Postscript Masculinities in a Pandemic
While occasionally in this book, I have referred to political leaders, my main focus has been leadership in non-governmental institutions. Yet in this concluding postscript, it seems appropriate to address the politics of the Coronavirus pandemic that will leave its mark on many generations to come. Just as in previous tragic periods of history, leadership during this global health crisis has been centre stage. As I argued in Chapter 1, whenever there is a crisis of any kind and the current COVID-19 pandemic perhaps is the crisis to surpass all crises, there is a turn to leadership. In the best of times, we struggle to be confident that leaders live up to the expectations that are projected onto them by the public. Consequently, during a crisis when expectations intensify and responsibilities magnify, we get numerous declarations or accusations of failing or incompetent leaders or claims of a leadership void. Rarely do commentators consider that leadership might be part of the problem rather than its solution, as I discussed in Chapter 8 concerning ethics.1 This has occurred throughout the pandemic beginning with the Chinese government’s early attempt to conceal the virus in January 2020 through to the responses of Trump to the George Floyd murder protests in June 2020. The chapter is primarily involved in providing some account of the responses of the three political leaders in Brazil, the US, and the UK in managing the COVID-19 pandemic less effectively than other nations and, in particular, those of Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, where women were the political leaders.
Leadership Masculinities during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Political leaders across the world have exploited the coronavirus pandemic as a vehicle for their masculinities but, as the pandemic has progressed, these have taken three different forms that I have labelled: Bravado, Macho and Narcissistic. While I have been able broadly to characterise these sequentially in terms of responses to the pandemic, they are neither wholly discrete nor independent but coincide, merge and overlap with one another and with other masculinities. This is especially
Postscript 231 so with the populist leaders—Bolsonaro, Johnson and Trump—whose desire for followers would seem to be a reflection of deep insecurity. Moreover, in the case of Trump, many have claimed that this insecurity is the manifestation of a mental health condition2 that has contributed to the perpetuation of ‘poison and toxicity throughout the Republican Party and amongst his supporters’.3
Before proceeding with this analysis, perhaps a definition of populism would be helpful. Although the term is often used loosely, populism describes a homogeneous group of citizens determined to challenge governing elites who are seen to be ‘depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice’.4 It can be argued that the trend of populism has predominantly mobilised those who trade on exclusion and demonisation of outsiders. Associated with a far-right politics, populists have also challenged the neo-liberal consensus for its neglect of the masses that constitute the new urban poor in technologically advanced global economies. In this sense, their attack on the liberal elite resonates with an albeit radically different politics of the left that also resists the liberal consensus for its hegemonic discipline of subjects. Often though, the populist rhetoric gives a licence to demagogues who play on the dissatisfaction of large majorities, if not the masses, with liberal elites but the danger lies in their creation of an even more repressive social order.5 Paraphrasing Foucault, it might be suggested that populists are not necessarily either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so much as dangerous. As he continues, ‘If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. My position leads not to apathy but a hyper- and pessimistic activism. The ethical-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger’.6 Whether masculine discourses, identities and practices are the main danger in leadership is open to debate but, the three leaders discussed here have presided over the largest number of deaths of any country in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. I proceed to examine the record of Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson in terms of the three types of masculinity.