Likability is a trait that politicians across the political spectrum seek to achieve during their careers. Achieving popularity among the masses requires empathy and rationality, two elements that politicians of the right-wing, many of whom believe they are “populists,” lack. With the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, an overwhelming majority of those political leaders who have seen their popularity rise are those who cared more for the health and safety of their constituents than in the value of stock market shares.
The linkage between political likability and possessing empathy for others is routinely seen in opinion polls. Although he is more of a religious than a political leader, Pope Francis has topped likability surveys over the past few years. The mere fact that the head of the Roman Catholic church is much more supportive of pandemic-related science-based public health advice than are the presidents of the United States, Brazil, and the Philippines is indicative of the unpopularity of right-wing leaders who are prone to believing conspiracy theories over hard science.
Without a doubt, the former television game show host and current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, remains as one of the world’s most reviled leaders. The hate-filled president is, in turn, despised by a majority of American voters. A number of historians and pundits now rank Trump as the worst president in the history of the United States, supplanting a few really bad ones like John Tyler, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover. It is noteworthy that the bottom tier of U.S. presidents in terms of popularity consists of all right-wing conservatives. Among the most beloved U.S. presidents of all time are noted moderates-to-progressives of their respective political eras, including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S Truman, John Quincy Adams, and James Madison. Conservatives of the upper tier of popular presidents include Ronald Reagan, John Adams, and Gerald Ford, who, although having adopted right-wing policies, enjoy general likability among historians, pundits, and columnists.
Likability and trust are intertwined in those who Americans most trust to make the correct decisions during the COVID pandemic. Scoring the highest are those progressive governors and a few Republicans, as well, who have broken from the pseudo-science and conspiracy babble of the Trump administration. A recent NBC news poll showed that 60 percent of Americans approve of their governors’ responses to the pandemic as opposed to 37 percent who disapprove. Scoring highest among governors are Democrats such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California’s Gavin Newsom, Washington’s Jay Inslee, North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, Virginia’s Ralph Northam, Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf, Louisiana’s John Bel Edwards, Illinois’s J. B. Pritzker; Minnesota’s Tim Walz, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, Oregon’s Kate Brown, Nevada’s Steve Sisolak, and New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham. Among Republican governors, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, and Phil Scott of Vermont far outshine their colleagues in Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Alabama, South Dakota, Tennessee, and other states who have danced to the Trump beat of incompetence and dereliction of gubernatorial duties.
Liability for progressive leaders also extends to Latin America and the Caribbean. One particular reviled leader is Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who infamously dismissed the COVID-19 pandemic as nothing more than a “common cold” and callously reacted to Brazil’s climbing death toll from the virus by saying, death is “everyone’s destiny,” stated that he tested positive for the virus. Bolsonaro’s comment was followed by news that his 80-year old mother-in-law had been intubated in a hospital after contracting COVID-19. Bolsonaro, who eschewed wearing a mask for a long period of time and saw his nation rise to second place after the United States in COVID-19 cases, generated little sympathy from Brazilians when he announced on July 6 that he tested positive for the virus. The lack of popular concern for Bolsonaro’s fate triggered a tweet from Bolsonaro’s son: “The immense number of people rooting for the death of the head of the executive right now should trigger an immediate show of solidarity from other leaders.” The news generated no show of solidarity from most Brazilians.
Remaining popular in Latin America are those progressive leaders who were sidelined by right-wing elements in their respective nations. These leaders include the wrongfully-impeached Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay; the wrongfully convicted and imprisoned former Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil; and the wrongfully-prosecuted former Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and Rafael Correra of Ecuador. Also popular in Latin America are certain tertiary-level leaders who rose to the occasion with regard to the pandemic. These include two Health Ministers under Bolsonaro, Luiz Mandetta, who was fired, and Nelson Teich, who quit, after resisting the incompetent COVID-19 policies enacted by the Brazilian president.
Female leaders have generally seen their likability and popularity remain high as their policies in stemming the COVID-19 contagion have received high marks from their citizens. Jacinda Ardern has become New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in more than 100 years based on her and her government’s handling of the crisis. With a nearly 60 percent popularity rating, it was Ardern’s quick lockdown of New Zealand kept the number of deaths in the country to low double digits, which ultimately permitted a careful reopening of the Kiwi economy. Ardern, New Zealand’s youngest prime minister, has spurred “Jacinda-mania” in the country. New Zealand is also the envy of other countries, including Australia, which has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases after wrong-headed decisions by that nation’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Another young female leader who acted fast in limiting the spread of the virus in her country is Denmark’s prime minister Mette Frederiksen. Like Ardern, Frederiksen acted fast in closing her nation’s borders in March and closing down the economy and public education, including kindergartens. Also receiving high grades for her pandemic response is Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Unlike Trump, Boris Johnson in the UK, and other conservatives, Merkel, a scientist by training, took her advice on handling the pandemic from doctors and scientists at the Robert Koch Institute, the German public health agency. The popular support that Merkel lost over her handling of the migrant crisis was regained in her resolute decision-making over the pandemic.
Spain was decimated at the outset of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in that country. But the Socialist government’s reaction to the crisis earned it high marks. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s likability remains relatively high, something that cannot be said about his male and more conservative colleagues in Europe, including President Emmanuel Macron of France and Johnson in the UK. Macron had early favorable ratings in his handling of the virus, but they began to drop off as the French economy began to suffer from the lockdown. Hard hit Italy has seen its center-left Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, continue to receive favorable opinion poll ratings. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to close his nation’s border with the United States has seen a marked difference in the spread of the virus south of the border as compared to north of it. Infection maps show the United States almost solidly red, while Canada shows only pockets of infection. Trudeau is also receiving popularity plaudits for his handling of the virus.
Johnson’s initial disinterest in COVID-19, followed by him and his top adviser, Dominic Cummings being infected by the virus, resulted in a collapse of public support for Johnson and his Tory government. Faring much better was the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, whose decisions limited the spread of the virus in Scotland. Sturgeon and her pro-independence Scottish National Party have witnessed an unprecedented rise in popularity with commensurate majority support for Scotland leaving the UK and going on its own.
The pandemic has provided leaders with the opportunity to show their meddle at governance. The right-wing reactionaries have failed miserably, while the progressives and socialists – those possessing empathy and an understanding for the science, have fared much better in the court of public opinion.
This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.
Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).