I was totally gobsmacked when I read Kevin Drum’s recent post entitled “Donald Trump Is Not an Authoritarian”. Drum’s thesis is pretty simple, namely that Trump has not used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to seize emergency powers but has instead “been eager to push authority down onto the states and away from the federal government”. According to Drum, this shows that “Trump has never been hungry for power. On the contrary, he’s afraid of power because he’s afraid of being truly responsible for anything…Trump is driven by a desire for attention and praise-and its flip side, revenge against those who malign him… He just wants all the credit”.
To paraphrase Drum, just because Trump has not followed in Viktor Orban’s footsteps and grabbed emergency powers must mean he is not an autocrat. The piece is yet another remarkable example of just how much members of the media still minimize the enormous damage that Trump has already done to our institutions and how much his behavior is both normalized and accepted. The two grains of truth in Drum’s analysis are that Trump has never really been hungry for pure political power but is driven by a desire for attention. That does not mean he is not an autocrat. He is clearly hungry for power, but the kind of power that lets him accumulate more money and allows him to dominate and abuse others without being held to account in order to feed his narcissism. Perhaps tyrant is a better description of Trump than autocrat. Both seek power but in different ways and with different ends.
Moreover, Drum is clearly wrong when he says that Trump is not using the pandemic as an excuse to expand his power. He has actually gone about that in two distinct ways — first, by using the non-stop coverage of the pandemic to enact unrelated policies under the radar; and second, by using the government’s response to the pandemic for both simple graft and also as leverage for his own re-election campaign.
In late March, the Trump administration announced that it was rolling back the fuel efficiency standards for automakers, reducing the mileage standards that they would have to reach by 2026 and thereby adding the one-year equivalent of 237 coal plants in carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, the EPA had already announced that it was indefinitely suspending enforcement of nation’s environmental laws. Trump has used the pandemic emergency to suspend immigration laws protecting minors and asylum seekers, simply returning them directly back to Mexico and effectively shutting the border. There are apparently exceptions to this new policy but CBP won’t reveal what those exceptions are for fear immigrants might actually take advantage of those rights, an approach more common in totalitarian states. As with the EPA, the policy will remain in place indefinitely. The State Department has stopped issuing new passports, with a sole exception for a life-or-death emergency requiring international travel, as well as visa services, potentially creating problems for foreign students here in the US. Those foreign students are already severely challenged by school closures and their student visa status is at risk if they are not attending classes.
The National Labor Relations Board has just issued a new rule that allows the process of decertifying a union to begin just 45 days after a union finally gets certified and with just 30% of the union members supporting such a move. In addition, it repeals a prior rule that delayed a union vote if the company was accused of union-busting or coercion. As one economist noted, “The Trump NLRB takes this moment to publish a rule that will make it harder both for workers to unionize and to keep unions they have…Shameful does not even begin to describe this”. This action followed a 2018 announcement from the Federal Labor Relations Authority that would allow federal employees to opt out of their union at any time during the year, not just during the current limited period that currently existed. In addition, the Labor Department announced it will not be enforcing the equal opportunity clause in federal contracts for at least three months.
The Department of Interior announced it was disestablishing the Mashpee Wampanoag Native American tribe and seizing its 321 acres of land. This disestablishment of a tribe has only happened once before since the 1950s. The reason for Interiors’ action seems to be Trump’s connection to two Rhode Island casinos that would be threatened by the casino the Wampanoag tribe wanted to build. The Rhode Island casinos hired Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union and whose wife works in the Trump White House, as their lobbyist. In addition, one of the major investors in the Rhode Island casinos is the head of a hedge fund that also used to own the National Enquirer, the paper that Trump used to silence women in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
Now, one could say that Trump would have taken most of these actions without the pandemic raging. But the non-stop coverage of COVID-19 certainly provided great cover for limiting the political damage. At the same time, the pandemic has provided enormous opportunity for graft and self-dealing to enrich Trump, his entourage, and his favored oligarchs not only monetarily but politically. Trump has demanded praise from governors in return for aid and then used clips of those governors praising Trump in his political ads. The Trump administration is seizing medical equipment ordered by the states and then routing it to other favored states or providing it to the private sector who then sell it at an enormous markup back to the states, possible including the state that had original thought it had purchased the equipment. Democratic Governor Jared Polis of Colorado purchased 500 ventilators only to have them seized by FEMA. Trump then announced he was sending 100 ventilators to Colorado at the request of Republican Senator Cory Gardner who is one of the most vulnerable red state senators up for re-election this fall. The private companies who are directly benefitting from this federal hijacking scheme are firms like McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein, some of whom were previously implicated in the opioid epidemic.
For days, Trump touted these public-private partnerships to deal with crisis, providing free PR to numerous corporate executives. Verily was building a website that never got off the ground except for a few counties in California. Target, Walgreens, Walmart and CVS all promised to provide drive-thru testing. As of March 27, only five such locations existed primarily because the government still can’t provide enough tests. Other corporate executives who are big Trump donors have joined the President’s daily COVID-19 briefings/election rallies. A well-connected Republican fundraiser and consultant actually shuttered his consultancy in order to set up a new company to provide medical supplies to states. Remarkably, he had already managed to sell some hard-to-find supplies to Georgia and other states. Profiteering and price gouging are rampant, with federal complicity. Royal Philips, a Dutch company, originally agreed to sell the US National Stockpile 10,000 ventilators at a price of around $3,300 apiece way back in September. The company never delivered those ventilators yet now the federal government is buying 43,000 ventilators from Royal Philips at around $15,000 apiece. A company that botched a large Iraq War contract to build 150 health centers and has done little business with the US government in the last dozen years was awarded a $40 million contract by the DOD to build a 200 bed hospita l in a park in the Bronx. The contract seems unfathomable when you consider that the Army Corps of Engineers built a 4,000 bed hospital in the Javits Center for just $30 million.
Jared Kushner has been running a “shadow” COVID-19 task force that seems primarily focusing on interacting and coordinating with the private sector. The task force is apparently violating both the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) with its use of private email and secret meetings. Without proper record-keeping, the opportunity for graft is significant. We do know that Oscar Health has done significant work on building the coronavirus website that Trump and Pence touted would be available to everyone nearly a month ago. Kushner’s brother is a co-founder and major investor in Oscar Health and Jared himself had an ownership stake before he joined the White House. The relationship between Oscar Health and Kushner means that the company’s work for the government probably violated federal ethics laws. Similarly, we do not know whether Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine is driven by his desperation to find a miracle cure before the election, or whether pushing it will benefit some of his oligarch donors, or simply because he will personally be enriched through his small holdings in Sanofi, a maker of the drug.
Trump’s assault on the Constitution continues during this pandemic. His DOJ asked Congress to allow for the indefinite detention of Americans without trial. That idea was quickly shot down. The separation between church and state is being challenged by the SBA’s decision to allow religious institutions to receive the potentially forgivable loans to cover 75% of payroll available under the COVID-19 relief bill. Ealier in the administration, FEMA allowed amended its rules to allow churches, mosques, and other houses of worship to receive federal emergency aid. It is unlikely that this Supreme Court will even hear a challenge to the SBA’s rule change.
Trump has also increased his attack on any kind of oversight, targeting Inspector Generals. He added a signing statement to the COVID-19 relief bill that he could prohibit the Inspector General overseeing the allocation of pandemic relief from communicating with Congress at all, effectively killing that lawfully mandated oversight created by the actual relief legislation. He soon followed that by firing Glenn Fine, the person the panel of Inspector Generals chose to fill the slot of Inspector General heading the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC). Fine was also the DOD Inspector General and by removing him from that position, Trump made Fine ineligible for the job at PRAC. Trump then put a man who was one of his impeachment lawyers in charge of the oversight of the $500 billion corporate bailout. While all this was going on, Trump also fired the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community, the man who had forwarded the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine to Congress as was required by law.
One of the features of a well-running autocracy is that functionaries can already anticipate what the tyrant wants. The Secretary of the Navy provided an almost perfect example of just how far down that road we have gone. When the captain of a US aircraft carrier got frustrated by the lack of response from the Department of Defense regarding the COVID-19 outbreak on his ship, he sent out a harsh memo that went public. Of course, any criticism of the government’s pandemic response that strays from the President’s message that everything is under control will not be tolerated and the Secretary of the Navy knew exactly what needed to be done. He relieved the captain of his command and then flew out to the carrier to personally tell the crew that the captain who was desperately trying to save their lives “was too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this”, adding that what the captain did “was a betrayal”. But the Secretary forgot the most important rule when dealing with a tyrant, especially Trump, and that is never upstage the leader. The Secretary himself was then summarily relieved.
Like the pandemic itself, Trump’s tyranny continues to rage. While avoiding seizing emergency powers and thereby taking responsibility, Trump is not showing us that he is not an autocrat. Rather, Trump is doing what he has always done, using the situation to advance his own personal economic and political advantage. We have become so inured to the President always doing the worst so that, when he doesn’t, our desperate search for anything resembling normalcy somehow forces us to pretend that Trump isn’t what we have consistently seen him to be. We regularly endure these groundhog day moments of “this is the day Trump became President”. That lasts for a few minutes or even hours, and then the tyranny continues.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on April 11, 2020.