Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.
PARIS — Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or not.
Countries may not always get the leader they deserve, but the coronavirus pandemic has certainly revealed what kind of leader they’ve gotten.
As hospital wards fill up and entire swathes of Europe and the United States go into lockdown, the high-pressure crisis is bringing out the best — and worst — of national leaders, boiling them down to their very essence.
Let’s start with Donald Trump. After weeks in which he downplayed the risk to public health, the U.S. president blamed the killer respiratory virus on China, the European Union, a Democratic Party hoax and the media, while heaping praise on … himself.
The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the president’s narcissism, ignorance and visceral divisiveness. His seeming inability to engage with detail or distinguish fact from wishful thinking has left senior advisers squirming in embarrassment behind him on the White House podium.
In other times, the world would have turned to the U.S. for leadership. Trump is too busy looking for people to hate to make even a pretense of being a unifying national leader, let alone a global statesman. “America first,” it turns out, means giving the finger to the world.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump’s soulmate Boris Johnson has been equally exposed for what he is. A talented showman who often seems more at home with nostalgic fantasy than fact, the British prime minister was slow to react as the virus swept across Europe without respecting Brexit or stopping at passport control in Dover.
The crisis has exposed Johnson’s tendency to chance his luck, improvise or distract in sticky situations and play for laughs or headlines, rather than mastering the detail of complex issues.
A man who thought his defining mission would be to “get Brexit done,” Johnson is now scrambling to emulate his political hero, Winston Churchill, as a war leader in adversity. But even as he ratchets up the World War II rhetoric and discusses matters of life and death, Johnson, a former celebrity quiz star, cannot suppress his inner clown.
This has certainly not been his “finest hour.”
Across the Channel, things are so far looking better. French President Emmanuel Macron is channeling his inner De Gaulle or Napoleon, radiating authority and solemnity. He declared war on an invisible enemy in two lengthy television addresses from his gilded Élysée Palace office. And he did not hesitate to send police and gendarmes out to enforce a ban on leaving home without a valid reason, with draconian fines that might be anathema in more libertarian countries.
Macron’s promise that the state would underwrite businesses and citizens “whatever it costs” is what the French expect of their president. His decision to suspend bitterly contested pension reforms during the crisis was smart.
But the coronavirus has also shown another side of the carefully coiffured chameleon who served in a Socialist government, ran for president as a centrist liberal and was moving to the right until the virus struck. Macron is now finding a political second wind as a big-state “dirigiste.”
Across the Rhine, Angela Merkel is stepping into a role she seems to have been designed for. The German chancellor’s measured, mother-of-the-nation leadership style contrasts with the martial tone in Paris and London, and the self-congratulatory bluster in Washington.
She ended a rare television address not with a solemn “God Bless America” or a rousing “Vive La Republique! Vive La France!” but with a humble, “Take good care of yourselves and your loved ones.”
Her fundamental decency and evidence-based decision-making have rightly restored her standing as Europe’s sure-handed leader. She has also displayed a surprising willingness to jettison Germany’s long-standing balanced budget dogma in such dramatic circumstances.
Even as Merkel endures quarantine after coming into contact with an infected doctor, the coronavirus had paradoxically given her a new lease on political life after almost 15 years in office, just when her power appeared to be finally fading.
The crisis’ most unexpected star has been Giuseppe Conte, a law professor from Genova plucked from obscurity to hold together an improbable, squabbling coalition of anti-establishment populist parties in 2018, and who now leads a more orthodox center-left government.
The Italian prime minister’s calm crisis management in the heavily indebted European country hardest hit by the virus has given the lie to Mussolini’s dictum that “governing Italians is not difficult but pointless.”
Conte took courageous action to impose strict confinement at a time when many in Europe dismissed the move as an overreaction. He has summoned up a mood of national solidarity with reassuring television addresses, promising that the state will take care of people and urging them to accept temporary sacrifices of their freedom of movement. “We will make it through this together,” Conte concluded his latest broadcast.
By contrast, far-right nationalist Matteo Salvini, who a few months ago looked on the brink of sweeping to power, has had a bad crisis, drawing widespread rebukes for filibustering in parliament to delay emergency economic rescue measures.
In central Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s conservative nationalist leaders responded to the virus predictably — by defiantly slamming shut their borders with other EU countries, causing long tailbacks and stranding thousands of Europeans in transit.
Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe his authoritarian rule, is now trying to use COVID-19 for a sweeping power grab that would enable his government to rule by decree indefinitely. He may yet manage to ram the legislation through a supine parliament using his Fidesz party’s two-thirds majority.
‘One of us’
And then there’s Mark Rutte, a somewhat stiff, almost technocratic politician who has shown himself during the crisis to be able to give the Dutch what they want from a prime minister: a down-to-earth, tight-fisted, “one of us” leader.
Rutte, who has refused to order a strict confinement on his freedom-loving compatriots, went on a supermarket walkabout to counter hoarding, assuring shoppers that stocks of toilet paper in the country were sufficient “to poop for 10 years.”
Whatever the virus has revealed — whether racism, frivolousness and authoritarianism or humanity, thoughtfulness and the willingness to learn — at least people around the world now know what their leaders are made of.