COVID Denial Sunk Trump, But Smarter Right-Wing Populists are Thriving | Opinion

Now that Donald Trump has lost the presidential election, we should ask if far-right populism of which Trump is the embodiment will also be defeated in other countries?

Over the past week it's been interesting to watch how regimes that have worked from the Trump playbook have reacted to Joe Biden's victory.

Hungary's Victor Orban, who in September declared a Trump victory his "Plan A"—to the extent he claimed he had no plans for any other outcome, eventually wished Biden "good health and continued success". In Britain, the right-wing pro-Brexit media which had placed considerable faith in U.S. support for Brexit is now concerned that Joe Biden's avowed Irish identity will put the White House in direct conflict with an increasingly nationalist government agenda. On Sunday, British cable news viewers were treated to the spectacle of foreign secretary Dominic Raab refusing to agree with the sentiment "all votes should be counted." Meanwhile leaders such as Putin, and Brazil's Bolsonaro remain conspicuously silent.

We can only speculate about their differing reasons for such poor manners: Is it fear of a similar future defeat? Fear of losing support for their illiberal policies? Or fear of having to conduct very different future relationships with the U.S.?

We must also wonder what the fact that Kamala Harris has become vice-president elect might mean for conservative men who thrive on their hypermasculinity. Will they be able to accept and respect Kamala Harris?

While the ideologies of leaders such as Orban may not be entirely identical to Trump's, there are enough similarities in style for them to worry that their own citizens will reflect Trump's defeat back onto their own rulers; an obsessive demonisation of liberals - and the liberal media in particular - as an "enemy within"; nativist rhetoric that can only speak of immigration in catastrophic terms borrowed from war or natural disaster; and, in Europe in particular a sort of "welfare chauvinism" that sees benefits and resources allocated according to tribal loyalty rather than need.

But the main factor in Trump's loss is the one point where nationalist leaders—with the notable exception of Bolsanaro, can distance themselves from events in the United States: Orbán, Putin and Erdogan have never denied or underplayed the pandemic and the emerging health and economic crises—likewise Salvini in Italy and Le Pen in France. They can easily rationalize and blame Trump's defeat on his huge failure in dealing with the pandemic.

A Trump defeat may be seen as a blow for right-wing populism, but it would be complacent to imagine the phenomenon is fatally injured.

Across Europe policies the Trump White House could only have dreamed of are being implemented. Just before the US election, the Polish parliament voted to effectively criminalise abortion; in the days after Biden's victory, the British government was to be found proudly announcing that it had ended freed of movement, restricting access to its labor markets for millions of Europeans. Demonization of liberals, denial of the climate crisis, of science and scientific evidence have become part and parcel of everyday discourses.

These are here to stay.

What we may certainly witness is a softening of tone. During the Trump years, what I have called "shameless normalization" took hold—whereby provocation and scandal, once taken to be anathema to effective politics, became the modus operandi. Trump did not invent this phenomenon—politicians such as Jorg Haider in Austria, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi thrived on provocation after provocation—but he certainly mastered it and made an example for others to follow. The technique, sometimes characterized as the "dead cat strategy" pioneered by Australian election guru Lynton Crosby (drop a dead cat on the table and people won't talk about anything but the dead cat) served its purpose both in distracting from questions on policy and in keeping supporters hooked to the outrage hit.

So in Italy in 2019, we saw Matteo Salvini campaigning in front of a fascist era monument to Mussolini, telling supporters "You'll get me in trouble," with a nod and a wink. In Hungary, Orban's battles with George Soros and his antisemitic attacks on the philanthropist's Budapest-based Central European University had very little to do with policy and everything to do with headlines.

This kind of explicit outrage generation may be dulled as populists attempt to get the measure of how to deal with a Biden administration.

But importantly, rejecting an abrasive tone does not imply the rejection of the content: Beneath a thin layer of civilized polite manners, authoritarian attitudes are becoming increasingly visible. One recent poll suggests that in some former communist countries, less than half of respondents believe in "liberal democracy with regular elections and multiparty system" In my native Austria, the 2019 Austrian Democracy Monitor showed that approval for an autocratic leader has increased the most among the upper third of the Austrian population (from 15 percent to 23 percent between 2018 and 2019.)

The populists' king may have been dethroned, but populism is by no means dead. The previously unsayable will remain sayable. The clock cannot be turned back overnight.

Professor Ruth Wodak is the author of The Politics of Fear: The Shameless Normalization of Far-Right Discourse, published by Sage.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.