In Belgrade, Serbian troops patrol city streets with fingers on machine guns.
President Aleksandar Vucic, who announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15, said the soldiers are there for protection. The first-term president warns there will not be enough graveyards in the city if people ignore his lockdown orders, the Associated Press reports.
The situation in Serbia is not as unique as one might think.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte announced on Thursday that any person defying quarantine could be shot on sight.
“Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government,” Duterte said in a televised address. “You will lose.”
Around the world, democratic institutions struggle to maintain constitutionalism amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Leaders across the globe,” The New York Times reports, “are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.”
A few hundred miles north of Serbia, the Hungarian parliament this week handed nationalist leader Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decree to combat the pandemic. There was no sunset clause.
Orbán has already issued a decree that allows the state to imprison those found guilty of “disseminating false information or obstructing the state’s crisis response” for up to five years. The nationalist leader told lawmakers his new powers pose “no threat to democracy.”
It’s an age-old tale: would-be strong men exploiting a crisis to consolidate power. It’s also the scenario critics of President Trump feared most.
For years many accused Trump of harboring authoritarian ambitions. Often Trump’s tweets and rhetoric were cited as evidence of his tyrannical ambitions.
“As with so much of what Trump says and tweets, many of these statements are so absurd that they seem clownish. But let’s be frank: They are also the views of an aspiring authoritarian ruler,” wrote Michael Hirsh in a 2019 Foreign Policy article titled, “The Tyrannical Mr. Trump.”
Hirsh’s charge is not unique. One can find dozens of articles written in the last few months in prestigious publications detailing Trump’s alleged authoritarianism.
The American president’s actions, however, tell a different story.
In contrast to Orbán, who threatened to imprison media who publish “false information,” Trump has leaned into his feud with the press. The president has held press conferences nearly every day, fielding dozens of questions from journalists.
On matters of economy, Trump has resisted calls from his political counterparts to nationalize the distribution of medical supply chains in the wake of shortages of medical products.
“The federal government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping,” Trump said. “You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”
Instead of nationalizing economic sectors, Trump has sought to slash bureaucratic red tape at nearly every opportunity. He persuaded the FDA to ease regulations, bringing new drugs to market and allowing private laboratories to test for Covid-19. He issued an order allowing medical professionals to practice across state lines.
The White House has also mostly stayed out of the lockdown fight. Instead of imposing orders, the White House has disseminated social distancing guidelines to state leaders, respecting their sovereignty and giving them flexibility to address the pandemic as they best see fit.
Importantly, at nearly every turn, Trump has nudged America toward a return to normalcy.
Instead of exploiting the crisis to gather more executive powers, Trump was vocal about the possibility of reopening the economy by Easter. When it was announced the social distancing guidelines would be extended through April, on the advice of his medical staff, the president sounded almost apologetic.
“I want our life back again,” the president told reporters in the Rose Garden.
These are not the typical actions of an authoritarian. Panic, fear, and war are the recipe for their rise, the conditions on which they thrive. Normalcy is not.
This does not mean there has not been overreach. The $2 trillion “stimulus” bill, passed by unanimous consent in the Senate and voice vote in the House. The resuscitation of the Defense Production Act, legislation that gives the president command economy powers, which allowed Trump to force General Motors to make life-saving ventilators. Bans on international travel. These are actions that will give many civil libertarians and advocates of limited government indigestion, but they are at least old tools, not new ones.
Ironically, Trump has been pilloried for not using the full extent of his vast federal powers. He’s an “authoritarian weak man,” said Politico.
“This is the kind of national emergency that only presidential leadership can solve,” chided New York Times columnist David Leonhardt. “But President Trump has decided not to solve it.”
Indeed, the most invasive policies confronting Americans are coming from state and local governments, not Washington, D.C. Residents in more than a dozen states face jail and fines of thousands of dollars if they leave their homes. In Colorado, Alaska, Maryland, and Hawaii violators face up to a year in jail if found guilty of leaving their home without proper cause.
Many of the restrictions on daily life are unprecedented, yet they quickly have become the new normal. It’s an ominous time for liberty. Many leaders seem drunk on power.
Yet we should be encouraged that America’s commander-in-chief does not yet appear to be quite so intoxicated, despite the fears of his opponents.
While many of the president’s actions will appall the few Madisonians who still (thankfully) walk among us, they are hardly the earmarks of a wolf-tyrant.