Covid-19

Covid-19 gives cover for authoritarians to cement power

Peter Bale consults Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America' to shine a light on Donald Trump and other autocrats in this time of crisis

“How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

That’s a line from a great work of 20th Century American fiction, “The Plot Against America”, by Philip Roth, an HBO television drama of which is on now on Neon in New Zealand.

Many Americans, particularly those on the progressive side of politics, which doesn’t or didn’t necessarily mean the Democratic Party, have had reason to wonder if since 2016's presidential election Roth’s vision of an America ruled by a nationalist fascist sympathiser has become non-fiction.

Sometimes literature, even not exactly contemporary literature, shines an unblinking spotlight on what is going on in the real world – things we might wish not to see.

“How long will the American people stand for this treachery perpetrated by their elected president? How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds,” a Roth character asks in the book as an imagined President Charles Lindbergh tears up legal and constitutional norms in the early 1940s.

This week Americans of all political stripes had cause to wonder which constitutional norms President Donald Trump might tear up at will to defend his position in an election year as he tries to distract from his well-documented failure to prepare America for Covid-19.

“I have the ultimate authority,” Trump told a news conference when challenged on his right to direct state governors on when to open the country from the Covid-19 lockdown.

“The President of the United States calls the shots,” he said. “They can’t do anything without the approval of the President of the United States.”

Asked what provisions of the Constitution gave him such authority he replied, “Numerous provisions,” without naming any. “When somebody’s the President of the United States, the authority is total.” (The New York Times).

Constitutional experts queued up to explain why Trump was wrong and how the drafters of the US constitution, supported by a couple of centuries of precedent and Supreme Court rulings, made clear the presidency was only one arm of government, with Congress.

As New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We don’t have a king in this country; we didn’t want a king. So we have a constitution and we elect a president.”

However, if you think all this is just banter and part of having a former reality television star as President then you may need to pay better attention to the repeated threats Trump makes to the constitutional order in the United States and how those might stack up and accelerate during the Covid-19 crisis ahead of the presumed November presidential election. More on those specifics in a moment.

Trump is far from alone in trying to stretch his personal authority under this time of unprecedented health and economic emergency.

In Hungary, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban is ruling by decree without the oversight of Parliament under emergency measures taken in theory to combat Covid-19 but which are all about his control.

Anyone who spreads alleged “misinformation” in Hungary is now liable to jail. This is a country where Orban had already effectively taken almost all news media under state control, making Hungary an embarrassing pariah to the European Union.

“It shows that they use this power and this opportunity, but it has nothing to do with defending the population against the virus,” Marki Zay, an independent politician told The Financial Times. “It is really about dictatorship.”

Poland, already slipping back into a right-wing autocracy driven by nationalist Catholicism; Cambodia, where strongman premier Hun Sen parrots Trump’s attacks on “fake news”; and the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte has put people suspected of infection into dog cages in the street, have all passed emergency legislation giving autocrats more power. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has cracked down on dissent as his failure to act on Covid-19 is exposed.

Countries as diverse as Israel, Azerbaijan, Uganda, El Salvador and Kazakhstan have all used Covid-19 as an excuse to curtain human rights, free speech and crack down, according to this handy guide to repression from Business Insider’s Cristina Maza.

Given how governments of every stripe have an inevitable tendency to claim greater powers in the name of supposedly helping their people, even those who consider New Zealand or Australia or the United States as havens of democracy with elected governments that can be trusted not to go too far against our rights or interests, should pause to consider how much control we surrender in our movements or in accepting tracking of our mobile phones.

“The global trauma of the pandemic may well move things…towards a greater acceptance of government intervention, a trend which can either become baleful — as it already has in the illiberal authoritarianism just instituted in Hungary — or benign, with policy, both preventive and reactive, based on the authority of knowledge,” historian Simon Schama wrote in The Financial Times.

So, watch this space.

Meanwhile, in Trumpland, the President has raised the idea of suspending Congress in order to move faster on his recovery plan, has this month fired or undermined the inspectors general who are there to combat corruption, has driven out key witnesses to his communications with Ukraine that led to his impeachment and claimed total authority to tell state governors what to do.

He’s also talked repeatedly of huge voter fraud – for which no evidence has ever been found – and warned that the November elections could be undermined by postal voting.

Those attacks on critics, his perpetual undermining of mainstream media as “the fake news” and his readiness to claim authority the constitution suggests he lacks, isn’t just the ramblings of someone who speaks whatever enters his mind. Sitting behind it is a sophisticated conservative strategy to take control of the heights of government, the legal system and the authority invested in the presidency to cement Republican control.

"Trump acknowledged as much in explaining why he was against postal voting and wanted voter ID. It is widely known that postal voting would help the poor, black and disenfranchised in the United States, and voter ID works against those groups.Trump said “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again”.

Trump may be the frontman but he is backed by masters of the corridors of power and law like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has engineered conservative appointments to more than 200 judgeships, including the Supreme Court, and Attorney General William Barr whose ultra-conservative Catholic world view includes an unusually broad interpretation of presidential power.

“Demagogues like Trump, if they can get elected, can’t really govern unless they have people like McConnell,” conservative thinker Bill Kristol told investigative reporter Jane Mayer for her sweeping portrait of McConnell in The New Yorker.

As for Barr, he has made clear his legal and personal view about the role of the presidency, in a speech to the Federalist Society late last year. (The New Yorker): “There is a knee-jerk tendency to see the legislative and judicial branches as the good guys, protecting the people from a rapacious would-be autocrat. This prejudice is wrongheaded and atavistic.”

So, back to fiction and Philip Roth’s view of what might have happened if national hero and fan of Adolf Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, had defeated Franklin Roosevelt: “To have enslaved America with this hocus-pocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!”

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