In the early days of the Trump Presidency, there was a lot of speculation about when, if, and how we would pass the point of no return, when we would know that American democracy had been destroyed. That conversation faded after a while, drowned out by the din of Trumpian news. The coronavirus pandemic has brought it back. Will Trump use the virus to establish autocracy? Is American democracy dead? Just in the past few days, Trump has asserted that the Presidency gives him “total” authority, made sure that his name will appear on the stimulus checks that Americans will receive, and threatened to adjourn Congress in order to fill Administration vacancies without waiting for Senate confirmation. Is this the definitive end of American democracy? No, but only because when a democracy dies there is rarely a definitive time of death. Democracy is never pronounced dead at the scene.
Trump walked back his “total authority” claim after a day. The design of the stimulus checks will, it seems, be the result of some negotiation: Trump’s name will not appear at the top or on the signature line but, rather, in the “memo” line. (Some Republicans, such as Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, think that this is in line with tradition.) The threat to adjourn Congress may not be as radical as it sounded at first: Trump certainly didn’t invent the “recess appointment,” and in fact it was the Obama Administration that fought for the right to make such appointments during a pro-forma session (although the Supreme Court declared this an overreach of powers). At the end of the day, like at the end of so many days, all of Trump’s threats and claims can be normalized or chalked up to so much authoritarian hot air. This is exactly how autocracy works: it creeps in, staking one claim after another, but it does not firmly and finally announce its own arrival.
It has perhaps never been so clear to so many people at once how warped time can feel. Coronavirus time moves at breakneck speed and doesn’t move at all. Instead of linear time, we have time that’s loopy, dotted, and sometimes perpendicular to itself. So it is with autocratic time: it lurches forward, circles itself, marches in place, and leaps. In history books, time is linear, with clearly marked mileposts: the day the Bolsheviks took power; the day Hitler claimed emergency powers; the day Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh. It is not like that in real life, not even during the pandemic.
Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has received a lot of attention for using the coronavirus to consolidate power. He has declared an indefinite state of emergency, given himself the right to suspend any law, and instituted rule by decree. But framing these moves as the death of Hungarian democracy risks eliding the past dozen years of Hungarian history, when Orbán established a monopoly on political power, changed the constitution to reframe the understanding of the state itself, rewrote history, packed the courts, waged war on civil society, suppressed the media and educational institutions, and consolidated wealth in his inner circle.
Benjamin Netanyahu has used the pandemic to suspend most court cases in Israel and to engineer placing the Knesset on ice. Rodrigo Duterte, in the Philippines, has given himself the power of censorship. Vladimir Putin has not yet used the virus to meaningfully increase his authority, perhaps because he lacks the imagination for increasing his authority more than he already has, after twenty years of dismantling electoral institutions, suppressing the media, subjugating the courts, amassing wealth, destroying civil society, and laying the constitutional framework for eternal rule. Through all these years, Putin has claimed that Russia continues to be a democracy. The Economist’s Democracy Index places Russia a hundred and thirty-fourth out of a hundred and sixty-seven countries, tied with the Republic of the Congo and solidly in the middle of the undemocratic bottom bracket of the index. Yet Russian political scientists continue to argue about how, and when, things will reach a crisis moment, and often refer to the regime as “hybrid,” a term often used in political science to describe regimes that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. From the inside of a country, things generally don’t look as dire as they do from the outside, because conditions are quickly normalized, because people know that things can always get worse, and because modern-day autocrats don’t generally announce when they are usurping power.
The pandemic has so far genuinely bolstered Trump’s power. It has amplified his words by giving him the extraordinary pulpit of the daily coronavirus briefing. It has given his Administration the chance, in the shadow of coronavirus news, to push through legislative and administrative agenda items that otherwise would receive more attention and outrage. It briefly bumped Trump’s approval ratings, which, even having ebbed a bit, remain at all-time high levels for his Presidency. It has, in other words, created all the conditions for Trump to continue his autocratic attempt. The stories of dramatic power grabs elsewhere may also have dangled the hope that at least we will know when the worst has arrived. That is a false promise. The autocratic creep continues.