By Casey Pupek
First recognized as an “unknown pneumonia” in Central China, Covid-19 quickly spread throughout the world. The first shocks of Covid-19 shut down cities in China, stunted global tourism, and sent university students home. The virus has taken a strong hold of some highly developed countries. Specifically, in the United States the virus is disrupting the populist rhetoric of current leadership.
Populist rhetoric is founded upon the idea that the democratic state has created “broken promises” for the “silent majority” of people . Populist then claim to be the only representative that can fix the ills of the democratic state . This claim continues with the notion that populist represent the wills of all people and reject the notion of pluralism within the democratic state . During the 2016 election, Donald Trump swooned the white working class with populism under the guise of “Make America Great Again,” articulating that the US Government has created broken promises for this group . President Trump promised to fix the “broken promises” of democracy, claiming that he is the one representative that can truly represent the people . Through his populist lens, Trump failed to acknowledge the diversity and plurality of the US . This ideology essentially rejects the noramilities of the democratic system. This rejection of normalities coupled with the shock of Covid-19 has uncovered the contention of populism within the democratic system and populisms failure to respond to a crisis situation.
At the start of the Covid-19 crisis,Fox News accused Democrats of hyperbole, in a weak attempt to support the meager response by leadership. This highlights how ill prepared populist leaders were for a crisis situation. Explained by political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller, populist can use crisis as a rallying call, however, the use of crisis as a tool is only as effective as the response by leaders . Populists tend to use easy fixes in responses to problems, in situations like pandemics, this does not cut it . When Donald Trump did declare a national emergency, his rhetoric focused on the privatized assistance through large corporation that dominate the American economy like Silicon Valley tech companies and big box stores . This reliance on private companies highlighted the poor healthcare infrastructure and systemic bureaucratic issues within the United States. Trump’s response became even more troubling when he promised to open the US by Easterrejecting the advice of lead scientists. The Covid-19 crisis highlights the many issues within populist governance as well as long standing systemic issues in the United States.
However, Müllers argument continues that through the actions such as “closing borders and putting one’s nation first,” populist rhetoric is actually supported by the necessary measures needed to contain the virus . This means that if the Trump administration were to effectively mitigate the issues of the Covid-19 outbreak, their response could be a highlight of the administration’s ability to govern and control crisis situations. Frighteningly, Müller suggests that populist may even use this crisis to strengthen their authority and divide the country, something Trump has already done by calling the virus “Chinese Virus” . So far, the limited response by the administration seems to confirm that a populist government is unable to respond to such a crisis of this magnitude.
The Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 crisis questions the ability of populist government. Populists disregard of democratic normalities, and rejection of science due to elitism has uncovered the shortcomings of populism. Additionally, these shortcomings have accentuated the lack of a strong healthcare and limited access to healthcare within the US. Also, the administration has not realized that by effectively responding to the crisis, they could reach a much broader set of constituents. Collectively, these issues serves as a test for Trump’s administrations ability to govern. Fundamentally, the response to Covid-19 by Trump leadership will rather secure his reelection or illuminate the current administrations inability to effectively govern and fix long standing systemic issues. Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  Müller, Jan-Werner. “How Populists Will Leverage the Coronavirus Pandemic.” World Politics Review, 7 Apr. 2020, www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28663/how-populists-will-leverage-the-coronavirus-pandemic.  Thomas Wright, Kurt M. Campbell. “The Coronavirus Is Exposing the Limits of Populism.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 6 Mar. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/geopolitics-coronavirus/607414/.