Has the Coronavirus Crisis Proved the National-Populist Case?

An employee wearing a face mask works on a car seat assembly line at the Yanfeng Adient factory in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by the coronavirus outbreak, February 24, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Not quite, but it’s certainly given national populists an opening.

Nationalists and populists on the right, formerly a very small band, have spent decades arguing that offshoring was a danger to America’s independence of action and ability to take care of itself in a crisis. Some spent the same time arguing that the economic model marrying labor-rich China to capital-rich America was bad for American workers, and carried risks of strengthening Chinese authoritarianism or even making it attractive here at home. They argued that the Western belief that economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization had been proven wrong in Central Europe, and was a delusion when applied to Beijing.

Now the coronavirus crisis has given their case a fresh hearing. As Matthew Continetti writes:

The China hawks, economic nationalists, and advocates of industrial policy have found themselves playing the role of Cassandra, who saw the cost of war firsthand after her warnings were dismissed.

The young people on the right drawn to the agenda of national populism will come out of this experience more skeptical of China, more critical of the pre-crisis economic policy of the GOP, more suspicious of uncontrolled flows of labor, capital, and goods across borders.

Analyst Andrew Michta, meanwhile, argues that the coronavirus makes a “hard decoupling” from China imperative:

The belief that globalization, through the radical centralization of market networks, was the unavoidable path forward has been exposed as a grave, near-delusional miscalculation. The offshoring by corporations of supply chains to China has not only eviscerated communities that were previously reliant on manufacturing jobs, but has also brought with it an unprecedented level of vulnerability and fragility to our economies. The populist revolts that have wracked Western democracies for the past several years are in part rooted in the pain that these dislocations have caused. Worse yet, for the past three decades, this offshoring process has favored an adversary that is determined to replace us as the hub of global economic and military power and place itself at the new normative center of the world.

I understand the temptation to argue that the coronavirus crisis proves the national-populist case. But, if you are self-aware, it is always at least slightly embarrassing to hold up the latest event you did not foresee as proof of the need to implement an agenda you originally supported for other reasons. Continetti cautions us toward a certain humility and awareness that the trends toward the national-populist view that we now see among ambitious GOP Senators and staffers were long in the making, and that geopolitics have played a role in creating them. He’s right.

America and other nations have been in a scramble for masks and protective medical gear over the past few weeks. Much of this is manufactured in plants in China that have been idled since January. Regulations in the West impede spinning up factories of our own to produce what we need. But I cannot find anything predating this crisis in which national populists single out single-use medical gear as one of the products America must make for itself. In fact, good pandemic planning, which is a perennial but often-overlooked feature of governments that do war games, would have cautioned us not to dominate the trade in these goods, but to have large and fresh stockpiles for precisely this kind of foreseeable event.

(We should also be aware that some national-populist leaders themselves might yet simply fail to meet this challenge. Viktor Orbán has now assumed emergency powers that look to confirm his critics’ worst fears about his intentions for the Hungarian state. Jair Bolsonaro’s blustering responses to the pandemic have to this point failed to produce the desired effect. Even Donald Trump could fail, and his failure would undoubtedly do damage to national populism.)

Our economic decoupling from China was in fact underway even before the present crisis. It’s happening for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is that it’s in the interests of both countries. As Irwin Stelzer explained last August, Trump’s trade war was the first sign of the shift:

America has decided to end its reliance on China as a pool of cheap labor and goods, which has brought with it the decimation of many of its industries and communities and the filching of its intellectual property. China, in its turn, wants to end its dependence for economic growth on the vast American market.

That said, the decoupling process won’t truly have succeeded until it has made its mark on the elite classes of the United States, which remain heavily invested in semi-utopian visions of a Popperian Open Society. The process won’t be complete until major institutional investors and corporate leaders start preaching a different vision. Perhaps they will look for “durability” in supply chains, and consequently they will weigh more heavily the regime type, political culture, and even the local hygiene practices in nations where they locate their manufacturing. One need only look to the economic pain wildly disparate industries all over the world have felt as a result of the supply shock of Wuhan’s shutdown and the political crackdown in Hong Kong to see that there are good reasons to contemplate a change in tune.

Continetti and Michta are right that the coronavirus incident will only increase Western voters’ demand for and openness to national populism. But if national populists want to seize the moment, they have to make the case that their political opponents — from the woke left to the center to the center-right — are hypocrites with aspirations that are little more than empty poses. It shouldn’t be hard to do so long as the vision of a globalized world depends upon the empowerment and expansion of a Chinese tyranny that practices misinformation on a global scale, implements racist, Han-supremacist policies at home, commits cultural genocide against its Muslim citizens, and tyrannizes the free people it holds semi-captive in Hong Kong and Taiwan. National populists have to press the case that a truly free, functional, and prosperous world comes not from radical openness but from the alternative programs they offer.

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