Trump Is Gone (For Now), But Right-Wing Populism Is Still a Global Curse

With Donald Trump banished from both the White House and from Twitter, the United States is shifting toward greater responsibility and moral clarity both at home and abroad. President Biden is working to repair some of the damage done by Republican foreign policy, to reprioritize science and a concern for human wellbeing, to mobilize vaccine rollouts as swiftly as possible, and to take the lead in tackling climate change.

Not that American domestic or foreign policy was saintly before Trump took the stage. Far from it. But there can be little doubt that its direction in 2021 is a significant improvement on that of the last four years.

However, Trump was not the only rightwing populist on the world stage. A combination of unregulated social media disinformation, backlashes against modernism, efforts to retain undue privilege by domestic ethnic majorities at the expense of disadvantaged minorities, and the elevation advantage-taking con artists have all contributed to the a disturbing global alliance of incompetent authoritarians. Nations as diverse as Brazil, Hungary, India, Russia, Turkey, Poland, Israel, the United Kingdom and the Philippines have all empowered far-right leaders, most with clownish conservative temperaments and a habit of doing more to troll the orthodoxy of international decency than to serve their own people.

Many of those leaders are still causing extraordinary damage.

In Russia (despite a minor relentment in the last few days), Vladimir Putin has escalated a campaign of encroachment into Ukraine and brutal intimidation of political dissidents. The consequences of Brexit in Britain and Northern Ireland continue to be dire as predicted, with no sign of decency or remorse from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Rightwing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, already under the cloud of a corruption trial, is trying to rejigger the rules to remain in power however he can. Turkish premier Erdogan is persecuting journalists and throwing a fit over Biden’s planned acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. And so on.

Perhaps most consequential are the actions of erstwhile Trump allies in Brazil and India.

Both countries are now epicenters of COVID spread. While some of this is simply the result of impoverishment and lack of vaccine supply and materials–another chapter in a long history of colonialist oppression and advantage-seeking by wealthier countries over the global south–much of it is also due directly to the actions of the leaders of those countries.

In Brazil, rightwing populist Jair Bolsonaro has been openly dismissive of the pandemic and has refused to implement basic restrictions to bring the virus under control. Similarly, he has been belligerent against taking any action to curb environmental degradation or help mitigate climate change. Just today he slashed spending on environmental efforts one day after the U.S. Climate Summit:

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro approved a 24% cut to the environment budget for 2021 from last year’s level, according to official numbers published on Friday, just one day after he vowed to increase spending to fight deforestation.

Speaking on Thursday to the summit organized by U.S. President Joe Biden, Bolsonaro pledged to double the budget for environmental enforcement and end illegal deforestation by 2030. read more

The U.S. government applauded those targets, part of a shift in tone by the far-right leader, although many environmentalists said they would not take the rhetoric seriously before seeing real progress.

Less than 24 hours later, Bolsonaro signed off on the 2021 federal budget that included 2 billion reais ($365.30 million) for the Environment Ministry and agencies it oversees, down from 2.6 billion initially approved last year, according to the official government gazette. Spending can be adjusted over the course of the year.

In India, the COVID situation is catastrophic. It should be noted that the United States and Europe bear some responsibility for failure to act here: in particular, the United States is withholding raw vaccine materials from India in an effort to vaccinate Americans first. This is a controversial decision given the explosion of cases in India, combined with the plateauing of domestic vaccine demand. The United States certainly needs to vaccine far more of its population, but it is increasingly becoming the case that the issue is misinformation and lack of will, not lack of supply.

But rightwing populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been less than stellar in his leadership, as he continues to prioritize allowing re-opening and full participation in Hindu religious festivals while scapegoating India’s disadvantaged minority populations. As Rana Ayyub writes:

When the vaccine rollout slowed, there was no effort or coordination with the states as Modi’s cabinet indulged in a blame game with ministers from opposition parties. When states like Maharashtra, with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, shut down a majority of its vaccination centers because of a lack of vaccines, the government was not quick to step in. While epidemiologists, specialists and opposition leaders have long urged Modi to give approvals for foreign vaccines, the decision to give emergency use license to the Russian manufactured Sputnik V vaccine was only taken in the second week of April.

This is a moment when the country needs answers. Yet on April 20, when Modi finally addressed the nation about the growing crisis, he warned states that a lockdown should be considered a last resort, and called on young people to form committees to ensure COVID-19 protocols are being followed. On the festival of Ram Navami, he tweeted that people should follow the message of Lord Ram, the Hindu deity for protection, and follow “appropriate behavior.”

The address to the nation received a lukewarm response as the Prime Minister offered no immediate relief to the country. Many Indians called out the prime minister’s failure to take accountability. The hashtag #WeCannotBreathe is trending on Indian twitter.

At this critical juncture in its history, Indians have been left to fend for ourselves.

Far-right populists don’t just fail to meet basic standards of moral decency in the 21st century. They are also deeply incompetent in ways that harm not only their own citizens, but endanger the entire world.

Trump is gone at long last from American leadership. But the international community has a long way to go in ridding itself of destructive Trumpism across the globe. International crises require international cooperation, a prioritization of climate science and epidemiology, and a respect for basic human rights. The world’s most powerful countries deserve leaders who will work together to pull us all back from the brink.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.