The return of pulpit politics as world leaders channel their inner Churchill to fight coronavirus 

Not since the Spanish flu of 1918 has there been a global emergency that so evenly challenged leaders

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Donald Trump and other leaders are all grappling with the same crisis
Donald Trump and other leaders are all grappling with the same crisis Credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis

The global coronavirus pandemic has set the world’s political leaders a common test of their abilities to both rally the public spirits and quiet the national pulse in a time of crisis.

Not since the Spanish ‘flu of 1918 has there been a global emergency which has so even-handedly challenged national leaders; with the age of information making all the world a stage for the different cultural and political responses.

For some leaders, the crisis has proven an unexpected opportunity to cement previously precarious political positions - while for others there are already warning signs that coronavirus may yet prove their political undoing.

Despite being a global phenomenon coronavirus has also revealed the sharp national differences in style and approach; a reminder that, first and foremost, the world remains a collection of nation states. 

This was never clearer than in Europe when the two most powerful leaders - Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany - struck very different tones as they addressed their respective nations.

French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on a television screen as he speaks during a televised address to the nation  Credit:  LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

The French may have bemoaned Mr Macron’s “Jupiterian” tendencies but in the face of the epidemic, his Napoleonic streak and Gaullist personalisation of power has struck a chord.

In martial tones, he announced national confinement on Monday, repeating several times that the country was at “war”, although that didn’t stop him ordering compatriots to take time to “read more” while cooped up, as culture is food for the soul. It was all very French.

Over in Berlin, Mrs Merkel didn’t try to be Churchill, Napoleon or anybody else when she made her first emergency televised national address in more than 14 years as German chancellor. She was just Merkel — and that was exactly what Germany wanted.

There was no grand rhetoric, but the woman who has steered Germany through the financial, eurozone and migration crises, just explained in calm and measured tones to Germans why they are being asked to stay at home, to protect the most vulnerable.

“These are not simply abstract numbers or statistics” she said. “And we are a community in which every life and every person matters.” To the pride of many Germans, she signed off her address not with a German equivalent to “Vive la Republique” or “God bless America”, but with a simple “Take good care of yourself”.

Elsewhere in Europe, the crisis has provided an unexpected new platform for leaders like Italy’s Giuseppe Conte who until recently was seen largely as a stooge, mediating between fractious coalition partners – first the hard-Right League and the populist Five Star Movement and then, when that alliance collapsed in the summer, Five Star and the centre-Left Democrats.

But as the crisis progressed the little-known law professor has been seen to play a steady hand, with polls showing his government approval ratings at a record high of 71 per cent, marginalising his right-wing nemesis, the populist Matteo Salvini. 

Italian soldiers deployed throughout Milan in 'Operation Safe Roads' during coronavirus lockdown Credit: ANDREA FASANI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mr Conte may not be Churchillian in speech or demeanour, but has drawn on his example. "In these days, I have been thinking about the old speeches of Churchill - it is our darkest hour but we will make it,” he said when announcing further lockdowns.

Meanwhile Spain’s Pedro Sanchez - usually a wooden and verbose performer - has thrived in a press room devoid of physical journalists and the opposition cowed into relative loyalty.

His straight-to-camera promises “not to leave anyone behind” have evoked memories of Spain’s turbulent Transition era, when prime ministers and the former King Juan Carlos launched calls for calm and fortitude from the nation’s TV sets. 

Other leaders have tried a more down-to-earth style. The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte visited supermarkets to joke that the country had so much toilet paper stockpiled the country could “poop for ten years” and not run out.

Over in Ireland Leo Varadkar, a Taoiseach on borrowed time after a weak performance in a recent election, blended the rhetorical style of John F Kennedy with paternalistic invocations to children to help their parents and phone their grandparents.

“In years to come, let them say of us, when things were at their worst, we were at our best,” he said in a televised St Patrick’s Day address where the country’s legendary pubs were shut down.

Leo Varadkar is Ireland's outgoing PM Credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire

There have also been rougher edges, where some leaders have used the crisis to vent against old enemies - notably Serbia’s president Aleksandr Vucic, who delivered an address dripping with contempt for the European Union which blocked the export of medical supplies. 

“International solidarity does not exist. European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale on paper,” he said, raising fears that coronavirus will further weaken the EU’s influence over Balkan hinterland, to the advantage of of Beijing or Moscow - where Vladimir Putin has made no address to the nation at all.

In China and Asia, where the crisis began, leaders have tapped into more authoritarian and Confucian political cultures as they addressed the Covid-19 crisis.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader who returned “strongman” leadership to China, was accused of being slow to act, with public discontent rising sharply in February after a whistleblowing doctor succumbed to coronavirus - but a sharp fall in cases has rescued his crisis.

By late January he was able to take centre-stage, declaring a “people’s war” against the virus which government propaganda has made out to have been so successful he is able to paint China as the global leader in virus response and a model for other countries.

In Japan, Shinzo Abe originally took political flak for shutting Japanese schools and denying an entire school year their graduation parties, but he has since reaped dividends for a decision that now looks far-sighted.

Elsewhere, in South Korea and Taiwan - two countries that are also widely seen to have handled the epidemic well - both leaders appear to have grown through the crisis.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in initially looked overwhelmed, but as the nation’s military and health infrastructure went into overdrive, he was quickly able to project a more warrior-like image of slaying the virus. 

Taiwanese soldiers in protectivie suits disinfecting people from a China Eastern Airlines plane Credit: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEFENSE/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Taiwan’s success in keeping numbers so low has also proved a boon for the country’s “cat lady” president Tsai Ing-wen, whose campaign posters often feature her cradling her favourite feline. She has projected an air of intense, scientific calm.

Asia’s highly-controlled response contrasted with that in Iran - the worst-hit country in the Middle East - where the authoritarian regime, already under pressure from sanctions and fuel protests, has struggled to cope with the crisis.

The supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has never possessed the charisma of his firebrand predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini, has found balancing blood-sweat-and-tears rallying cry and stoical reassurance a tricky act. 

While in one breath the Ayatollah told the public to “act on the instructions given by experts”, in the next he described the Covid-19 threat as “temporary” and “not grave” while telling the public they could beat the crisis “by praying, by supplicating, by relying on the immaculate Imams."

Across the Atlantic, where the forces of populist democracy in North and South America make for inevitably messier outcomes, the responses have been notably more volatile.

Mexico’s populist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took a leaf out of Donald Trump’s early playbook, dismissing doom-laden predictions and telling his countrymen no-one “should stop hugging because of coronavirus” because, “nothing’s going to happen.”

At one press conference the Mexican leader produced an amulet, and a two-dollar bill that he said had been given to him by a migrant, which he said would protect him from the disease.

Similarly, the Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro, known as the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, also took the early Trumpian line, describing it as “a fantasy”, leading to outbreaks of public protests as opponents banged pots and pans rather than listen to his televised addresses.

But if Mr Trump had started shakily, dismissing Covid-19 as a “Democrat hoax” and giving an initial address to the nation full of factual errors, then in recent days the former hotelier and reality TV show host has stepped up to the presidential plate.

Despite giving into what (to foreign ears) often look like his worst instincts - bullying White House reporters and repeatedly referring to coronavirus as the ‘Chinese ‘flu’ - the style has played well with large sections of the American public.

Declaring himself a "wartime president," he vowed to "defeat the invisible enemy," and settle for nothing less than "total victory" - the stock market be damned. After a stuttering start he is now telling the American people what they want to hear from their leader in a time of crisis.

He is now, as they say, “all in”.

Reporting from  Ben Riley-Smith, US editor ; Sophia Yan in Beijing ; Josie Ensor in New York ; Justin Huggler in Berlin ; Henry Samuel in Paris ; Nick Squires in Rome ; Nicola Smith in Taipei ; James Crisp, in Brussels ; James Badcock in Madrid ; Julian Ryall in Tokyo ; Nataliya Vasilyeva, in Moscow; Roland Oliphant, Senior Foreign Correspondent;  James Rothwell in Jerusalem