Hungary, widely celebrated as a model of successful democratization in the 1990s and 2000s, is no longer a democracy.Donald Trump, to put it politely, does not fit the mold of a disciplined strategist. But, guided by his instincts, and believing that he alone represents the people, he chafes against restrictions on his powers. Over time, he has corrupted the purpose of an ever-growing list of democratic institutions, making them serve his own interests instead of the public good.Prior to his run for the White House, Trump did not have a bone to pick with the FBI, with career prosecutors at the Department of Justice, or with civil servants at the State Department. But as he saw that none of these institutions blindly followed his partisan political interests, he attempted to bring each of them under his control. As a result, the rule of law is already seriously damaged.While a disciplined autocrat such as Orbán might be more obviously dangerous to American democracy than an erratic one such as Trump, the latter’s actions fit a similar template that bodes ill for American institutions. Recent history shows that authoritarian populists engage in six categories of assaults on democracy, of which seizing raw executive power is but one. As president, Trump has engaged in each of these behaviors: spreading disinformation, quashing dissent, politicizing independent institutions, amassing executive power, delegitimizing communities, and corrupting elections.He has politicized the Department of Justice to punish his political enemies. He has filled federal agencies with political loyalists, bypassing the Senate’s advice and consent. He has purged those he perceives as disloyal. He has declared a phony “emergency” at the southern border to override Congress’s decision to deny him the money for a border wall. He has used the machinery of government to retaliate against media companies and members of the press who criticize him. And he has corrupted elections by, among other things, attempting to coerce a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political opponent.
Now, these same tendencies are shaping President Trump’s response to the current pandemic.
First, Trump engaged in a campaign of disinformation to downplay the significance of the virus and overplay his personal success in keeping it at bay.
Second, he has attempted to quash dissent by limiting the press’s access to public-health officials critical of his response; he has also threatened to withhold aid from states who don’t “treat us well,” or who question the effectiveness of his administration.
Third, he has sought to delegitimize vulnerable communities by doubling down on restrictive immigration policies at the southern border that have no relation to preventing the virus’s spread, such as the border wall, and that may even exacerbate it.