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Trump’s Authoritarian Tactics During COVID-19

For our latest episode, we had the privilege of sitting down with PEN America’s Washington Director, Thomas O. Melia. We discussed authoritarian power-grabs happening across the globe as COVID-19 rages on, and what’s going on here in the US.

Check out Mila’s interview with Tom here:

By now, Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are well-known. Cozying up to would-be dictators like Rodrigo Duterte, repeatedly praising authoritarian China’s government response to COVID, and ebulliently tweeting about Kim Jong-Un’s return to the land of the living are but a few public examples.

Public outpourings aside, he’s also using several tried-and-true authoritarian tactics in his COVID-19 response. According to The GroundTruth Project, a non-profit organized by Report for America, there are several vital tools authoritarians use. We’re going to take a quick look at the playbook they outlined in their stellar report Democracy Undone: The Authoritarian’s Playbook, and see how Trump is using them.

WEAPONIZING FEAR: This is a political strategy the GOP has long employed to remain relevant and is not exclusive to Trump. Trump used it in the past, but the uncertainty of COVID-19 renders it in stark relief. Remember when he demurred that sending federal relief aid to blue states was unfair? That creates a ton of fear for citizens and politicians nationwide. Or, a little further back, when he suggested states find their own medical supplies? This is not exactly reassuring, mainly because he seems only to have a problem providing aid to his “political enemies,” or anyone living in a Democratic state.

TARGETING OUTSIDERS: This one is so self-evident we don’t need to spend much time on it. His entire campaign and administration converge around this—it’s the reason he’s currently watching Fox News in the Oval Office. If you need a recent example, look no further than his “Chinese virus” branding, which is straight-up xenophobia.

UNDERMINING INSTITUTIONS: This is another Trump Classic. Packing the courts with unqualified toadies, refusing subpoenas, and lambasting the Constitutional process of Impeachment as a “witch hunt” are just a few examples. When we look at COVID-19, remember Trump disbanded the pandemics taskforce in 2018. That would be a mighty handy institution to have in 2020. Instead, we must turn to him and a hastily assembled “taskforce,” which he reportedly considered disbanding before changing his mind.

REWRITING HISTORY: From the beginning, Trump downplayed and ignored the crisis. He spent the entire month of February hardly mentioning it publicly. Suddenly, in mid-March as the pandemic flaired, he knew it was a pandemic all along. He is magically blameless, does not take responsibility, but wants you to know he is still in charge.

EXPLOITING RELIGION: It’s no secret Trump enjoys unyielding support from the nation’s evangelicals. They’ve catapulted him to power, and they are crucial to his reelection. Evangelicals are a voting block still unconvinced by science (in general), and he knows this. The National Day of Prayer in March was a two-fold message to his base: 1) prayer will see America through this pandemic, not science, and 2) the nearly 40% of the country that doesn’t identify as Christian doesn’t matter as much as they do. Even the press release quotes the Bible twice, without mention of any other sacred texts. Very inclusive.

DIVIDING AND CONQUERING: Almost every action Trump takes falls into this unsavory but successful strategy. Shifting blame to Democrats, China, Republicans that don’t fall in line, scientists, etc., help to weaken an already divided population along multiple fault-lines. It’s a winning plan for Trump and a losing one for everyone else in the world.

ERODING THE TRUTH: Brad Parscale should consider using this as Trump’s reelection slogan. He’s made more than 18,000 false statements in his tenure as Commander-in-Chief, and we haven’t seen 18,000 apologies or clarifications. By constantly debasing truth from the highest office in the land, he’s creating a society where it doesn’t matter. When citizens can no longer (or don’t care to) tell truth from fiction, authoritarianism is soon to follow. In terms of national damage, this tactic is the most widespread and most harmful.

As you can see, the current President of the United States of America is seven-for-seven on the autocrat test. The only thing keeping our democracy in place are battered institutions, a Democratic House of Representatives, and YOU, the voting public. We have an opportunity to stop the madness in November. If we fail, it could well be our last.


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