The Psychology of Politics and Pandemics

What history can teach us and our leaders.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

When an epidemic spirals out of control, political leaders tend, psychologically, to construct narratives that obscure their shortcomings and advance their own political ambitions.

Recently, we see this all-too-human trait with President Trump and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro.  

But unfortunately, this tendency is not new. Nonetheless, recent leaders should learn from their predecessors and see that they can appear effective while still caring for the sick.

Napoleon serves as a case in point.

In the Louvre’s main salon in Paris hangs a massive painting, “Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (March 11, 1799)” by Antoine-Jean Gros (see image below). Directly across the room stands Delacroix’s famous “Liberty Leading the People,” depicting the female goddess of Liberty, urging a ragtag army of citizens over the barricades, lifting the French tricolor in her right hand and grabbing a rifle in her left, her loose yellow gown falling from her shoulders.

 "Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-stricken at Jaffa" by Antoine-Jean Gros/Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Napoleon confronting the plague
Source: "Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-stricken at Jaffa" by Antoine-Jean Gros/Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This 1804 painting of Napoleon rises four-times the size of Delacroix’s and portrays a factual event. After his 1798 victory in Egypt, Napoleon traveled to Palestine to attack the Ottoman Empire, but the bubonic plague began decimating his army. He visited his infected soldiers to raise their morale, helping them on stretchers and risking contagion himself.

In the center of the canvas, Napoleon steps forward under the arcades of the Jaffa citadel that served as a hospital, and above which the French Tricolor flies atop a distant tower. Awash in sunlight, he wears a gold-embroidered blue uniform jacket, tight white pants, and trademark black bicorne hat, with a crimson and gold sash around his waist. Surrounding him lie ill, near-naked soldiers. He has removed a white glove from his left hand, which now touches an infected pustule near a male patient’s armpit. Behind Bonaparte, a French officer stands, covering his mouth with a white handkerchief. A Turkish physician kneels before the general, urging him not to proceed, but Napoleon courageously steps forward, undeterred. He touches the near-naked patient in a Christ-like gesture, as if to heal him.

Napoleon, living in the Age of Enlightenment, respected science and brought with him to Egypt botanists, geologists, and anthropologists — who discovered the Rosetta Stone. Together, they significantly advanced research in many fields. He ordered that the plague victims’ clothes, likely flea-infested, be removed, and that the soldiers be vigorously scrubbed with soap and water, cleaning them of lice and fleas. But he also pushed his men, sacrificing their health for his larger military goals, and argued that they could overcome the plague if they wanted to.

Following this hospital visit, he marched north to attack Acre but failed to capture the city, stopped by the Turks and their British allies. He then retreated to Jaffa. For soldiers too sick to evacuate and return to Egypt, he suggested that his chief surgeon administer opiates – to end their suffering and avoid being captured by the advancing Ottomans. The doctor refused due to the Hippocratic Oath’s injunction against physician-assisted suicide and the fact that many plague sufferers recovered on their own.

Bonaparte told the French Republic government in Paris that he had retreated to avoid the plague — not because of his military failure. But the disease had in fact already attacked his troops.

Back in Egypt, Napoleon abandoned his troops. The British navy under Lord Nelson had wrecked the French fleet, preventing their return to France. Bonaparte quietly escaped, but the British captured his army, along with the Rosetta Stone.

The British and his other enemies lambasted his behavior. In response, he had this painting portray himself as the Brave Hero.

His propagandistic impulses foreshadow those of several recent politicians and illustrate how past political leaders, too, have responded to plagues by trying to appear organized and in control despite a pandemic’s devastation.

But the painting also reveals differences, at least between Napoleon and Trump, and provides poignant political lessons. 

Unlike Trump, Napoleon does not deny or avoid the plague, pander completely false cures or utterly ignore the suffering. Instead, Bonaparte did in fact step forward, against others’ counsel, to engage with patients.

We probably cannot change certain leaders’ instincts to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to pursue their own goals, but the fact that this painting has remained prominently displayed for over 200 years in one of the main rooms of one of the world’s largest tourist attractions should remind Trump and other politicians that history is watching and evaluating them. They will be held accountable for their behavior. They should see that past leaders, too, have sought to exploit pandemics but also been concerned for the sick.

In the U.S. and most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.  

Leaders obviously should not exploit epidemics to advance their own agendas, but some will alas try. If they cannot resist, however, they should at least realize that they should still try effectively to prevent the disease and help the ill; and that history is watching and will judge them forever.

Note: A prior version of this essay appeared on Statnews.com.