Headline stories such as President Trump banning TikTok in the U.S. and President Andrés Manual Lopéz Obrador commenting on high profile Mexican elites’ scandals have taken over the media and these leaders’ priorities. With these political circuses, it is easy to forget that these countries continue to be heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic which has left hundreds of thousands dead. Both of these populist leaders have been dismissive of the coronavirus and confronted it weakly, leaving their citizens vulnerable and without effective solutions to the problems plaguing their countries. Their reluctance to focus on the pandemic and instead create political circuses has brought into question their capabilities as leaders, in what direction their countries are headed, and who they are accountable to. Throughout this article, I will outline the main reasons Trump and Lopéz Obrador are leading the U.S. and Mexico towards democratic erosion: first, using political circuses to abdicate political responsibilities; second, embracing totalitarian characteristics; and lastly, why the lack of accountability that these leaders face is a cause for concern.
It is in times of crisis that leaders can demonstrate their capabilities and commitment to the country and citizens’ wellbeing. During the coronavirus pandemic, multiple countries have shown effective quarantining, shut-down orders, mask policies, and generally keeping their citizens well informed. These measures have helped flatten the curve of cases, promoted quick recoveries to pre-coronavirus times, and acted as a testament of good leadership.
However, both Trump and Lopéz Obrador have purposely refused to implement effective responses to the pandemic, resulting in mass infections and deaths in each country. This is particularly alarming as the “abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism.”  Instead of directing government officials’ focus and energies towards passing more stimulus packages for American citizens, Trump has allowed members of the Senate to debate about the deals being pushed forward about TikTok’s operation. Meanwhile, Lopéz Obrador has been most concentrated on the illegal dealings and bribes of former Mexican presidents and other high-level officials instead of focusing on the crumbling economy, failing medical centers, and suffering of the poor. Both men have used political circuses as a distraction technique during this crisis – if the public attention is directed towards scandals, then these leaders do not have to address the pressing matters that they are not capable or unwilling to solve. And when they are successful in this distraction, they damage democracy because they refuse to act responsibly and be the leaders citizens need in times of crisis. They choose to not use their influence and powers to implement common-sense policies to keep citizens safe, resulting in neglect and deterioration of the people, country, and democracy.
This is not to say the security concerns surrounding TikTok and elites’ scandals are not valid. The security concern with TikTok is reasonable, yet it is being brought to center stage at an inappropriate time when there have been more than seven million cases and over two hundred thousand deaths due to the coronavirus in the United States. Additionally, concerns surrounding TikTok are mainly focused on data privacy and security – not the typical national security concerns of terrorism, classified information, dangerous intelligence, etc. which would warrant the focus that President Trump is ascribing TikTok. Similarly, the corruption that has been revealed to be ingrained in Mexico’s elite is a cause of concern – but Lopéz Obrador is facing over seven hundred thousand cases and close to eight thousand deaths in Mexico. He is choosing to instead focus on the “telenovela” playing out in his country and elevating his platform of being an anti-corruption hero rather than showing up for the people that elected him. Both leaders should be focusing on the deaths and infections as a result of the pandemic and offering effective leadership that is expected with their election to serve their citizens rather than continue distracting their governments with more trivial matters.
When speaking about totalitarianism in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Ardent warns about the unpredictable track a country can be set on due to political forces that cannot be “trusted” nor follow “rules of common sense.”  This, according to her, resembles “sheer insanity” – when responsible leadership is tossed aside and the best interests of citizens are ignored.  It also describes the tracks that both Trump and Lopéz Obrador are pushing in their countries. While most of the world recognized the threat of coronavirus and took action accordingly, neither Trump nor Lopéz Obrador followed their lead. Instead, Trump played down what he knew was a deadly coronavirus and Lopéz Obrador claimed that a clean conscience could keep people safe from infection, both encouraging life to go on as normal. The pandemic requires to be taken seriously and for appropriate action to be taken, but as these leaders call for normalcy, it presents a danger because they refuse to accept reality – and totalitarianism thrives on the “escape from reality into fiction.”  By focusing on scandals, drama, and noise, Trump and Lopéz Obrador have used their political circuses as totalitarian propaganda to steer their countries’ focus off track from addressing coronavirus concerns. They continue to promote democratic backsliding as they embrace characteristics of totalitarian regimes every time they neglect to provide common-sense policies to help their countries find relief.
When both countries are suffering as they are, but the leaders refuse to act, who do they answer to for their lack of leadership? This question of accountability is key because it is embedded in the idea of a functioning democracy where there is “answerability and punishment.” When talking about answerability, or the obligation of leaders to explain and justify their actions, there is a lack of it in both the U.S. and Mexico.  Neither Trump nor Lopéz Obrador have admitted to having a failed approach to the pandemic – in fact, both have applauded themselves for their supposed heroic leadership in confronting the coronavirus. Therefore, these leaders do not recognize that they have failed to help their countries. Punishment, or the capacity of citizens to hold leaders accountable for their actions, is the answer when it comes to this lack of answerability.  But punishment appears to have disappeared in these countries as citizens either lack the power to express their dissatisfaction or – more worryingly – are willing to “ tolerate – and even support – authoritarian measures during … crises.”  It is true that elections, especially the U.S. General Election coming up November 2020, are a potential form of punishment to vote these leaders out. But where are immediate avenues to hold leaders accountable? Without them, leaders such as Trump and Lopéz Obrador are free to exercise their powers without being checked by the people affected by their governance. Accountability is lacking and although it is not the only reason for democratic erosion, it is a pressing one during this pandemic and just one part of the many reasons backsliding is being observed in both countries.
With the combination of lack of accountability, increasing edging towards totalitarianism, and embracing of political circuses, the United States and Mexico under their current leadership face bleak futures. Steven Levistsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. Broadway Books, 2018, 19.
 Jeffrey Isaac, “How Hannah Ardent’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America.” The Washington Post, 17 December 2016.
 Ellen Lust and David Waldner, “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, 18 January 2018, 95.
 How Democracies Die, 94.