The toxic masculinity of coronavirus denial

Populism isn’t the main predictor of a leader having a terrible pandemic response

Bolsonaro spit

By now we have witnessed some of the most astonishing levels of governmental incompetence in response to arguably the greatest human crisis of our lifetimes. On the right, there is Donald Trump calling it a “hoax” and using the pandemic as an excuse for further corporate enrichment, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro insisting that “Brazilians don’t get anything” and clashing with state governors that have enacted lockdowns. On the left there is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador who has breached social distancing and hygiene protocols in public with zero regrets and claimed that he is protected by religious amulets. At first glance, the common denominator seems obvious: populism. Almost all of the coronavirus deniers appear to be your standard “new right” populists as well as a few others on the left (like López Obrador). But there’s a better explanation. Bad pandemic responses are strongly rooted in the toxic masculinity of their country’s leader. And a good proxy for this is their attitude towards climate change.

Controlling nature

Why climate change you ask? Well, there is already considerable body of research that suggests that climate denial is strongly linked to toxic masculinity. Men are more likely to be climate deniers, less likely to adopt environmental-friendly behavior, and also more likely to interpret this behavior as being “feminine” or “gay”. The psychological underpinnings of this should be obvious. Men have been traditionally raised to think to be in control of nature, rather than let nature be in control of them. Polluting the water, extracting resources, and filling the air with smog are very manly ways to tell Planet Earth we are in charge. As for the flora and fauna, they exist to serve our needs. This idea is as old as the Bible itself, which calls upon man to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

Viruses, it just so happens, tend to be a part of nature too. One that is particularly frustrating to subdue, which probably feeds into further unwillingness to panic or to appear as if we were not in control of it. Some right wingers, like US Republican senator Lindsey Graham would like to “whip it’s ass” as if that were possible against a particle that is 120 nanometer small. Televangelists like Kenneth Copeland want to blow the “Wind of God” to destroy it. Leaders like Trump like to pretend that this is a war, and that somehow this is an enemy that we can beat on some imaginary battlefield. And yet the only way to beat this enemy is to accept that it has complete, total domination over our lives. We flee from it, by retreating from modernity and from our social selves and becoming the frightened cave dwellers that we once were, when a chance encounter with a wolf or bear would be the end of our existence.

The correlations

Now, let’s look at the evidence. In my book, The Glass Half-Empty, I made a list of “new right” populist leaders that have emerged over the past decade. I have also added Mexico’s López Obrador as being probably the only case of a “new left” equivalent. Now let’s correlate their pandemic response with their climate change views. For this, I use three different categories. The most extreme is climate denial, which basically involves a history of calling climate change a “hoax”, supporting dirty industry, or either refusal or reluctance to sign major international climate change treaties. The second category is lukewarm. This might not be all out denial, but rather a non-committal attitude to the problem that is more disinterest than actual hostility. Perhaps there is some rhetorical support for climate action but it isn’t backed by policy. Finally, the category of strong implies that the leader takes at least a minimally positive attitude towards climate change in both rhetoric and action even if not necessarily a climate champion.

The three categories are echoed in their rating for pandemic response.

 

Climate Change Pandemic
Austria Sebastian Kurz Strong Strong
Brazil Jair Bolsonaro Denial Denial
Hungary Viktor Orban Lukewarm Strong*
India Narendra Modi Lukewarm Lukewarm
Mexico Andrés M. López Obrador Lukewarm Denial
Philippines Rodrigo Duterte Strong Strong
Poland Andrzej Duda Lukewarm Strong*
Turkey Recep Erdoğan Lukewarm Strong*
UK Boris Johnson Lukewarm Lukewarm
US Donald Trump Denial Denial

* using pandemic response for political gain

As can be seen, not everyone among this new generation of populists have shown feeble responses to the pandemic. Duterte is possibly the most extreme example in that he has vowed to shoot people who violate lockdown rules. He is also, in contrast to his other authoritarian buddies around the world, a vocal advocate of climate action. Whether Sebastian Kurz is a climate advocate by conviction is hard to know (he has claimed immigration is as great a threat) but he is in government in coalition with the Greens and so is promoting a green agenda. Unsurprisingly then, Austria is notable for being one of the few European countries to undertake mass testing and tracing from the start. Others like Modi have been somewhat moderate in terms of their climate support as well as pandemic response. However, a number of populists have shown a relatively strong response to the pandemic which appears to obey political prerogatives, such as Erdogan and (especially) Orban using emergency measures to further consolidate power. Duda in Poland has used it for his advantage in the upcoming May election, which shows no signs of being delayed.

As for the deniers, Bolsonaro and Trump need no further analysis. Both have been two of the most criminally irresponsible world leaders in terms of their pandemic response as well as very vocal climate deniers. However, the other great pandemic downplayer, Mexico’s López Obrador, is not a flat out climate denier but has shown little interest in prioritizing environmental policy, as evidenced by some of his government’s flagship infrastructure programs being potentially disastrous to the environment coupled with his belief that climate policy must take a backseat to socio-economic development despite being intrinsically linked.

Final caveats

The one final caveat I would make is that using climate denial as a proxy for toxic masculinity ignores the many other characteristics of toxic masculinity that may be evident in a leader’s personality. Surely nobody would suggest that despite Duterte’s green credentials, a man who has publicly called women “whores” and claims to have shot drug offenders himself is in touch with his feminine side. Countries whose national brand may depend on their natural beauty (for tourism, for example) and which don’t have major dirty industry lobbies may also be less likely to show this correlation between climate and pandemic denial. This could explain the Philippines as well as another (albeit “old school”) left populist, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, who is also strongly supportive of climate change and yet has probably the worst  pandemic response anywhere in the world.

Still, it is hard to deny that the coronavirus represents a challenge to our control of nature, and that this particularly triggers those people who refuse to accept that fleeing from the virus is our only way to fight it. Little wonder that some of the countries that have taken the pandemic very seriously from the start and have undertaken exemplary responses to it (Germany, New Zealand, Iceland, to name a few) have one thing in common:

They are led by women.

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