Opinion

Rebecca Huntley
Like Covid, populism isn’t over

As the Conservative Party wrestles with the task of choosing Britain’s next prime minister, it’s a chance to step back and consider all the forces that led to the political demise of Boris Johnson. He joins Donald Trump and Scott Morrison on the list of leaders who have lost office in the past two years. We can say with some confidence they were all a particular kind of Covid-19 fatality: their inability to manage the pandemic – both in terms of appearing to manage it as well as actually managing it – was the main reason the three of them went from victorious to vanquished in one election cycle.

At the start of the pandemic, I started delving into the now-burgeoning body of literature on “crisis leadership”. Through my work as a social researcher, I’d watched the Australian public react, respond and adapt to economic and political crises before – the global financial crisis, floods in Brisbane and fires in Victoria, terrorist attacks and prime ministers shafted and replaced. But I knew that the combination of unprecedented fires, a global pandemic and now unprecedented floods, all within a few years, was an altogether different environment in which to operate. There would be new reactions from the public and new expectations from leaders. Initially, there was a “reflexive” positive endorsement of leaders such as Morrison for how they reacted to Covid-19. Essentially, where there is anxiety and confusion, we turn to authority figures for direction and support. But that was bound to recede, perhaps sooner rather than later. Once the pandemic became the new normal, the community could unclench enough to critically evaluate the performance of their elected representatives – and find them wanting.

It’s hard to imagine these three men – Trump, Morrison and Johnson – spending any time reading books or academic journal articles about how leaders manage crises. But more fool them they didn’t hire people to do that and then advise. If they had, their future fatal errors would have been laid out for all to see. For example, in 2013 three academics from Leiden University in the Netherlands published an article entitled “Leadership in Times of Crisis: A Framework for Assessment”. In it, they ask, “What can we reasonably expect from crisis leaders?” and answer their own question with three points. Namely, “making things happen” – organising, direction, and implementing actions that minimise the impact of a threat. “Getting the job done” – forging co-operation across government and civil society and coming up with creative solutions when systems and resources aren’t working well. And finally, fulfilling a symbolic – and I would argue emotional – need for direction and guidance.

A systematic analysis of the failings of Trump, Morrison and Johnson across these three metrics would make for interesting reading, but let’s just take an example of each point. First Trump. If “making things happen” to minimise the threat is a hallmark of good crisis leadership, then pretending the threat isn’t a thing is clearly less than adequate. Trump and his apologists found a way to turn wearing a mask and getting vaccinated into a threat to civil liberties and freedom. These simple actions of self-protection became signs you were a sissy for the virus. In the first months of Covid-19 hitting his country, on February 27, 2020, to be exact, the former United States president claimed that “one day, like a miracle, it will disappear”. Instead, just over 400,000 Americans disappeared, the Covid death toll at the end of his four years. And while Trump blamed any economic downturn during his term on the pandemic, economists such as Robert Reich have argued it was his belligerent, negligent attitude to lockdowns, government support and basic public health protocols that led not only to this staggering death toll but also to the kind of social and economic disruption that makes it hard for local economies to recover.

This second measure – getting the job done, which means facilitating co-operation across government and coming up with creative solutions – is where our own former prime minister was a leading example of what not to do. In the early months of the pandemic, Morrison enjoyed decent levels of trust and confidence off the back of formulating a national cabinet and introducing JobKeeper and other initiatives to support households and businesses affected by lockdowns. These were actions that could be characterised as creative solutions and they facilitated co-operation. The bulk of that trust and confidence evaporated when it became clear government complacency had led to, among other things, an inadequate supply of vaccines, a badly planned rollout and, later in the year, inadequate access to the rapid antigen tests that would have allowed Australians to take a much-needed holiday, which in turn would have allowed regions reliant on tourism to start to bounce back. Rarely in my career have I seen so many Australians able to draw a direct line between bad government decision-making and their day-to-day lives. JobKeeper became HarveyNormanKeeper. And then people stopped listening to Morrison altogether.

The third and final point – the need for direction and guidance – could easily be shown as lacking in each of these three men. But to take Johnson as the exemplar, nothing undermines the public’s trust in your direction and guidance during a crisis more than having secret parties during lockdown and consistently lying about it. Spoilt teenagers behave better.

We will never know if it was Covid-19 that struck down these leaders or merely accelerated disillusion and distaste for them as individuals. The Leiden University researchers argue “the academic evidence that leadership is important during crises and disasters is impressionistic at best”. But we do have a well-developed understanding of what leaders do to make a crisis worse. “Ignoring impending threats, by making ‘stupid’ decisions, or by acting in ways that suggest they do not care.” All three men did that and more.

This last point, the “not caring”, is another interesting dimension to the demise of these men of inaction. All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, were excellent at coming across as “not caring”. Trump made it almost a point of pride. Caring was anathema to being a “tough guy”, which was his model for being an effective right-wing leader. Indeed, the election of Donald Trump in particular sparked a wave of commentary about the “era of the tough-guy leader’” and the “rise of strongman politics”. The theory behind this is that in times of increasing economic and social anxiety, complexity and now crisis, the public demands more “muscular, assertive leadership”. For this, read “authoritarian and macho”. Except Covid-19 has complicated this theory. The Leiden researchers argue that effective crisis management “saves lives, protects infrastructure, and restores trust in public institutions”. It doesn’t take a holiday in Hawaii while the country burns, or throw a clandestine party while the rest of the nation huddles in their living rooms, or spend a quarter of its waking hours on the golf course while the health system collapses. If you want to be a strongman you can’t also be this ineffectual and aloof.

You could say this all boils down to the public’s fundamental need for competence and trust from its leaders and you’d be right. It’s extraordinary how tolerant the community can be of political mendacity, corruption, bad decision-making and ineptitude, but everyone has their limits. However, it would be a mistake to assume the demise of Trump, Morrison and Johnson indicates some kind of Covid-induced shift to the centre globally or a wholesale rebuke of right-wing populism. While there is a basic expectation that our leaders be competent and not flagrantly corrupt, it can also be true these men just wore out their welcome. They were the most obvious targets for the public’s anger at the pain, loss and anxiety caused by the virus, lockdowns and all the other problems of the world during the past two years. And, you know, they were also bad at their jobs.

As political ideologies go, right-wing populism is a lot like Covid-19. It is resilient and capable of mutating to keep alive. It is so plastic, in part because it works on emotion rather than reason and is untethered to annoying little distractions such as evidence-based decision-making or acting in the public interest. Like a virus, it’s determined to spread.

Since Covid, I’ve noticed that talk of “freedom” has started to feature in focus group discussions in a way that it hadn’t before. The language has a clear American inflection, albeit with Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews rather than the US’s President Joe Biden as its main target. It is coming not just from people who are socially conservative and hooked on Sky News but also from people who feel particularly alienated from the processes of politics and government.

This is something the ultimate strongman of Australian politics, Peter Dutton, our alternative prime minister, knows all too well. And no doubt he will find a way to utilise it when the time is right.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Men of inaction".

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Rebecca Huntley is an independent social researcher.

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