As world leaders grapple with when and how to safely reopen their countries, many are also facing a political problem: how to maintain support as they oversee tanking economies, stifling restrictions and staggering death tolls.
Unable to promise physical or economic safety, many are instead offering the reassuring image of a strong leader with a steady hand.
President Xi Jinping of China is using public appearances and state media to project a message of national triumph over adversity, with himself at the vanguard. President Emmanuel Macron of France has rallied citizens to join a collective “war” against the virus.
President Trump, like many leaders, regularly appears flanked by health officials. Appeals to national unity are practically universal.
Whether they realize it or not, such leaders have a powerful force on their side: human psychology.
While polls suggest that people remain deeply worried about the virus and its toll, support for leaders is increasing almost universally.
In Britain and Germany, people have rewarded their leaders with steep and nearly identical boosts in support, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain oversaw a response so haphazard that he contracted the disease himself while Chancellor Angela Merkel moved quickly enough that her country, with about 16 million more people than Britain, had a fifth as many deaths.
It is easy to dismiss the popularity of leaders who have overseen terrible outbreaks as a result of a knee-jerk rally-around-the-flag effect, or of propaganda.
But human beings are complicated creatures. And a body of research suggests that, in a crisis, placing faith in a strong leader can serve psychological needs whose importance to us can outweigh our desire even for physical safety.
Not all leaders benefit from this effect and, even among those who do, it does not last forever. But as long as mortal peril lurks in peoples’ lives, the appeal of believing in one’s leader and seeking solace in the idea of national unity will be hard to resist.
Why We Rally Around the Flag
The tendency to rally behind leaders in times of crisis was first documented in the 1970s by John Mueller, a political scientist who found that Cold War crises led to bursts of support for American presidents.
But subsequent psychological research found a more complex explanation than simple nationalistic fervor.
Human beings evolved in a hostile natural world where survival required high levels of cooperation. In large groups, coordination on complex tasks is easier with a leader.
As a result, some experts suspect that certain kinds of danger can trigger a deep anxiety that is soothed by joining with a strong group under a strong leader.
But this anxiety is so powerful that it can be as threatening as the external danger that triggered it. And it cannot be simply turned off or reasoned away. When a threat seems to target the group as a whole, it can supercharge the instinct to see oneself as part of a strong group united under a capable leader.
“People are motivated to see the world as a secure/predictable place,” one study said, adding that “a salient threat — such as the 9/11 attacks — should lead people to affiliate themselves with the American president and with other cultural institutions that offer an actual and/or symbolic sense of security and safety.”
As the coronavirus crisis first unfolded, a number of leaders stayed in the background, letting other officials serve as the public face of the response. Now, many are reasserting themselves and finding their publics not only willing to overlook sometimes-profound failures, but eager to greet them as almost heroes.
Mr. Xi, after going quiet during the outbreak’s early days, is now casting himself as China’s fearless defender. The country’s party elite, and seemingly much of the public, appear enthusiastic, even grateful. Mr. Xi’s setbacks against the virus, the economy, the United States and in Hong Kong seem to have been forgotten.
In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was widely seen as a lame duck even before overseeing one of the world’s worst outbreaks. As tens of thousands died and the economy all but collapsed, Mr. Conte’s approval rating soared to 71 percent.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is nearly alone in losing support, something of a mystery given Japan’s strong performance relative to its neighbors. One possible factor: He has been mostly in the background, letting health officials lead public communication.
A Rational Irrationality
It might seem like a paradox that the leaders who have overseen the world’s worst death tolls reap the most political benefit.
The coronavirus, an invisible enemy that has killed more than 300,000 people, strains some of our most sensitive psychological stress points. For human beings, feelings of security, stability and control are needs practically as important as food or water. Believing that the group is united and the leader is in control can satisfy those needs.
The belief may seem irrational in the face of a virtually uncontrollable pandemic, but social scientists say that psychological self-preservation is still self-preservation. Choosing beliefs that keep us sane and stable during terrifying times are, in that sense, deeply rational.
Studies find that a leader can activate support amid a crisis through appeals to unity and simply by being visible. These cues make people feel more aware of their group identity, which makes them trust it more.
Mr. Xi and Ms. Merkel are coming from very different places, politically, when they call on their nations to pull together. And their tools could not be more different: Mr. Xi with nationalist regalia and misleading or false state media, Ms. Merkel with sober press events flanked by her advisers.
But the psychological effect is similar.
For the same reasons, in times of great peril, citizens often seek out scapegoats for their leaders’ failures.
When Chinese citizens blame foreigners for the coronavirus and the unrest in Hong Kong, it might seem like purely the product of propaganda. And when Americans blame China or shadowy conspiracies, it might seem like brainwashing by fringe social media.
While propaganda and social media conspiracies may contribute to those beliefs, they take root because they reassure us that our social group can keep us safe amid peril that would otherwise be psychologically unbearable.
Few factors heighten our sense of a united in-group like collective anger at an out-group.
In a set of mid-2000s experiments, researchers found that viewing video of the September 11 attacks significantly increased college students’ affinity for the president and patriotic symbols like the flag. The jump was highest among those who experienced anger, not anxiety.
This finding suggests that outrage toward a common enemy can be even more powerful than fear at rallying people around their leader.
When the Rally Ends
There are glaring exceptions to the rule. Leaders of two of the world’s most politically polarized countries, the United States and Brazil, have seen little or no increase in popularity.
A 2002 study by Matthew Baum of Harvard University found that, in crises, people who hold strong partisan identities are less likely to rally behind the president — regardless of party.
Partisans tend to follow more news and so may already hold firm opinions. Separately, as partisanship rises, the party can displace the nation as someone’s primary group identity.
And, amid severe polarization, control by the opposite side triggers feelings of peril that could be just as severe as any from the pandemic.
But the need to find a leader is still there. In the United States, the governor who oversaw the deadliest outbreak, Andrew Cuomo of New York, saw his approval numbers soar. The same is true for some governors in Brazil.
This support does not last forever.
“Most rally effects are short-lived, and barring additional events, presidential approval typically reverts to the pre-event level,” Matthew Dickinson, a Middlebury College political scientist, wrote of Mr. Trump’s modest approval bump.
George W. Bush’s boost after the Sept. 11 attacks dissipated over 16 months. Most have been briefer.
If the coronavirus crisis outlasts any rally effect, then the public attention that is currently benefiting leaders like Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi could become a liability.
But with the virus’s trajectory still uncertain and any political reckoning months away, Mr. Dickinson wrote, “it is far too early to make useful predictions.”