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The Populists’ Pandemic

Because populist leaders of both the right and left have topped the ranks of incompetence during the pandemic, it has become common to claim that they will soon become its political victims. Alas, this may be wishful thinking.

LONDON – US President Donald Trump suggested that injecting them with household disinfectant might cure people of the coronavirus. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police and military to shoot dead anyone “who creates trouble” during the stay-at-home period. And in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied for weeks that the virus was a threat and continued to hug and shake hands with supporters, only to flip suddenly and impose a severe lockdown without warning.

Because populist leaders of both the right and left have topped the ranks of incompetence during the pandemic, it has become common to claim that they could soon become its political victims. Alas, this may be wishful thinking. The virus is lethal and ruthless, but alone it will not flatten the populist contagion curve.

The crisis has had one healthy byproduct: restoring a modicum of respect toward expertise. After making disparagement of experts a trademark of their political careers, both Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been forced to hold press conferences with their scientific advisers, who have openly contradicted their bosses when needed. Even worse, Trump has had to endure the indignity of a poll showing that Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, enjoys an approval rating nearly twice as high as his own.

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