Unlike Trump, populist leaders in Europe have been adept at taking advantage of the coronavirus crises.
The response by far-right leaders around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic has been one that has resulted in the US, India and Brazil leading in both infections and deaths.
While Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic in no small part contributed to his electoral defeat, a recent study indicated that far-right political parties in Europe have taken advantage of the virus to greatly benefit themselves.
Academics at Cambridge University have warned that the assumption that the pandemic has exposed “political incompetence of far-right parties in government and that far-right parties in opposition” is largely based on one case related to Trump “who is the exception rather than the rule.”
The conspiracy theories and fear generated by the coronavirus pandemic and the sometimes contradictory or draconian measures taken by individual governments, have given ample opportunities to far-right governments or opposition parties in Europe to strengthen pre-existing xenophobic messages.
In Italy, one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right Northern League party initially referred to the coronavirus as “foreign” or called it the “Chinese Virus.”
Another politician argued that the Italians were much better prepared to weather the fallout from the virus because they were superior to the Chinese in terms of hygiene.
The Cambridge study found a similar sentiment amongst the governing far-right Law and Justice in Poland, in which the country’s success in dealing with the virus is attributed to the “cohesion” of the nation.
Poland’s governing party has taken a hardline against migrants coming to the country and the coronavirus pandemic has been an opportunity to outline some of the benefits.
In Spain, a leading member of the far-right Vox party, which came third in the 2019 elections, tweeted “my ‘Spanish antibodies’ fight against the damn Chinese viruses.”
Many of these parties have long argued that migration is a burden for locals, and attributed the spread of the virus to outsiders. This aside, there has been little in the way of proof to back the theory up.
In France, Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, has suggested that multicultural areas, in particular those where Muslims reside, have been instrumental in spreading the coronavirus due to their blatant ignoring government rules.
A similar pattern has also taken hold in Germany where the AfD, the country’s own far-right party, has been quick to point the finger towards minorities and migrants as the source of the rapid spread of the virus.
A German government-commissioned study found that the pandemic has allowed the far-right “to strengthen its mobilisation around anti-government conspiratorial narratives, aimed at criticising the lockdown measures. These are interpreted as an introduction of a police state.”
It went on to say that the “COVID-19 pandemic is widely seen as an opportunity as far as the far-right” to mobilise people that are susceptible to conspiracy theories.
Germany has been one of the main countries at the forefront of the anti-vaxxer movement, with weekly protests against government restrictions aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus.
The long-term consequences of the covid pandemic, and the impact on far-right movements across Europe, are yet to fully play out. The resilience, however, of far-right parties to utilise the crises in a more sophisticated way than Trump, is a warning sign that with the American soon to leave office, European dynamics are different and arguably here to stay.