Since the start of 2020, the COVID-19 virus has rapidly enveloped the world, creating crises across nations. For many governments, crises offer the perfect environment for aspiring autocrats to legally expand their power and slowly chip away at existing political institutions (also known as executive aggrandizement).  Given American president Donald Trump’s history of public contempt for democratic norms, it would make sense to closely monitor Trump’s actions during the COVID-19 crisis. Despite the crisis, however, Trump has not definitively abused any of the extended powers available to him in any way that would point to executive aggrandizement and subsequently democratic erosion.
Leaders typically take advantage of crises to expand power, using what’s called the “rally ‘round the flag” effect; during times of crisis, citizen support for the government rises and they’re more likely to permit authoritarian measures in the name of their safety. Consequently, would-be autocrats are eager to exploit crises to dismantle checks and balances and expand their own power. As most constitutions allow for the emergency expansion of power, leaders can exploit the system under the pretense of legality as well.  This executive aggrandizement is often a symptom of democratic erosion.
Other leaders around the world certainly haven’t shied away from taking advantage of the crisis caused by the pandemic, and their new measures have been clear instances of executive aggrandizement. For example, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has closed the courts and cited health reasons for doing so, effectively delaying his trial for corruption charges.
Unlike his fellow leaders, Trump has surprisingly shown some reluctance to use the emergency powers he’s permitted to. It’s not for lack of authority, either; the powers he’s been given through declaring COVID-19 a national emergency are extensive. However, he’s balked at the thought of using them past what is necessary, and there seems to be a consensus among members in the government that Trump has taken a more traditional view of executive power, leaning mostly on powers explicitly granted to him.
Trump even downplays the pandemic, understating its severity and continuously refusing to listen to medical experts. If he were a would-be autocrat, it would be to his advantage to blow the crisis out of proportion in order to seize more power, but Trump seems to be doing the opposite. Officials have even said that Trump had been unwilling to exercise emergency powers because it could detract from his statement that COVID-19 was as dangerous as the flu.
Trump’s lack of aggressive movements doesn’t mean that he has entirely withheld from exercising his powers, though. He has used his newfound powers to push forward an immigration policy he’s been struggling to pass for years. In March, the government restricted all nonessential immigration across the United States’ borders with Canada and Mexico, citing public health safety as the reason. This restriction also places holds on asylum seekers, who Trump has actively been trying to end protections for since he came into office. Given the precedent of other presidential policies established during crises, such as former President George Bush’s surveillance policies after 9/11, many are worried that Trump’s immigration measures will be similarly hard to roll back.
When trying to evaluate whether or not this policy was indicative of executive aggrandizement, however, we should consult the definition. According to Nancy Bermeo, executive aggrandizement consists of “elected executives weaken[ing] checks on executive power one by one… through legal channels”. Though Trump did pass prejudiced policies, he did not seem to make decisions that would permanently increase his executive power or weaken existing checks and balances, both of which would serve as indicators of executive aggrandizement.
One questionable action Trump has taken has been to undercut the inspectors general examining the government response to COVID-19. However, his actions haven’t removed the inspector general position, just a few men filling the role. Furthermore, he’s taken these steps using the powers normally available to him as president. His actions seem to be a result of his steadfast refusal to acknowledge the virus, rather than a threat to government institutions. While the action is still unwise given the virus’ severity, it doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern in terms of executive aggrandizement.
There are many possible reasons for why Trump has failed to take advantage of this extra power, even downplaying the crisis, especially as crises are often taken advantage of by would-be autocrats. Perhaps he was thwarted by the strong democratic checks in place, or maybe he was aware he was under close watch. Maybe this is a part of some grander strategy, or maybe his decisions were based on the whims of his personality. While I have no definitive answer to this question, it doesn’t seem as though Trump has used the COVID-19 crisis in particular to aggrandize his executive power.
However, just because Trump hasn’t utilized his emergency powers yet doesn’t mean that he won’t in the future, or make other plays at power. During the pandemic Trump has made a series of other uncommon abuses to power, even if they haven’t specifically related to executive aggrandizement. He’s rejected science-based decisions about COVID-19 numerous times, put public health at risk, and more. Furthermore, he’s exhibited all four of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s behavioral warning signs for authoritarians, criterion that include matters like rejecting democratic norms and encouraging violence.  Trump may not have expanded his powers during the crisis thus far, but there’s no telling what steps he’ll take next.
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