“Where does incompetence end and crime begin?” asked an appalled German chancellor in the First World War on learning that his chief military commander planned to renew his bloody but futile attacks on the western front.
President Trump is showing a similar disastrous inability during the coronavirus pandemic to shift away from his well-tried tactics of claiming non-existent successes and blaming everybody for his blunders except for himself. It is his first true crisis in his three years in the White House and, like that German general, he is visibly incapable of changing the way he deals with it.
Much virtual ink has been spilled over the last three years about the ineptitude and isolationism of the Trump presidency, and how far it will erode American hegemony. The pandemic has posed the question more starkly than ever before, but it has also provided something of an answer. Crudely put, the US will not remain the one single superpower if the rest of the world sees evidence day after day that the country is run by a crackpot who cannot cope with a global calamity.
More is at stake here than the future of the Trump presidency. Over the past decade, Trumpian nationalist populist leaders have taken power all around the world, and they too are being tested and found wanting. Without exception, they have shown themselves to be better at winning (or fixing) elections than they are at combating the virus. Some admit the gravity of the outbreak, but use it to enhance their power and silence their critics. Others reject social distancing and restrictive measures as unnecessary, or denounce them as a hoax cooked up by the media. What comes across in all these cases is that Trumpian regimes, for all their self-serving talk of threats, do not know what to do when there is a real threat to their nation.
In India, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, locked down his country with just four hours’ notice, forcing millions of jobless migrant labourers with little money or food to trek hundreds of miles to their home villages.
In Brazil, the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took an opposite tack, downplaying the crisis and defying his own health ministry’s appeal for social distancing by going into the street to buy doughnuts and mingle with his supporters: one film shows him wiping his nose with his wrist before shaking hands with an elderly woman.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is reluctant to do anything to stall the Turkish economy and is jailing journalists who say he is not doing enough for victims of the virus. In Hungary, the prime minister, Viktor Orban, used the pandemic as an excuse to pass a law suspending elections and enabling him to rule indefinitely by decree. The dire state of underfunded Hungarian hospitals is ignored.
What might be loosely called the Trump playbook – though much of it predates Trump, and has been used by populist nationalist demagogues through history – falls short when it comes to dealing effectively with a real rather than a concocted crisis. However, comforting though it would be to suppose that this would discredit leaders who pretend to be national saviours, this does not necessarily follow. In places such as Hungary, Turkey and India, the media is largely under the control of the ruling party, and news of its mismanagement of the crisis will be suppressed regardless of the toll.
Yet the pandemic is exposing the weaknesses of regimes from Washington to Delhi and Sao Paulo to Budapest. Autocracy has its disadvantages since, at the core of these governments, is a supreme leader with devoted followers who believe that he can do no wrong. Trump may have drawn back from his claim that he enjoys monarchical powers and can do without Congress, but the boast shows his authoritarian inclinations.
Crises expose the poor judgement of such dictatorial regimes, where leaders surround themselves with cheerleaders and courtiers who tell them what they want to hear. A diplomat in Baghdad once told me that among the senior lieutenants of Saddam Hussein, the only safe course was “to be 10 per cent tougher than the boss”. Trump may not shoot advisers who contradict him, like Saddam did, but he does sack them and shows equal intolerance towards dissenting views as the Iraqi dictator.
The Trumpian generation of leaders suffers from a further disadvantage: they come from deeply polarised countries, and are both the symptom and cause of those divisions. Minorities are persecuted: Muslims in India; Kurds in Turkey; Latin American immigrants in the US. The new authoritarians are happy to rule countries that are split down the middle, but they are finding that successfully fighting a pandemic requires a higher degree of national cohesion than they can deliver.
The pandemic will rock many of these regimes, but censorship and aggressive government PR may limit its political impact. The devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 only gained its name because Spain was one of the few countries that did not censor accounts of its ravages.
The coronavirus may ebb, or news of it be suppressed, but it will be impossible to hide the deep economic depression likely to follow in its wake. It was the Great Crash of 1929 that led to the rise of Hitler and the advance of communism, fuelling ever-increasing political violence in the 1930s. A post-pandemic Great Depression mark II may have a similarly explosive political effect, turning the 2020s into the same sort of troubled time in our century as the 1930s were in the last. Rival nation-states will once again confront each other and international organisations such as the UN and the EU, as with the League of Nations of old, will retreat into irrelevance. Enhanced international cooperation and integration, which once appeared to be where the world was heading, are turning out to be a mirage.
As Trump presides over the break-up of the international order and the ebb-tide of US hegemony, it is difficult to think of any historic figure that precisely resembles him. But one contender should surely be Kaiser Wilhelm II, the swaggering, opinionated German emperor with catastrophically poor judgement, who led his country to defeat in the First World War. As with Trump, he warned – somewhat prematurely – of the rise of China and “the yellow peril”. And, again like Trump, he forecast that the great crisis that he could not cope with would soon be over, promising his soldiers in 1914 that they “would be home before the leaves fall”.