A crucial question as 2020 draws to an end is whether the COVID-19 pandemic or Donald Trump will prove to have left the biggest impact on global politics. The first answer is that neither story is yet over, so we should not rush to judgment; in Trump's case, although he will not be U.S. president after Jan. 20 he will carry on playing a central role in the politics of the world's leading superpower. The second answer, however, is that the two cannot be considered separately: in many ways, their impacts are intertwined.
We can already say that as president, Donald Trump has had two highly significant impacts on global politics: he has reduced the global credibility and prestige of the United States, both by his actions over four years in office and through his administration's handling of COVID-19; and he has institutionalised the practice of lying, at the very pinnacle of power in the world's most influential democracy.
The blows to U.S. prestige and credibility could, in principle, be reversible. The U.S. has suffered such blows before, most notably in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon was forced to resign over Watergate and the U.S. suffered defeat in the Vietnam War. Like then, the U.S. could still recover. The institutionalisation of lying as a means of government and political leadership could, however, prove harder to deal with. And whatever happens in the U.S., this phenomenon has already proved influential around the world.
Following Trump's defeat in the presidential election, he received little support from other populist political leaders, whether in Europe or in the United States. But populists such as Britain's Boris Johnson, Hungary's Viktor Orban or Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro have not been supporters but instead admirers and emulators of Trump's political style, which means there is no reason why they should change their own political methods just because he will no longer be in the White House.
Moreover, as the social and economic aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic play out, most likely with increased income and wealth inequality in many countries, with numerous sovereign debt crises in emerging economies and with a wide variation in economic performance between countries, there is a high likelihood that populism will start to spread further again, especially in the world's democracies.
Populism is a response to a loss of hope and a rise in alienation among voters, whose trust and belief in traditional political parties has faded amid economic stresses. When the 2008 global financial crisis produced a very weak economic recovery, with worsened inequality in both the United States and Europe and a deep sense of unfairness, populist politicians gained ground in democracies, bringing Trump to the White House and leading Britain to vote to leave the European Union. It will be surprising if something similar does not again happen in some democratic countries following the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Trump and other populists have proved in recent years is that telling lies can be a very effective means of securing and then using political power. This has always been true of dictatorships, where the propaganda in the Soviet Union, North Korea or on many issues China has used outright falsehoods and distortions of the truth to manipulate public opinion and exert control. Although many politicians in democracies have also told lies, no one before has successfully institutionalised the use of lies in a democratic system.
In one sense, neither has Trump. Otherwise, he wouldn't have lost to Joe Biden. But he has still shown how powerful lies can be in rallying support for his cause, despite the presence of a free media and all the constitutional protections for free speech. In fact, he has exploited those very protections when he has slandered his opponents, accusing them of corruption and other criminal acts without providing evidence, and is doing so now when making his claims that voter fraud has denied him his rightful election victory.
He has produced no evidence for that fraud, presumably because he doesn't have any. But he has proved that to exert political persuasion and power he doesn't need proof and facts. Just by broadcasting his propaganda he has succeeded in building mass support, with the shocking result that a legal case brought by the state of Texas claiming there had been fraud in other states' elections was supported by 17 Republican state attorneys-general and 126 Republican members of the House of Representatives. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the case.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, is a less extreme case than Trump. Yet he has nevertheless used many Trumpian tactics during both his rise to power and his current negotiations with the EU over Brexit. He tells lie after lie after lie. So far, he has found that this is a very effective way to gather political support, from voters as well as parliamentary colleagues. That is how he won the Brexit referendum in 2016 and a general election one year ago.
This institutionalisation of lying as a successful means to win support in democracies is a very dangerous trend. If it is maintained and continues to be successful, it risks destroying all trust in democratic political institutions. The power of social media as a means for direct communication with the people is partly responsible, as is the fragmentation of traditional media, especially TV. But other causes include popular distrust of science over COVID-19, of economic policies since 2008 and perhaps in 2021, and anger at social injustice more widely.
There are other forces in global politics that are less negative for the democracies. The COVID-19 pandemic has not, so far, made China a more attractive partner or model for other countries. It has been a lot more successful than the U.S. in managing the virus, but so have other East Asian countries, many of them democracies. Moreover, during 2020 China seems to have become less friendly to its neighbours and to other countries, not more; its actions over trade and the East China Sea, and in response to calls for investigations into the virus's origins, have become aggressive and even predatory. It shows no sign of wanting to replace the United States as a global leader.
Nevertheless, to return to the caveat at the start of this article, it is too soon to make a firm judgment. The pandemic has hurt America and its reputation. That hurt may deepen in 2021 and beyond, or it may ease. China may start to behave differently once more and more countries that have borrowed money from it start to get into difficulties. Democracy as a system could be endangered further by populists and institutionalised lying. We are going to be living with the effects both of the pandemic and of Trump for many years to come.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)