The politicians who played the Covid‑19 crisis badly

“Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson: these are men you wouldn’t put in charge of containing an outbreak of acne,” writes Ferdinand Mount, former head of Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street policy unit, in the London Review of Books.

Simon Kuper July 2 2020 

It is a shocking story. The US, UK and Brazil weren’t among the first countries hit by Covid‑19, so they had time to prepare. Admittedly, the health of ordinary Americans isn’t a Republican priority, but the US still spends as much on public healthcare as other developed countries. Add in private healthcare, and it spends more than any society in history. Yet American and Brazilian cases of Covid-19 are soaring as Europe’s and China’s fall, while the UK has one of Europe’s highest excess mortality rates. Within the US, states with ample time to prepare – Florida, Texas, Arizona – are now in full pandemic. Their governors, like Donald Trump, initially claimed to be prioritising the economy over the virus. Instead, they mismanaged both. Few people will risk dangerous illness to get a haircut.

All these places are ruled by mediagenic rightwing nationalists sceptical of credentialled experts. So are badly hit India, Russia and Belarus. A conventional social democracy can also mismanage Covid-19, as Sweden did, but it’s rarer. Why has this new category of leader got the virus wrong?

It starts with the attention economy. In an era of social media and nonstop news from endless outlets, the politicians who get most attention are those who create memorable, unusual, supposedly “authentic” characters for themselves. This system rewards narcissists and what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshitters”: people distinct from liars in that they have no interest in what’s true or not. They just say what sounds good. Their high verbal intelligence reduces their need for analytic intelligence.

Once elected, the leader immediately experiences hubris and boredom. For past leaders, this moment arrived only after about five years in office – the time it took for Tony Blair to decide to invade Iraq and David Cameron to call a referendum on Brexit. But those politicians thought their job was governing. The new men are communicators. For them, the game was the election; governing is the tedious epilogue.

Success breeds overconfidence. You silenced the doomsayers by winning the country’s biggest prize. How hard can governing be? You know the previous incumbents were idiots. So you avoid expert briefings, disband pandemic units or celebrate your triumph with continual holidays.

When your scientific advisers mention a boring illness in Wuhan, you ignore them. When it spreads to Italy and New York, your nationalism or red-state exceptionalism tells you that it won’t happen here. Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey wouldn’t let mayors make masks compulsory.

You are confident because you know nothing about the complexity of governing. Psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect: incompetent people don’t realise their incompetence. You are confident the virus won’t hit your citizens and it certainly won’t hit you, the chosen one. Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson (until he got ill) acted out their sense of immunity by shaking hands in public, setting an example for their followers.

Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings displays his own version of personal exceptionalism: his unexpected victory in the Brexit referendum proved that he is smarter than anybody else. That entitles him to ignore both the advice of expert scientists and the rules against driving across the country during lockdown.

When the illness reaches your country, your communicational instincts kick in. Your scientific advisers want to give dull, repetitive, depressing briefings about locking down for the long haul. You need a better script. So you delay lockdown for fatal weeks, constantly proclaim victory over the virus, seek attention (in Trump’s case) by recommending bleach injections and reopen early.

No matter that reality – an overrated entity – will soon contradict your proclamations of victory. Your timeframe is now. In the attention economy, as you learnt getting elected, even a news cycle is a long time in politics. What counts is scoring this minute – let this evening worry about itself.

Your election victory showed you that many voters will believe anything. In fact, a large subgroup will identify with the ignoramus over the egghead. Trump and Johnson have weaponised the insight of behavioural economists that humans aren’t rational beings pursuing their self-interest. In a divided polity, most of your supporters will accept incompetence (even if it kills grandpa) rather than switch teams.

Most of your cabinet members will back whatever you do. You chose them for loyalty, not for their competence at sourcing PPE. You have also gotten rid of trendy diversity: Trump and Bolsonaro surround themselves with rich white men (ideally relatives), while Johnson’s inner set is overwhelmingly male, private school and Oxford. Groupthink is the aim. If that makes it harder to correct the leader’s mistakes, well, you’ll take it. Just in case Britain’s civil servants have their own ideas, Cummings is now taking back control.

It could be that coronavirus ends the ride for ignorant nationalist bullshitters. However, they have shown before that they can defeat reality.