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Trump’s Authoritarian Pandemic

It's feeding his worst impulses and increasing democracy's greatest danger.
April 10, 2020
Trump’s Authoritarian Pandemic
(Collage by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

COVID-19 debilitates democracy: confining candidates, shutting legislatures, stifling peaceful assembly, curbing voter registration, and limiting personal engagement. As the pandemic proliferates, anxiety permeates an involuntarily passive populace.

Donald Trump seems resolved to exploit this paralysis by squelching dissent, politicizing relief efforts, and corrupting the November election.

The pandemic’s grip is diminishing the president’s own. His poll numbers are slipping; critical shortages of lifesaving resources underscore his mendacity and dereliction. His maladministration has empowered incompetents such as Jared Kushner and Larry Kudlow, the sycophantic pseudo-economist who fatuously lionized Trump’s performance:  “I know there are always a few glitches but I’d give it an A.”

The “glitches” include 15,000 dead—swiftly rising. Our economic catastrophe is turbocharging unemployment and cratering GDP with unprecedented celerity. Thousands of businesses will die; millions of Americans face fiscal ruin.

As ever, Trump sees the suffering of others through the lens of self: not as a collective tragedy, but as an unbearable threat to his reelection. What then? Kristy Parker and Yascha Mounk write in the Atlantic: “As president, Trump engaged in each of these behaviors: spreading disinformation, quashing dissent, politicizing independent institutions, amassing executive power, delegitimizing communities, and corrupting elections.”

COVID-19 has metastasized his authoritarian pathologies. Trump’s nightly press briefings pervert a president’s obligation to inform and unify Americans in crisis —commingling grandiosity, lying, blame-shifting, and disinformation with attacks on our principal defense against untruth: an independent media. “The LameStream Media,” Trump recently tweeted, “is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope it will be detrimental to my election success.”

As millions watch, Trump bullies journalists asking important and reasonable questions: Peter Alexander (“a terrible reporter”); Abby Philip (“what a stupid question”); Yamiche Alcindor (“Don’t be threatening”); Jim Acosta (“ask a real question”); Pamela Reed (“[you] write fake news”).

Sometimes he combines demeaning reporters with squelching criticism. After denouncing an inspector general’s report criticizing the federal government’s coronavirus response, he attacked those who asked about it – calling ABC’s Jonathan Karl “a third-rate reporter” and instructing Kristin Fisher of Fox News to stop “being so horrid.”

Trump’s aim in assaulting the media is overtly authoritarian. As he told Leslie Stahl:

You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.

Exposure enrages him. Under the cover of COVID-19 Trump continues to purge those who surfaced his effort to compel Ukraine’s president to assist his reelection by slandering Joe Biden. His dismissal of the Inspector General who sent the whistleblower complaint to Congress, Michael Atkinson—an explicit act of reprisal—followed that of three witnesses in his impeachment: Alexander Vindman, Gordon Sondland, and William Taylor.

Trump’s message is inescapable: Those who question his handling of COVID-19 hazard their jobs. Leaving no doubt, he has ousted the leader of a watchdog panel charged with overseeing how his administration spends trillions in pandemic relief.

This likely augurs a chilling politicization of pandemic relief: the misdirection of federal assistance to buttress red states, propitiate swing states, reward obeisant supplicants and punish governors who displease him. Already it is widely reported that Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, whose incompetent response mimicked Trump’s own, is getting everything he wants from the national stockpile. As to the future, Trump has floated this disturbing criteria: “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

But Trump’s most obvious subversion of democracy is his blatant resolve to suppress turnout in November—thereby increasing the electoral impact of his fervent supporters.

To limit the public health dangers of voting during a pandemic, the House is proposing to give citizens the option of casting mail-in ballots in November 2020. To secure his own reelection, Trump means to quash this.

The electoral equities are clear: Americans should not have to choose between voting in person or avoiding COVID-19. The remedies are equally obvious.

First, the in-person methods for voter registration—at polling places or the Department of Motor Vehicles—should be supplemented everywhere by the online registration already offered in 39 states.

Second, we should provide national mail-in voting. Thirty-three states already do; in this time of pandemic, so should the rest.

Third, we should make in-person voting safer for those who need or prefer it. That means establishing more polling places – lessening the density of voters and their time spent waiting – while expanding curbside and early voting.

The estimated cost for these measures is $2 billion—a pittance for enabling Americans to vote without risking their lives or spreading a deadly disease which, experts believe, will still threaten us in November.

Trump plans to stop all such efforts, and so does his party. As Jelani Cobb writes, “the novel coronavirus pandemic dovetails exceptionally well with part of Trump’s agenda and that of the Republican party in some states: voter suppression.”

For decades, Republicans have fought to suppress voting by minorities and the young. In denouncing provisions of the stimulus package intended to keep COVID-19 from lowering turnout, Trump was explicit: “The things they had in there were crazy . . . levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Trump’s campaign is spending millions to prevent Democrats in critical states from passing voting-by-mail. As Georgia House Speaker David Ralston explained, it “will be extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia [because] it will certainly drive up turnout.”

This week, the Republicans’ contempt for democracy was on harrowing display. With Trump’s express encouragement, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature blocked the postponement of a statewide election. Their hope was that a reduced electorate would preserve a GOP partisan on the state’s Supreme Court. Brave in-person voters may die for the cause.

For the presidency, one wonders, what worse might Trump do?

Elections expert Richard Hasen points out that, as noted in Bush v. Gore, under our Constitution state legislatures could revoke the power of citizens to allocate Electoral College votes through direct ballot. Asks Hasen: “What’s to stop Trump from appealing to Republican-controlled legislatures in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to take back this power from voters under the pretext that the risk of COVID-19 makes voting too difficult?”


Further, Hasen wonders:

What if Trump is ahead in Michigan and Pennsylvania on election night and he declares victory, but after millions of absentee ballots are processed . . . Biden is declared the winner in those states and wins the election? Will Republicans believe Trump if he claimed the later count was the result of fraud, despite all the evidence to the contrary?

Of course they would.

Unconstrained by basic respect for democracy, Trump will attempt whatever he can. Who intervenes then? Our politicized Supreme Court?

This past week the comedian Kumail Nanjiani quipped: “Super cool to realize right now that our whole government has just been on the honor system for centuries.”

In reality, this is no joke.

Democracy is not self-executing. Without the fidelity of those who lead us, and our own, it cannot endure.

Correction 4/10/20 8:57 a.m.: Because of an editing error, the piece originally said, “Second, we should provide national online voting.” It has been changed to read, “Second, we should provide national mail-in voting.”

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.