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The United States Is Getting Infected With Dictatorship

The coronavirus pandemic has provided an opening for Donald Trump to attack transparency, voting rights, and accountability.

U.S. President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Jan. 27, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

HBO’s The Plot Against America (based on the Philip Roth novel), presents an alternative history of the 1940s, where Charles Lindbergh is elected U.S. president and the United States begins a slow and troubling march toward fascism. If you read the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s latest column, you might be wondering whether something similar could be happening in real life.

I’ve chronicled some worrisome trends on several occasions since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016 (see here, here, and here), and ignoring these warning signs would be just like Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Remember when he said that one day the virus was just “going to disappear” and bragged that “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. … It’s going to be just fine.”?

My advice: Don’t be that guy.

But first: some good news. Although Americans are not happy with many government institutions, they remain strongly committed to the core ideals of a liberal society. Ninety-three percent believe it is important to have a fair judiciary, 84 percent say regular elections are important, 80 percent support a free media, and 77 percent prize freedom of speech, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Despite widespread political polarization, 67 percent believe having free opposition parties is also important. Such attitudes are reassuring, because public support for democracy turns out to be important for preserving a democratic order.

The public response to the coronavirus offers glimmers of hope as well, starting with the many acts of generosity and selflessness being displayed all over the country. Although Trump’s approval rating got a bit of a bump in recent weeks, the increase is far less than what other presidents received during periods of emergency, when the tendency to rally ’round the flag (and the incumbent) is usually quite powerful.

Trump has been artful at channeling popular anger and deflecting blame in the past, but even the falsehoods disseminated by Fox News cannot conceal the rising death toll, the plummeting economy, and Trump’s continued self-absorption in a period of national emergency. Even the normally pro-Trump editorial board of the Wall Street Journal seems to have had enough. The administration’s shambolic response to the outbreak of the virus on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt—a debacle that eventually led to the resignation of hapless acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly—was yet more evidence that Trump has no idea how to pick competent leaders at any level.

The good news, such as it is, is that the American people are finally seeing the flimflam for what it has always been. The bad news is that it may not matter, because Trump will do whatever he can to remain in office after this November, even if it requires deliberately sabotaging the democratic process.

For starters, we know that Trump’s commitment to the core principles of democracy and the whole idea of checks and balances is razor-thin to nonexistent. His lawsuit-riddled business career shows that he views the law not as a check on arbitrary power or an essential ingredient of a liberal society but as a bludgeon to be used against one’s enemies. He has repeatedly expressed his admiration for authoritarian leaders, whose unchecked power he clearly envies. His own lawyers—including Attorney General William Barr—have offered up half-baked legal arguments implying that he is above the law. Does anyone seriously think Trump would refrain from serious misconduct if he thought he could get away with it? Remember: This is the president who tried to use aid to Ukraine as a lever to get dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, in an all-too-obvious effort to tilt the 2020 election in his favor.

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Furthermore, Trump has a greater need to cling to power than any of his predecessors did. Millions of Americans are going to be very angry by the end of this year as they mourn loved ones who died unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 and as they watch their economic fortunes crumble. If Trump were no longer shielded by the office of the presidency, he would have to worry that the victims of his incompetence and venality would want some sort of retribution. And because Trump and his family have been profiting off the presidency in all sorts of dubious ways, they have every reason to fear criminal investigations that place their ill-gotten gains (and maybe their personal freedom) at risk. Trump no doubt remembers how popular the chant “Lock Her Up,” targeting his campaign rival Hillary Clinton, was back in 2016; plenty of people are bound to harbor similar sentiments toward him as the full extent of his failures becomes more and more apparent. (I’m not saying they’re right, mind you, but Trump can hardly be assured of an untroubled life after his presidency is over.)

Now consider what Trump is already doing. He’s been firing independent inspectors general and replacing them with loyalists. Just as burglars hate home alarms, muggers hate police, and insider-traders dislike the Securities and Exchange Commission, would-be autocrats and corrupt politicians hate any sort of watchdog who can expose their malfeasance. As my colleague Juliette Kayyem told WGBH radio, Trump’s firings of the inspectors general is “positioning for losing. … He wants to get his people into the investigative body, because he knows the first thing that’s going to happen is everyone’s gonna realize how much corruption the Trump family did during [his presidency].”

Next, look at what just happened in Wisconsin. Instead of briefly delaying a statewide primary election and taking responsible steps to allow all eligible citizens to vote safely by mail—thereby reducing the health risk of voting and making sure that citizens’ true preferences were accurately recorded—Wisconsin Republicans insisted the election be held last week despite the statewide lockdown, and the Supreme Court packed by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell overruled a lower court decision that would have delayed the election by a few weeks to allow a more accurate and legitimate procedure. The result: Thousands of Wisconsin voters were effectively disenfranchised.

Not surprisingly, Trump has gone on a crusade against the whole idea of voting by mail, even though he votes by mail himself. Trump opposes voting by mail for one simple reason: It leads to greater turnout, and more people voting tends to favor the Democratic Party. Remarkably, Trump even admitted this right out loud, remarking that if proposals for early voting and vote-by-mail were adopted, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” As one would expect, voter suppression efforts—which is just about the least democratic thing one can possibly imagine—have become central to the Republican Party’s entire electoral strategy. The party’s view of democracy is simple: Politicians should choose the voters, not the other way around.

Finally, this is all occurring in the midst of perhaps the greatest national emergency in U.S. history, one where the human toll for the United States will exceed those of the Korean or Vietnam wars and the economic damage could exceed that of the Great Depression. Governments invariably exert greater control in such circumstances, and increased government power will give Trump and the Republicans ample opportunities to tilt electoral outcomes in their favor. And should polls this fall show that Trump is likely to lose, can one rule out an attempt to cancel or postpone the November election, justified on the grounds of preserving public safety?

The final nightmare scenarios, of course, would be either a narrow win for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden—which Trump refuses to accept—or a contested outcome in one or two key states that leaves the ultimate outcome in doubt and has to be resolved by the Supreme Court. As former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade has noted, Trump and some of his more extreme supporters have talked about his extending his term in the past, and cases of other elected officials refusing to step down are not unknown in U.S. history. She noted (encouragingly) that the existing levers of power “work in favor of removal,” because Trump would not have the legal authority to issue orders to the executive branch once his term expires. But the real question in this scenario is not whether his orders would be legal but whether they would be followed, especially if the Republican Party remained in lockstep behind him and millions of his supporters were convinced he had won. At that moment, the United States would be sailing into unknown and stormy waters.

It may not come to this, of course. The election in November may run fairly smoothly despite the crisis, and it may yield an outcome that most people accept as fair and accurate. If Trump loses, he may follow the example of every one of his predecessors and depart the White House graciously. But an outcome that Americans have taken for granted for over 200 years is no longer a foregone conclusion, and that is deeply troubling all by itself.

The irony of the present situation is impossible to miss. Americans have spent the past 25 years trying to spread democracy in various unlikely places, albeit with scant success. The real challenge, it turns out, will be making sure they don’t lose it home.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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