The Coronavirus Has Not Halted Trump’s Power Grab
Both the president and his party are committed to a long-term project of impunity from both the law and the electorate.
by Adam Serwer
An hour or so into Monday’s daily presidential briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, Trump declared that his political opponents should “not be allowed” to win the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats “want to make Trump look as bad as they can, because they want to try and win an election that they shouldn’t be allowed to win based on the fact that we have done a great job. We built the greatest economy in the world. I’ll do it a second time,” Trump declared. “We got artificially stopped by a virus that nobody ever thought possible and we handled it and we’ve built a team and we built an apparatus that’s been unbelievable.”
Even for Trump, who spits falsehoods at a breathtaking pace, that paragraph is remarkable; as a retired moisture farmer from Tatooine once put it, every word of what he just said was wrong. Job growth under Trump has been slower than during his predecessor’s last three years in office. The president was warned about the danger posed by the novel coronavirus in early January, and chose to ignore his advisers, believing it was another public-relations problem he could bluster his way through. The economy had to be “artificially stopped” because the federal government dithered until early March, as Trump insisted the Chinese government had the outbreak contained and falsely told the public that cases would “soon be down to zero.” The Democratic Party, despite its criticisms of the president, is prepared to hand him another $1 trillion in stimulus funds to prop up the economy, which is $3 trillion more than the zero dollars Republicans were willing to give his predecessor to prevent a severe economic downturn from becoming a depression.
Although the pestilence that has killed more than 10,000 Americans and shut down the U.S. economy is understandably dominating the headlines, the Trump administration’s efforts to erode democracy and the rule of law have not subsided. The authoritarianization of the federal government has hampered its response to the pandemic, squandering scarce resources on shoring up the president’s lies and pursuing his political interests at the public’s expense. This is the predictable result of an authoritarian logic in which the preservation of the regime takes precedence over the safety of its own citizens, because the leader is the incontestable expression of popular will.
Some of the damage of the president’s authoritarian instincts is easy to catalog. Trump demands that public-health officials shower him with obsequious praise during any public appearance. He has allowed his hapless son-in-law, whose only qualifications are being born rich and marrying the president’s daughter, to interfere with federal officials trying to contain the outbreak, because he prizes loyalty over expertise. He has reportedly allowed his political interests and personal pique to dictate which states received requested aid and which do not.
In the midst of all this, Trump’s efforts to reshape the federal government from an entity meant to serve the public interest into a mere subsidiary of the Trump Organization meant to serve Donald Trump have continued uninterrupted.
On Friday evening, Trump fired the intelligence-community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, in a blatant act of retaliation for forwarding the whistleblower complaint to Congress that led to Trump’s impeachment. The complaint accurately described how Trump tried to extort Ukraine into publicly implicating his prospective Democratic rival Joe Biden in a crime that never took place, in an attempt to rig the 2020 election in his favor.
Shortly after the passage of the $2 trillion stimulus package in late March, Trump declared his intention to not comply with its oversight provisions. Then, on Friday, he appointed a White House attorney, Brian Miller, to oversee the $500 billion fund set aside for stabilizing large corporations. Although Miller has previously worked as a government watchdog, his most recent job was as part of the legal team defending Trump from impeachment. On Tuesday, Trump also fired Glenn Fine, the lead watchdog overseeing a panel of inspectors general who are in turn overseeing the overall stimulus package.
The president’s personal income largely derives from the hospitality industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. The public deserves to know whether he will be directing taxpayer funds to prop up his own businesses, an outcome the president has refused to rule out. But Trump has done his best to ensure that if he uses his authority to enrich himself with taxpayer dollars, the public will be the last to hear of it.
Trump lashed out at another inspector general on Monday, over a report that described in vivid terms the equipment shortages that U.S. hospitals are facing. Medical workers, it said, were “trying to make their own disinfectant from in-house chemicals, running low on toilet paper and food, and trying to source face masks from nail salons.” Trump declared that the report’s conclusions, which were drawn from direct interviews with health-care professionals at “323 hospitals across 46 States” and territories currently attempting to contain the outbreak, were “just wrong” and called the report “another fake dossier.”
The target of the president’s purge of independent watchdogs is clear: those officials who put the public interest above their loyalty to Donald Trump. Officials who uphold their duty to the American people, or even give the slightest impression of doing so, will find their careers in danger. They exist not, as their jobs have previously been understood, to provide the public with vital information about the functioning of the government, but to conceal inconvenient facts and exalt the divine foresight of the president. If the truth does not glorify the leader, it must be changed or suppressed. Even more important, where the law conflicts with his will, the law must be disregarded—and those who are unwilling to do so are not fit to serve.
The president and the institutional GOP are executing parallel, complementary campaigns: Trump is attempting to undermine the rule of law for personal and political gain; keeping him in office is crucial to the Republican Party’s larger goal of locking its opponents out of power by narrowing, restricting, or altering the franchise to insulate the party from a changing electorate.
The president’s goals are venal and petty; the GOP’s long-term objectives are far more ambitious. Trump is simply a convenient vehicle for the latter, a figure whose prejudice channels the Republican base’s moral instinct that those unlike them have a lesser claim on American citizenship, and that democracy would be more genuine without their influence. Americans hoping to change the direction of the country will have to battle a plague and fight for the freedom to choose their own leaders at the same time.
Senate Republicans, who might conceivably restrain Trump’s undemocratic impulses, have been muted. As long as Trump maintains his support among the GOP rank and file, the president may defy the rule of law as he likes, without meaningful protest. Checking Trump could interfere with the conservative capture of the federal judiciary, which is vitally important to the Republican Party’s plans for long-term domination.
The disgraceful episode in Wisconsin illustrates the convergence of these parallel efforts. The state held its primary yesterday, after Democratic efforts to delay the election until June because of the pandemic were unsuccessful. At stake is a seat on the conservative-dominated state supreme court; the winner will cast the deciding vote in a case that could disenfranchise up to 200,000 voters in the state. Although the state had already extended the deadline for receiving absentee ballots to April 13, Democrats sought to extend the deadline for postmarking those ballots as well, arguing that because of the large volume of requests for absentee ballots, some voters would not receive theirs in time.
On Monday night, the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, in an unsigned per curiam opinion, shut down an effort to allow voters in the state to send in absentee ballots up to a week late, arguing that states should not alter election rules at the last minute.
That position is often correct—many such last-minute changes may reflect disenfranchisement efforts—but as Mark Joseph Stern points out, Wisconsin has been inundated with requests for absentee ballots because of the pandemic, a situation that the majority disingenuously asserts is not a “substantially different position from late-requesting voters in other Wisconsin elections with respect to the timing of their receipt of absentee ballots.” Although this may seem like a minor technical issue, the Court’s decision means that voters who requested absentee ballots and did not receive them on time had to decide yesterday between risking a lonely death on a ventilator and being disenfranchised.
The coronavirus outbreak has dramatically reduced the number of open polling places in the state’s urban areas—Milwaukee, for example, with its large black population, has gone from 180 polling places to five. In densely populated areas that tend to vote Democratic, voters who sought to fulfill their civic obligation spent hours in line, risking exposure to the coronavirus. In Milwaukee, “the state’s most populous city and the Democratic power base of the state, voting logistics were a categorical nightmare,” The New York Times reported, while “residents of non-Milwaukee areas” where “more drive-through voting options were available, and the elimination of some polling places was likely to have less of an effect,” reported “fewer interruptions in the early hours of Election Day.”
As Leah Litman writes, the justices clearly understand the risks posed by the virus. The Supreme Court has itself postponed oral arguments for the first time since the 1918 flu pandemic, and has been conducting business remotely for weeks. The conservative justices chose not to risk their own lives by continuing with business as usual, but voters, it seems, are not so special.
The Wisconsin Republican Party, which is as committed as the president is to the notion that its political opponents are inherently illegitimate, has sought to exploit the political advantage conferred by the pandemic and its disproportionate effect on urban areas. But this is not an isolated circumstance. The absentee-ballot clash in Wisconsin is just the latest episode in what has been a long-term battle to cement one-party rule in the state.
In the past decade, Wisconsin Republicans have passed voter restrictions that have disproportionately disenfranchised poor and black voters. They so successfully gerrymandered the state’s legislative districts that they managed a two-thirds majority in 2018, a Democratic wave year in which Democrats actually won more than 100,000 more votes in the state. Shortly after that election, they moved to strip the Democratic governor-elect, Tony Evers, of major powers before he even took office.
This all sounds drastic unless you understand that Republicans in Wisconsin, like Trump, view their opposition as illegitimate political actors whose claim to power is inherently invalid. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the state assembly in Wisconsin, said shortly after the 2018 midterms, in which the share of state seats Republicans won were vastly disproportionate to the ballots cast in their favor.
The logic here is easy to follow: Republican votes should count more than Democratic ones. There is nothing sinister in altering the rules to effect an outcome that should have occurred anyway, because the Republican Party represents Real America, and the Democratic Party represents nothing more than illegitimate usurpers.
If the late absentee ballots were counted, there is no guarantee that the state could “suppress disclosure of the election results for six days after election day,” the conservative justices wrote in their opinion siding with the Republican National Committee, and if “any information were released during that time, that would gravely affect the integrity of the election process.”
This is a textbook Orwellian paradox: The integrity of the election process is affected not by the disproportionate disenfranchisement of voters in Democratic areas, but by counting their votes. In ordering the state of Wisconsin to disenfranchise thousands, the Roberts Court is merely protecting democracy from those who threaten its only legitimate outcome, which is the victory of the Republican Party. The self-serving, pompous vagueries of right-wing originalism are never more transparent than when the results of an election hang in the balance.
Although they insist that their ruling “should not be viewed as expressing an opinion on the broader question of whether to hold the election, or whether other reforms or modifications in election procedures in light of COVID–19 are appropriate,” Trump and other Republicans have already weighed in on the matter. Trump has declared that voting by mail would result in “levels of voting that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”After calling voting by mail “corrupt,” Trump was asked why he voted by mail last month in Florida, which led him to clarify, helpfully, “I can vote by mail” because “I’m allowed to.” Indeed!
The trend of the Roberts Court finding a legal pretext to side with Republicans on virtually every voting-rights case that comes before the Court will not reverse itself when more conflicts over how to hold elections during a pandemic arrive on its doorstep. A Court that gave Wisconsin voters the choice between facing a plague and being disenfranchised, when the most that was at stake was a seat on the state supreme court, will not fail to rescue the Republican president should victory depend on its verdict, just as its predecessor did not.
The election-law expert Rick Hasen has argued that although “Republican legislative leaders in Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin have made it clear that they fear increased voter turnout or that vote-by-mail will reduce Republican electoral chances,” there is “no solid evidence that mail-in balloting would hurt Republicans in November.” The mere risk that it might is sufficient reason to allow a plague to disenfranchise as many Americans as possible.
Trump’s declaration from the podium, that his opponents “should not be allowed to win” is not just the crude bluster of a showman. Rather, it is a statement of ideological conviction shared throughout the party, from the halls of Congress to the Supreme Court, from Washington, D.C., to Madison, Wisconsin. This will not be the last time we hear it.