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Scott, Boris and Donald walk into a pandemic

Today, social researcher and contributor to The Saturday Paper Rebecca Huntley on the fall of the so-called strongman and what’s next for right-wing populism.
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The rise of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison was seen as a triumph for a special kind of opportunistic populism. Much was written about what their success meant for democracy.

So what does their decline mean? Was the repudiation about their politics - or about a world in crisis?

Today, social researcher and contributor to The Saturday Paper Rebecca Huntley on the fall of the so-called strongman and what’s next for right-wing populism.

Guest: Social researcher and contributor to The Saturday Paper Rebecca Huntley.

Read Transcript

[Theme music starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones - this is *7am*.

The rise of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison was seen as a triumph for a special kind of opportunistic populism. Much was written about what their success meant for democracy. So what does their decline mean? Is it about their politics - or a world in crisis?

Today, social researcher and contributor to *The Saturday Paper* Rebecca Huntley, on the fall of the so-called strongman and what’s next for right-wing populism.

It’s Monday, July 18.

[Theme music ends]

##RUBY:
So Rebecca, my first question for you is, where were you when Boris Johnson resigned and what did you think when you saw the news? 

##REBECCA:
Well, I was probably, you know, scrolling through social media. 

##Archival Tape – Journalist:
“...The number 10 door is opening, Boris Johnson is coming out, I will get out of the way…”

##REBECCA:
And feeling like it was a question of, you know, not if, but when.

##Archival Tape – Boris Johnson:
“Good afternoon, everybody. Good afternoon. Thank you. Thank you.”

##REBECCA:
And I think what's interesting now is, is the kind of jostling for who will take his place.

##Archival Tape – Boris Johnson:
“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister.”  

##REBECCA:
But I suppose it's interesting to have looked back, given the actual moment of party-gate happened so long ago, about how not only that kind of initial mistake, but how badly they managed it…on going on top of other kinds of things. So when it finally happened, it really felt like something that could have happened at any time in the last six to seven weeks.

##Archival Tape – Boris Johnson:
“And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them's the breaks.”

##RUBY:
And obviously, Boris Johnson was grouped with Donald Trump and also at times our own former prime minister, Scott Morrison, as this kind of populist strongman-style conservative leader. When you look at the three of them together, how alike do you think that they really are? 

##REBECCA:
Look, I think this is interesting. You know, when Donald Trump was first elected, there was some really interesting work coming out of academia in the United States that did some really useful, I suppose, cross-cultural analysis of these kinds of governments including places like Europe and South America, democracies like Australia, the United States and the UK, to see if there was some common traits. And you don't want to generalise too much, but I think that one of the things that this work showed, it was coming out of the Kennedy School of Harvard, was saying that critical to all of them was actually a kind of social and cultural anxiety around change. So there is that kind of common trope, which is that these authoritarian, right-wing populist governments find, I suppose, the pressure point in the culture at the time with enough cohorts of voters and they twist it. And the thing that really frees them to do that is they're, let's say, less attached to evidence based decision making and the truth and then other political ideologies.  And they're just very good. They're very kind of… they've got - to use a great Jewish word - they've got a kind of chutzpah and just a shameless ability to attack the elites, even though all of them are kind of… you almost can’t imagine anybody more elite than Boris Johnson. 

##Archival Tape – Boris Johnson:
“It is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance and toffishness and twittishness. But, you know, it was great fun at the time.”

##REBECCA:
You can't imagine anyone more privileged than Donald Trump within their culture, but they get away with that. It's really quite extraordinary.

##Archival Tape – Donald Trump:
“I don't need anybody's money. I would have more money than anybody ever. I've had friends say, `Donald, can I give you 10 million?’”

##REBECCA:
And the kind of, you know, that daggy dad everyman act of Scott Morrison 

##Archival Tape – Scott Morrison, singing:
“Take me to the April sun in Cuba. Take me to the …I can't remember the words.”

##REBECCA:
So there's some common tropes… in-common characteristics, you don’t want to over egg them a bit. But it's interesting to see how those kinds of figures fare when you have a full blown fair dinkum global crisis, which has multi dimensions and how… kind of... how they stand up in that kind of environment despite their "I'm a strong man and I'm going to do stuff" rhetoric. Can they actually pull it off when the going gets tough? 

##RUBY:
Mmm. And all three men who we’re speaking about - they all lost office after just one term. And there has been a lot of commentary about why that was and whether this really marks the end of their style of politics. But when you take a look at it now, why is it that you think that they actually all lost power, one after the other? 

##REBECCA:
Look, I think there's so many elements and some of those are specific to the political culture that they're in. But I think that, you know, the Covid pandemic is genuinely unprecedented. Certainly in my time as a as a researcher, 20 years of particularly looking at Australians respond to crises, whether that be a terrorist crisis or GFC, kind of doesn't matter. This is just like nothing we've ever had. And so it may have been that any leader was going to be a target for eventually a target for voter anger at the ballot box. Certainly all three of them handled crises incredibly badly. And one of the things that they ignored was the important symbolic and emotional need for that the population have for this kind of care and guidance and leadership and leadership and in a kind of a much less macho way and in a much more kind of basically competent, reasonable, empathetic way, which is clearly what a lot of, you know, the majority of people respond to. So they kind of made all the big mistakes. If you look at the literature around crisis leadership, they made all the big mistakes, all of all three of them. So I think there's a lot of things that they did themselves and that the times have done to them. 

##RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment

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##RUBY:
Rebecca, you're saying that the downfall of Boris Johnson and Trump and Morrison, it's about their failure when it comes to leadership in a crisis. But what is it that we actually expect from leaders when something like a pandemic is happening? What does the research say? 

##REBECCA:
Well, a lot of the research shows that what people want is early recognition that something's happening. So and to actually, you know, set out a plan. And even though that plan might change, to be quite forward on the front foot about it. 

##Archival Tape – Donald Trump:
“A lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat. We're in very good shape.” 

##REBECCA:
One of the big mistakes that Donald Trump made is that he just continued to downplay the pandemic and said it wasn't a thing.

##Archival Tape – Donald Trump:
“I want people to have a certain freedom and I don't believe in that. No. And I don't agree with the statement that if everybody wears a mask, everything disappears. Hey, Dr. Fauci said ‘don't wear a mask.’ ” 

##REBECCA:
And so, you know, in his term, 400,000 Americans died of COVID and some of those deaths were preventable and that's the deaths we know. Then the next thing they want is really kind of a creative collaboration, saying, look, we're going to marshal everything that we can with the government and act external to the government, to find a creative response to this. And this is of course where the Morrison government failed. 

##Archival Tape – Scott Morrison:
“Our vaccination programme and strategy is on track and that's confirmed again by the visit that the Minister of Health and I have made here today”

##REBECCA:
They didn't look like they were on the front foot. They were very reactive in many ways. They let the states do the heavy lifting and they missed an opportunity for really showing that they were donning, protecting and really providing a framework for the response. And that was in many ways where they failed.

##Archival Tape – Radio host, Jason Hawkins
“Can you just say ‘Sorry Jase’. It'll make me feel so much better. And then, I feel like I can move on.”

##Archival Tape – Scott Morrison
“What we're doing is fixing the problems and getting on with it, and that's what we have to do. And so we've had our problems, there's no doubt about that. And they’re problems that aren't always things within our control and that's the nature of Covid-19.” 

##REBECCA:
All of them missed the important role of symbolic leadership and guidance. And there is really a lot of research and a lot of literature that shows that people really want to feel that their leaders are at least present. They may not necessarily hold a hose, but they are around supporting the people that do hold the hose. And, you know, Donald Trump spent quite a lot of his presidential term on the golf course. Somebody having a party, somebody in Hawaii, all of that stuff in and of themselves as small moments aren’t a problem, but within a lot they tell the public that at a larger level, something's being missed. Something is not being done. And of course, more than any other event, in 20 years of research, it was clear because I was doing focus groups the whole way through. For the first time in my entire research career, the majority of people could draw a direct line from a bad decision made by the federal government and what they were going to do that very day. And it absolutely incensed people. And so you can kind of you can see all those kinds of things playing out and unravelling because in a sense, these men lacked seriousness and competency, which again, undermines their kind of, I'm a strong man, authoritarian, you know, you know, clear thinking, straight talking kind of individual man of action. And they ended up being really quite deflated and hollow by the end of their tenures. 

##RUBY:
Mm hmm. And in these focus groups, did what people say that they wanted from politics change over the course of the pandemic. Do they want a different thing now post-pandemic than they might have two and a half years ago? 

##REBECCA:
So I think one of the things that is emerging and in the conversation's ongoing is that not so much in the first, I would say, 6 to 9 months of the pandemic. But as things started to get really, really tough in the second wave in places like Victoria, but also in parts of Sydney, when people were locked down really in quite a brutal way, is that we started to see this kind of language in some groups emerge around freedom and rights, which is not something that has featured in a lot in the focus groups I've done in my life, felt very American. And for a while, everybody kind of dismissed it, as kind of a minority, loud minority that kind of gets its platform from places like, you know, Sky News. 

##Archival Tape – Reporter:
“They came in their thousands to the national capital. Marching on Old Parliament House and then, the New.”

##REBECCA:
But then when you saw just the number of people that descended on Canberra who were not just anti-vaxxers but found that entire kind of, you know… were attracted to that kind of narrative and story.

##Archival Tape – Unidentified Protestor:
“Irrespective of what you think about the vaccines, you have to admit people deserve freedom to make up their own medical decisions.”

##REBECCA:
I was quite shocked at just how many people were prepared to turn up. Then you started to get that kind of language coming into groups. And it's not just people who are anti-vaxxers, it's people who are alienated, antagonistic to the whole political system and forms of government. And so that feels very much like an American import that once upon a time I would have said would never have deep roots or last or grow in Australia. But I think that it's kind of ‘watch that space’. 

##RUBY:
Mmm. Ok so with Johnson, Trump, Morrison all gone, what do you think is next for the parties that they used to head up, and for right wing populism? 

##REBECCA:
That is very good at reimagining themselves, reinventing themselves. And I don't know anything about physics, but I know enough… I watch enough Stranger Things to know that there are all these theories about time not being linear, right. And things looping around and certainly progress, social progress, particularly from the left, of which I am, is never linear. We lurch forward and lurch back and lurch to the side. This kind of idea that those three men have ended and then from that will build something else is probably naive. I think they'll be very good in different ways to kind of go back and think about how do we rethink and reinvent populism, this kind of right wing populism in a way that's going to get traction.

That you could see certainly in the last election, the Liberal Party feebly trying to do that in the seat of Warringah with issues around trans people in sport. It didn't work, but that doesn't mean that a version of that isn't going to work next time. So I think that they're just really good at reinventing and re-spawning and we've just got to wait, what is the next manifestation? And be ready for it and be vigilant. 

##RUBY:
Mm. Rebecca, thank you so much for speaking to me. 

##REBECCA:
Thank you. 

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[Theme music starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news... 

The government has restored pandemic leave payments as the latest wave of infections worsens. Yesterday, NSW reported 10,198 new cases, 2057 hospitalisations and 63 people in ICU. In Victoria there were 9630 new cases, 760 people in hospital and 37 in ICU.

And during an Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Washington, opposition leader Peter Dutton has called for the time table to be brought forward on Australia's acquisition of nuclear submarines. Defence Minister Richard Marles said Australia would announce in the first quarter of next year whether it would buy American or British submarines - and that a commitment would be made then to when they would become operational.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am* - see you tomorrow

[Theme music ends]

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