ever be comprehended.
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In the case of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, however the coronavirus imposed reality on politics so brutally that pundits all around the world were quite eager to consider whether the pandemic could bring an end to populism.
In defence of those who enjoyed that thought, Trump’s botched response to the virus indeed cost him re-election. Despite attempts to use the same populist strategies, such as downplaying the crisis, bragging about his achievements and presenting simple ignorance as a means of escape, the reality proved to be stronger: numbers show that Trump’s narrative proved to be worthless in convincing voters about the social and economic stability of the country.
In March of 2020, when the pandemic had not fully engulfed the country, the Economist’s prediction of the electoral college vote still showed that the race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was quite tight, with Trump being the one more likely to win. This changed abruptly in April: when the necessity for an urgent lockdown became obvious to both the experts (or for the sake of argument – technocrats) and most of the public, the chances for Trump’s reelection fell like a block of cheese in the Gloucestershire festival. By election day, the cheese block had gone quite far: the Economist gave Donald Trump a three percent chance of winning. Thus, the pandemic had eliminated him from the White House.
Across the pond, however, Boris Johnson clung to power and year-and-a-half into the pandemic nothing indicates that he might be losing his job anytime soon.According to POLITCO’s UK poll in August of 2021 the Conservatives still enjoyed a stable, six percent lead over the Labour Party.
It is not difficult to argue that this difference in political trajectory is a result of the fact that Boris Johnson understood, in time, that he would not be able to simply talk his way out of the pandemic and its economic fallout. This realisation led him towards the development of something one could give the designation of Populism 2.0.
Donald Trump, however, clung to the old playbook of Populism 1.0. He relentlessly continued what he had previously done: blamed the experts (“the elite”); argued that they are a part of the opposition and that by doing their job they were putting his presidency in danger; pretended that nothing out of the ordinary was happening or blamed someone else. He went as far as to contradict the official statements of the chief medical advisor to the president, Anthony Fauci.
It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.
Donald J. Trump at the White House, February 27, 2020
“Think of this, if we didn’t do testing, instead of testing over 40 million people, if we did half the testing we would have half the cases,” he said in July when the number of Americans killed by the virus neared 150,000.
“‘It’s China’s fault, it should never have happened’’, the President said, before referring to the virus as the ‘China plague,’” CNN reported on the first presidential debate in October.
Boris Johnson’s initial intuition was very simple compared to that of Donald Trump’s.
On March 3, 2020, during a press conference in Downing Street, he appeared with his scientific advisor, and said: “I was at the hospital the other day, I think there are actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.
The press later reported that before he changed his stance, Johnson largely ignored the threat. He did not attend several emergency-room meetings about the outbreak and seemed to drive the country towards achieving herd immunity, that is letting the virus roam free in the society.
Later, however, the paths of PM Johnson and President Trump diverge. While Trump stuck to his original intuition, Johnson made a hasty U-turn. A mere 10 days after the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries argued against imposing lockdowns – “We don’t want to disrupt people’s lives” – Johnson appeared on television and gave the public a simple instruction: “You must stay at home”.
A similar pattern applies to how the UK had answered the economic fallout from the effects of the pandemic. Initially reluctant to use public money in order to sustain the economy – something that Trump embraced until the bitter end – Downing Street soon developed one of the most comprehensive and socially-minded economic programs, resembling rather those of Denmark or Germany than the Conservative Party’s long-standing market-favouring austerity stance.
Populism 2.0 is, nevertheless, still populism. If Donald Trump’s hard-boiled Populism 1.0 constitutes one end of the spectrum, it is not Johnson’s Populism 2.0, but Germany’s Angela Merkel’s technocratic approach that could serve as the other end of this pendulum.
Angela Merkel, who, after 16 years, still enjoys high approval ratings in Germany, lately largely as a result of her responsible response to the pandemic. Holding a doctorate in quantum chemistry, she embodies a technocratic approach to Covid-19.
Germany went into its first lockdown on March 22, 2020. It lasted until May, and was complemented by an unprecedented emergency relief package worth €156 bn. Since then, Germany has adopted an automated-response mechanism that triggers restrictions in answer to the rising number of cases. In October, large swathes of Germany were under curfew and hospitality and entertainment businesses were forced to close. Another strict lockdown was introduced on January 6, 2021.
There is nothing on Merkel’s record that could be perceived as her having downplayed the danger. The actuality is rather the opposite. As early as March 18, 2020, she seemed to comprehend the scale of the threat. In a televised address she said: “It is serious. So, please take it seriously. Since German Reunification — no, since World War II — our country has never faced a challenge that has so urgently required us to pull together in solidarity with each other.”
The German chancellor is not the only, but the most prominent of politicians who adopted a technocratic approach to the pandemic, largely allowing scientists to tell them what is needed to save lives and allowing their finance ministers to borrow at an unprecedented scale in order to support their economies through periods of easing and tightening of the restrictions.
Germany shaped its policies aimed at reducing the number of the infected and the number of deaths due to covid, two direct influences of the crisis on citizens (counting the economic ones as being indirect). The predictable results of a lockdown and further restrictions were lower numbers in both.
Populism 1.0 turned out to be a very efficient means of rising to power, and quite a good way of keeping it – as long as everything was, in the main, OK. This proved to be a very inefficient way of governing a democratic country when having to deal with a deep crisis. In countries without deep democratic traditions populists were able to resort to autocracy to preserve their power (as is the case in Hungary, Poland and Turkey).
Neither Donald J. Trump nor Boris Johnson could have succeeded in overcoming the checks and balances on a politically significant scale, although both of them tried. However, Boris Johnson understood that abandoning populism in such emergencies as a global pandemic would be a reasonable move in preserving his popularity among the public, as, at times, telling people what they want to hear does not work when the suggested diagnosis is too absurd to be plausible. Telling people that everything is fine when the situation is in point of fact life-threatening, is as naive as it is bold.
Angela Merkel has been mentioned as being, in the context, at one end of the technocratic pendulum, and what differentiates the “middle ground” Downing Street from her is inconsistency.
While Merkel’s Germany prohibited any public gatherings in sports stadiums in order to contain the spread of the virus (only in August of 2021 did German stadiums open with 50 percent or less capacity) – Johnson used sporting events in order to appeal to working-class voters who were eager to return to the stadiums during EURO 2020 (which took place in 2021). The classically goofy images of him posing with the England shirt helped him maintain popularity with his core voters – but also resulted in a massive surge in the number of cases in late July.
The same was done in regard to Johnson’s approach to other political questions. During Covid, he shifted between the technocratic and the populist image in order to increase the legitimacy of his decisions or to maintain support. The argument for “getting Brexit done” came to be somewhat modified, becoming “Doing the best we can”. Yet, his priorities were contradictory: keeping the number of Covid cases as low as possible, keeping the economy as open as possible, getting back to normal as soon as possible.
Countries with a technocratic approach to the pandemic – for example Germany, which successfully tackled three waves – used a one-target strategy: keeping the number of cases as low as possible while sustaining the economy through financial injections. Hence, the German government imposed strict regulations in order that the number of cases be kept to a minimum, while Johnson’s Downing Street juggled between all the objectives, which amounted to representing the redefined populist feature of insufficient achievement of purpose in either of them.
One can successfully argue the case that under his premiership the UK achieved the highest vaccination rates in Europe. However, the contrast with Germany once more reveals the populist aspect – the UK was the first country to legally authorize the emergency use of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine, earlier committing to buying millions of doses of various vaccines which were in various stages of development.
By ordering millions of doses of various vaccines, Johnson was basically betting on them to be means of ending the crisis, a gamble which paid off handsomely. At the same time Germany was waiting for more testing of the vaccine to be undertaken – something that resulted in the UK bolting ahead in vaccinations later, but what was considered to be reasonable at the time. It is echoed in a statement from the top US infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, who then said that the development of the vaccine was “rushed” (he later apologised for this statement).
This could be considered revolutionary in terms of the future of populism.
Boris Johnson recognised the flaw in this political strategy, yet he limited the technocratic response to Covid-related policies only. Furthermore, for most of the pandemic the Prime Minister attempted to escape the constraints of science-driven government and tell the electorate what it wanted to hear, whether it made logical sense or not. According to Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief aide, Downing Street was extremely reluctant to impose a second lockdown which was hugely unpopular among Conservative Party supporters. He did so finally, but when he had no other choice.
In the shadow, the narrative of “levelling up” the UK and “unleashing the potential of Britain” remained untouched. It remains purely populistic to tell the electorate that it is possible to develop every city in the UK to the level represented by London. Some Britons however, enjoy hearing it, and that is precisely the purpose: these ambitions are fictional. Moreover, Downing Street will not all of a sudden turn to economic experts for guidance regarding Brexit.
This leads to a logical conclusion: Boris Johnson went all-in with the vaccines, as this was not an abstract situation, but kept the populist narrative where the consequences of the decisions are not being fact-checked by reality.
Boris Johnson’s approach to state management should not be confused with general centrism, attempting to find the least conflicting solution. This is not the case here, as he does not retreat from controversy and thrives on conflict, often assuming radical and contradictory positions. The use of polarising methods, which cannot coexist, enable him to play both sides so as to come out on top on every occasion.
By keeping his statements sufficiently sane and his policies adequately effective only where that matters, Boris Johnson is employing technocracy in the same way he once used liberal left-wing rhetoric or when he re-stated himself as an environmentalist.
Despite the brief romance with science and responsible policymaking, Johnson is still a populist – just a smarter one than Donald Trump – and disregarding him as such would be a monumental mistake.
Politics & Society Section Editor
Yerevan, Armenia | Warsaw, Poland
Co-founder of Harbingers’ Magazine
Born in 2004 in Yerevan, Republic of Armenia, in 2020 Levon Nurijanyan moved to Warsaw, Poland for high school education. He speaks Armenian, Russian and English fluently and also has an advanced command of German.
His areas of academic studies include sociology, psychology and economics, while other interests largely include politics, international relations, philosophy and literature. He is a long-standing fan of the German Bundesliga and a self-taught player of the guitar.
Levon plans to study political philosophy and sociology; his articles cover contemporary politics, international affairs and political philosophy.
At Harbingers’ Magazine, Levon is the editor of the Politics & Society Section.