We decry the global retreat of liberal democracy. It seems not a day goes by without some outrage as these thugs break or overturn some norm, convention, rule or law inconvenient to their wishes. That's what authoritarians do. They are, in their black hearts, reactionary.
Reactionaries tend to follow their own code, a playbook of sorts. They set out to neutralize democracy. A common first step is to undermine the rule of law and that begins by weakening and corrupting the judiciary. In Trump's case that has meant stacking federal courts with new judges chosen for political reliability. Trump even has an Attorney General who is blatantly corrupt and steers his justice department to suit Trump's needs and demands.
They are also quick to spot ways to turn emergencies to their own purposes.
Foreign Affairs has an excellent discussion of how leading authoritarians responded to and, in some cases, exploited the Covid-19 pandemic.
For authoritarian leaders, staying in power nearly always trumps the public’s welfare. The logic of this priority leads many regimes not only to censor information about a crisis but to exploit crises to augment their power. Adolf Hitler used the Reichstag fire to consolidate his control over the German government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned a 2016 coup attempt into an opportunity to silence opposition. In the aftermath of a crisis, a temporary state of emergency may become normalized—“no longer the exception but the rule,” as the anti-Nazi philosopher Walter Benjamin put it.
The coronavirus pandemic tempts such a response among authoritarian rulers. Hungary has already gone down this road. On March 30, Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared a state of emergency, ostensibly to help contain the virus. Over the previous decade, Orban had already domesticated the media, the judiciary, and the Hungarian parliament. The pandemic was the crisis he needed to complete his autocratic capture of the state. Orban now rules by decree, and only he decides when the state of emergency may end.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, used the pandemic to get his impending corruption trial postponed and to allow the state’s internal security service, Shin Bet, access to cell phone data on public safety grounds (the potential for abuse is clear).Yesterday's Guardian editorial addressed how Trump's Indian pal, Narendra Modi, has bungled the pandemic.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had just laid the foundations for authoritarian governance when the pandemic came: they discredited the press in their respective countries, used machismo as a strategy of legitimation, and made bargains with cronies, such as rollbacks on environmental protections, in exchange for political support. The two leaders have deployed all of these classic authoritarian tools in their responses to the pandemic. Using misinformation, they have underplayed the severity of the virus, peddled unproven cures, and dismissed experts who would not adopt their messaging. Bolsonaro fired his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, for warning the public to practice social distancing and to stay at home. Trump barely tolerates Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and has retweeted support for the #FireFauci campaign on social media. To sustain the fiction of their omnipotence, Trump and Bolsonaro have refused to wear protective gear and made a point of shaking hands with everyone in sight, as though they were personally immune from harm.
Last month Narendra Modi, India’s strongman prime minister, performed the religious rites to consecrate the building of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque whose destruction two decades ago sparked deadly nationwide riots. The ceremony saw Mr Modi appropriate the role traditionally performed by Hindu kings. “The entire nation is under Ram’s spell today,” the prime minister told his audience. “By God’s grace, a golden chapter is being written by India.”
India used to boast of having the world’s fastest-growing major economy. It now has the fastest-growing coronavirus crisis, with almost 100,000 new infections reported each day. Its GDP has contracted by almost a quarter. The country makes up one third of the world’s new Covid cases and appears to have underestimated the disease’s prevalence.The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, adds this:
Rather than rebuild India’s social fabric, Mr Modi wants to build a panopticon. Critics of his government’s woeful performance have already been muzzled or locked up. A cold war with China blows dangerously hot in the Himalayas. To buttress support Mr Modi stokes Hindu nationalism. The temple ceremony is a way of stirring the emotions of Mr Modi’s fanatical supporters. It also reveals the depths of his denial about India’s Covid crisis.
In Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey, governments are detaining journalists, opposition activists, healthcare workers, and anyone else who dares to criticize the official response to the coronavirus. Needless to say, ignorance-is-bliss is not an effective public health strategy.
When independent media is silenced, governments are able to promote self-serving propaganda rather than facts. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for example, downplayed the coronavirus threat for weeks, apparently wanting to avoid harming Egypt’s tourist industry. His government expelled a Guardian correspondent and “warned” a New York Times journalist after their articles questioned government figures on the number of coronavirus cases.
The government of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan implausibly denies that there are any COVID-19 cases in its prisons, and a prosecutor is investigating a member of parliament—himself a doctor—who says that a seventy-year-old inmate and a member of the prison staff have tested positive. Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-ocha warned journalists to report on government press conferences only and not to interview medical personnel in the field.
Of course, a free media is not a certain antidote. Responsible government is also needed. US President Donald Trump initially called the coronavirus a “hoax.” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called the virus a “fantasy” and preventive measures “hysterical.” Before belatedly telling people to stay home, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ostentatiously held rallies, and hugged, kissed, and shook hands with supporters. But at least a free media can highlight such irresponsibility; a silenced media allows it to proceed unchallenged.
Recognizing that the public is more willing to accept government power grabs in times of crisis, some leaders see the coronavirus as an opportunity not only to censor criticism but also to undermine checks and balances on their power. Much as the “war on terrorism” was used to justify certain long-lasting restrictions on civil liberties, so the fight against the coronavirus threatens longer-term damage to democratic rule.