For those too young to remember, Men Behaving Badly was a light-hearted 1990s British and American sitcom about silly blokes doing stupid things. Covid-19 has revived the storyline. But now it’s not so funny.
Around the world, authoritarian leaders are exploiting, exacerbating or grossly mishandling the response to the pandemic, placing selfish interest ahead of public good.
They are mostly male. Their behaviour is frequently appalling. Unlike harmless Gary and Tony, they are a modern incarnation of TS Eliot’s “hollow men”.
Sex is relevant, in that female leaders are generally thought to be behaving better. Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen are among competent and compassionate women singled out for praise.
Yet do the worst-performing leaders share dysfunctional characteristics beyond mere maleness? A war fixation is one. Poverty of imagination is another. They routinely trot out tired martial metaphors and cliches such as “wartime president”, “blitz spirit”, and “fighting the invisible enemy”.
Lack of empathy also seems to be a common denominator, even among self-styled “man of the people” populists. This may be a product of class, culture or elite upbringing.
A more decisive factor is a man’s political orientation. Broadly speaking, illiberal leaders who run authoritarian regimes, refuse democratic and legal constraints, abuse civil and women’s rights, reject media scrutiny, tolerate corruption, and believe that they, personally, know best are the worst-behaved, least effective pandemic performers.
Donald Trump ticks all the boxes. He is the Covid champ of chumps. His advice last week to inject disinfectant hit new heights of toxic idiocy, even for him. But there are plenty of challengers for the world title.
Take Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s “strongman” president. His initial response to a growing Covid-19 threat was to put the economy before lives. Erdogan is accused, like Trump, of politicising the crisis, for example by banning fundraising efforts by opposition-controlled city councils in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. The impressive performance of Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, a possible 2023 presidential rival, is said to worry him more than the disease.
Rushed curfews and protective measures have caused confusion and panic-buying. And Erdogan fumbled a chance to foster unity of purpose when an early release of prisoners excluded jailed political opponents, journalists and human rights activists.
The world expects better of Turkey. In the Philippines, the macho antics of Rodrigo Duterte, a president notorious for celebrating extrajudicial murder, are par for the course. Like right-wingers elsewhere, Duterte minimised the Covid-19 threat, then over-reacted.
A typically heavy-handed clampdown has followed belated lockdown measures. Duterte ordered the police and military to kill those who did not comply. “Shoot them dead,” he urged. “Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”
Duterte’s assumption of emergency powers mirrors power-grabs in other countries with weak systems of democratic accountability. Hungary’s rightwing populist leader, Viktor Orbán, says his new power to rule indefinitely by decree can be revoked any time. Opponents fear a tame parliament may never do so.
Some of the world’s most authoritarian leaders have reacted with a morbid mix of crass irresponsibility and calculation. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, appears to hope, Trump-like, that he can turn the poor’s hostility to job-destroying lockdowns to political advantage.