It is no secret that the President is currently and has been exercising his power with increasingly less resistance as his administration has pushed forward through scandals and crises. Despite this, the President and his administration, Congress, nor state governmental leaders could have been prepared for the unprecedented international pandemic that is COVID-19. The pandemic has prompted a near worldwide shutdown and quarantine in order to prevent the contagious disease from unnecessarily spreading from person-to-person. With this new biological crisis comes another hurdle for the Trump administration to maneuver and manage. Keianna Wen’s examination into the president’s behavior towards US policy, state governments, and the news media displays how the president is inching ever closer to an authoritarian leader, who delegitimizes challenge and squabbles with government leaders over compromising with them. While Wen is correct in her analysis into President Trump’s behavior as an authoritarian, she leaves several missing links into how his behavior and policy connects to populists and authoritarians in order to bring down the gavel in sentencing the president’s leadership as looming authoritarianism.
Wen essentially argues that the president, through spreading misinformation, silencing dissent, delegitimizing political opponents, is displaying authoritative-like behavior. She indicates how the postponed elections indicate democratic erosion due to the president’s ability to hold off any votes against him and towards the clear Democratic nominee: Joe Biden. Following this claim, she follows up with a historical precedent of how a crisis did not previously stop an election through the Civil War in 1864. To further argue the president’s authoritarian tendencies, she mentions how he joked about changing the 22nd amendment so that he would be in office for two years. To add to this in relation to Coronavirus, she mentions how when Governor Cuomo of New York asked for more ventilators, the president said, “that he would not heed Cuomo’s demands unless Cuomo stops criticizing the federal government.”  Wen goes on to cite work from authors Lust and Waldner that defines super-presidentialism and how it applies to the president attempting to circumvent the balance of power for total authority. She further analyzes how Lust defines a liberal democracy, and how the president is breaching this definition through his behavior.
Wen, in her indication of the president as an authoritarian-like populist leader, fails to present other authors and their theories that complement the claims that she makes. Authors such as Jan-Werner Müller and Paul Howe respectively discuss their overlapping theories on defining populists and the indicators of democratic erosion. Müller duly defines populist leaders as those who claim to represent the people, anti-pluralist, anti-establishment, anti-elite, and moralist . President Trump serves as the modern American poster-boy for this theory with incessant claims of representing the majority of Americans, attempts to aggrandize and consolidate his executive power, and blatant disregard for political establishments. Paul Howe further identifies certain indicators of democratic erosion that seemingly overlap with President Trump’s behavior: delegitimizing opponents, attacking the media, tolerance of/encouraging violence, disregard for the rule of law, and permitting structural inequality . These traits help to diagnose the virus that plagues democracy from the inside-Populism. The president’s misinformation, initial attempts to repress the Coronavirus contagion, delegitimization of his opponents, and consistent barrage of attacks on any news media that attempts to hold him accountable display these qualities that Howe discusses. In her argument, Wen discusses a definition for liberal democracy that indicates how, “‘Democracy that is characterized by a substantial respect for political rights and civil liberties’” , which is similar to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s analysis in How Democracies Die on the two traits that are necessary for a healthy functioning Democracy: Institutional forbearance and mutual toleration. The lack of institutional forbearance, as indicated by the president’s disregard for the news media and political institutions, along with the neglect of mutual toleration of the Democrat and Republican parties, is but another crack in the foundation of a functioning American democracy.
Despite Wen’s accurate examination of President Trump as leaning towards authoritarian leadership, she inaccurately claims that the postponement of the primaries are both a sign of democratic erosion and would allow Trump to remain in office longer than necessary (if he loses the 2020 election). She cites the Civil War as a previous crisis that failed to stop an election, due to President Lincoln’s dedication to democracy. However, the Civil War was not a rampant respiratory and highly contagious virus that easily transfers from person-to-person. The Civil War was fought on battlefields and political chambers. The danger of COVID-19 is that it is ten times as lethal as the seasonal flu and is asymptomatic in certain carriers, meaning that certain individuals can contract the virus and not show any symptoms, which gives apt reason for the elections to be postponed, to prevent any further cases .
Ultimately, Wen makes a solid point in using the recent examples of the president’s misbehavior towards the news media, state legislators, and overall mishandling of the pandemic crisis to depict how the President is inching closer towards authoritarianism. However, she did fail to include certain other indicators of the president’s nature as a populist who is treading towards authoritarianism. With the inclusion of the previously mentioned authors’ political theories, and how the president’s actions have demonstrated the feasible application of these theses into modern political circumstances, Wen would have been able to strike the gavel of clarity down to echo a ring of truth in a divided courtroom to sentence President Trump and his actions as indicative of looming authoritarianism and his presence as a populist.
1. Wen, Keianna. “Trump’s Authoritarian Tendencies and Its Relation to Covid-19.” Democratic Erosion, 7 Apr. 2020, www.democratic-erosion.com/2020/04/07/trumps-authoritarian-tendencies-and-its-relation-to-covid-19/.
2. Jan-Werner Müller, “What Is Populism?” Özgür Gökmen, Cumhuriyet Akademi (2016)
3. Howe, Paul. “Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation.” Journal of Democracy, Oct. 2017, www.journalofdemocracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Howe-28-4.pdf.
4. Guzman, Joseph. “Coronavirus 10 Times More Lethal than Seasonal Flu, Top Health Official Says.” TheHill, 26 Mar. 2020, thehill.com/changing-america/well-being/prevention-cures/487086-coronavirus-10-times-more-lethal-than-seasonal.