An old folk tale tells of an emperor who lived many years ago, in a far away country. He was so fond of new clothes and looking good, that he spent all his money on buying fine dresses.
He didn’t care about his people, or his country, the only thing he cared about was showing off his new clothes.
One day, two vagabonds came in. Hearing of the emperor’s expensive tastes, they pretended to be master weavers.
The vagabonds started going around saying that they can make the best (the greatest) clothes. These clothes also had magical properties, because the people who were unfit for their office or stupid would not be able to see them.
Wanting to make himself great again, the emperor decided to hire these pretend weavers to make him the greatest gown ever.
Not only would these clothes make him look good, they would also help him to find all the people in his empire who were stupid or unfit for office.
The emperor gave the two con men lots of money, and they started “working”.
When they finished, the emperor came in to put the clothes on. Of course not seeing anything, he pretended that what he saw was the most magnificent attire ever.
When he walked out, all the people, trying not to appear stupid or unfit for their offices, complimented him and sang praises to his magnificence.
He then proceeded onto walking in the streets, naked. All the people were shouting how great he looks and how awesome the clothes are. The emperor kept on walking, thinking he was on top of the world.
Yet, as he continued, one little boy looked at him, and saw the emperor for what he was, a naked guy walking around in the streets.
He shouted: “But the emperor has no clothes!”
At first, everyone was quiet, but then the populace woke up, realizing that the emperor indeed has no clothes. It was not them who was stupid, but the emperor.
The coronavirus is the boy who revealed that the emperor is naked
On March 6th, as the coronavirus was starting to make its mark felt around the world, Donald J. Trump, the current US president toured the Center for Disease Control (CDC) premises in Atlanta, Georgia.
Surrounded by a group of the country’s highest officials in charge of fighting the virus, Trump went on to give a speech about the efforts of his administration to battle the coming pandemic.
Instead of outlining the plans to fight the virus, the president went on to downplay the threat, rather engaging in a round of self-praise. “As of right now and yesterday, anybody that needs a test can have one, that’s the important thing, and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect, the transcription was perfect.”
Not only were the facts not true, Trump showed what he really cared about, himself. Not only did he not demonstrate an inkling of care for the people who were suffering from the virus, he didn’t even want a cruise ship carrying sick people to disembark its passengers.
As he stated, the reason was because “the numbers would go up.”
In this one speech, the emperor showed how naked he was. Instead of showing empathy, and warning people of the crisis ahead, Trump talked about manipulating statistics, perfect phone calls which weren’t really perfect, and himself.
The truth didn’t matter. It was only the image that counted. It’s all about looking good, even as Rome burns.
Immediately, all his sycophants praised the emperor, and disparaged the people who were warning of the dangerous times ahead. The virus was a hoax, concocted by the enemies of the president.
Everything was going to be all right. You just watch.
The populist leaders are showing their true colors and lack of leadership skills
This is a pattern that has sadly been replicating itself around the world. Recent years have swept populist, wanna-be authoritarian leaders into power in many countries around the world. It’s not only Donald Trump, but also the Brexiteer-in-Chief Boris Johnson in the UK, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin in Russia, as well as many others.
The pandemic has revealed the true colors of these supposed leaders. Full of promises of making their countries great again, they are failing at a time when it matters most.
Their campaigns were built on lies, and grand gestures, but this pompous rhetoric is revealing itself to be naked when a real crisis is at hand.
When the experts that they railed against, and the evidence that they tried to deny, should be at the forefront of fighting this growing scourge, they are burying their heads in the sand, accusing everyone of trying to topple them from power with this “hoax” of a threat.
Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president who was previously known for denying that the Brazilian rainforest was burning, instead blaming the problem on Leondardo di Caprio, is once again making headlines with his pearls of wisdom.
According to him, Brazilians are immune to the virus. They can bathe in excrement, and nothing will happen to them. Just like Marvel heroes, they will jump out with new superpowers. “They never catch anything. You see some bloke jumping into the sewage, he gets out, has a dive, right? And nothing happens to him.”
Boris Johnson, initially bet his money on “herd immunity”. While this approach sounds more scientific than the one touted by Trump and Bolsonaro, it has the markings of his chief adviser Dominic Cummings all over it.
Nicknamed “Rasputin”, in reference to the crazy monk who was the power behind the throne in Russia towards the end of World War I, Cummings is known for his experiments.
However, his calculations usually fail to take into account the real impact on actual lives that these experiments can have. According to some reports, he has been quoted as saying that the UK should not enact strict confinement measures, instead keeping everything open, and “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”
Leadership requires a vision
Getting a nation through crisis requires a different type of skill than simply winning elections, or even staying in power when the times are good. It requires for the leader to have a vision that extends beyond himself, and the ability to make decisions, which might not be in their own self-interest.
If your only care is your own popularity and whether you get re-elected, you cannot have the systemic type of thinking that is required in today’s interconnected world.
All decisions have second- and third-level consequences, and can set off different types of feedback loops spiraling out of control. Embarking on any course of action requires weighting the different options, planning, and then executing.
Populist politicians excel at offering simple solutions, and pointing the finger, but a pandemic reveals these tactics for what they really are, a shell game.
Pandemics require making unpopular choices, ones that will often cause a lot of hurt. They also demonstrate that instead of blaming everyone else and creating divisions, you need to start building coalitions and working together.
Populists politicians don’t have these skills. Despite Trump’s self-promotion as a “builder” and “negotiator”, the average populist’s greatest skill is destroying bridges and pitting people against each other.
What will happen to populism after the coronavirus crisis?
The world after the end of the pandemic will be greatly changed. That’s for sure. However, as to what will emerge out of the rubble is a bit less certain.
A lot will depend on how the crisis will play out. At the moment, we still seem to be on an upward curve, with the number of infected (and unfortunately also deaths) accelerating. If this trend continues, and likely worsens, this could spell trouble for the political futures of the current crop of populists and wanna-be strongmen.
However, will this also mean the end of populism and a more inclusive, more collaborative society? There, the air is foggy. As with any crisis, many mistakes were made, which could be wind to the fire of new populists rising up.
Any crisis has its dangers, but it is also a learning opportunity. Hopefully, society will learn that falling for the simple solutions and bravado of populists is not the answer, and in fact can doom them when a real problem hits.
Yet, looking at humanity’s history, there is one lesson from the past that always stands out: humans are very creative in finding ways to shoot themselves in the foot.
Let’s hope that this crisis will serve as a wake-up call.