It Didn’t Take Long: COVID-19 and the Right’s Assault on Democracy

Before the COVID-19 crisis was a month old, the Right already was exploiting it to attack democracy in the United States.

Unlike Viktor Orban’s quick overthrow of democracy in Hungary, the U.S. is seeing a slower-moving coup. But it is real nonetheless.

We shouldn’t have been surprised, as Naomi Klein laid out how this works in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Capitalists and their allies in government have used natural and human-made disasters to ram through changes to their benefit while the greater populace is distracted and struggling to return to normal. Examples abound: the rapid conversion of New Orleans’ neighborhood schools to charters following Hurricane Katrina, the profiteering of military contractors off the aftermath of 9-11, the cash-grabs of the big banks during the 2008-2009 economic collapse.

So say goodbye to everyone pulling together, although that was already moot from the earliest of Trump’s COVID-19 briefings in which he lurched between sober delivery of guidance from medical professionals to self-congratulation, attacks on the media, threats against governors who criticized lack of federal action, and bizarre promotion of unproven or dangerous treatments. Trump also has inflamed his base into attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci – the most experienced and respective member of the COVID-19 response team – and encouraged the reckless “liberation” rallies against his administration’s own guidance.

But behind the administration’s feckless and bumbling so-called leadership is a well-coordinated campaign at both federal and state levels to use the crisis to cement policy gains for the benefit of corporations, the wealthy, and the Republican Party and Trump’s larger agenda:

  • Trump’s April 20 announcement that he would suspend most legal immigration was only the latest of a series of moves to carry out his xenophobic anti-migrant agenda under the cover of protecting the tottering economy. As reported on CNN, “refugee resettlement has been put on hold, visa offices are largely closed, citizenship ceremonies aren’t happening, and the administration is swiftly removing migrants, including children arrested at the border, among a slew of other changes.”
  • Trump, in defiance of Congress, is moving full speed ahead on expanding the U.S.-Mexico border wall, paid for by raiding Department of Defense construction and counternarcotic funds.
  • The administration is using the crisis to roll back environmental protections, including gutting an Obama administration auto emissions rule, placing limitations on studies the Environmental Protection Agency can use in the rulemaking process, allowing factories and power plants to regulate themselves during the crisis, moving to gut the Migratory Bird Act and expanding drilling projects on previously protected lands.
  • On the state level, several states with Republican governors have severely restricted access to abortion on the grounds that it is an “elective” procedure taking medical resources away from COVID-19 treatment.
  • COVID-19 also has become a tool for back-door voter suppression, with Republicans resisting efforts to expand no-excuse voting by mail, thereby forcing voters to choose between their health and right to vote. Fortunately, this gambit backfired in Wisconsin where, despite an alliance of Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court, the voters elected the Democratic candidate for state Supreme Court. Democratic Governor Tony Evers made an 11th-hour attempt to delay the election in the name of public safety and extend the time for absentee voting, both of which were rejected by the Court. But while suppression couldn’t deliver victory to the Republicans, it perhaps taught a cruel lesson to voters stubborn enough to show up anyway, with at least 52 cases of COVID-19 identified among those who voted or worked the polls. Yet this struggle goes on in other states, while at the same time Republicans in Congress killed provisions in the bailout bill to keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat, without which absentee voting would be a dead letter, no pun intended. (The administration floated the possibility a loan to the Postal Service on the condition of exerting more control over it, including strangling its unions and likely setting it on the path to further privatization. Then Trump threatened to withhold future aid altogether if it doesn’t raise its package delivery prices. Stay tuned.)

This all came on top of the corporate money grab from the $2 trillion stimulus bill, with large companies making off with much of the federal money that was supposed to go toward keeping small businesses afloat. Trump made sure there would be as little public scrutiny as possible into how the money is spent by firing the official appointed to exercise oversight of the program days after he was appointed.

Helping Trump and the Republicans get away with this is the sidelining of Congress, unable to hold regular meetings due to the need for social distancing. The Democratic House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in particular, have one hand tied behind their backs as they remain scattered around the country, able to do little more than vote on COVID-19 response bills and try to get attention in the media. Meanwhile Trump’s frequently unhinged daily briefings get blanket media coverage.

From time to time Trump has brought his dictatorial yearnings to the fore. He proclaimed that “my authority is total” in response to a question on when businesses around the country would reopen, only to backtrack in the face of pushback from governors. He has spoken openly about using an obscure provision of the Constitution to unilaterally adjourn the House of Representatives for no apparent reason other than it might raise objections to his naked power grabs.

One shudders to think what might have happened if COVID-19 had struck two years earlier when Republicans controlled all levers of the federal government, as Orban’s party did in Hungary. Would a House and Senate united under Republican control have put up any resistance to Trump’s claims to unilateral rule?

And what comes next? We have a general election coming up. No one would put it past Trump to try canceling it and remaining in office until the crisis is completely over, which could be years from now. Joe Biden himself has speculated that Trump may attempt this ploy. But even if this is several bridges too far, there are plenty of opportunities to manipulate the electorate and suppress the vote, with Trump holding forth on nationwide television and Twitter. Republican governors across the nation are ready to collaborate once their leader gives the signal. Meanwhile Biden is sequestered in his home, relegated to sending out video messages. Voters eager to oust Trump are ready to take to the streets, but the streets are off-limits – for how long?

Of course, a good crisis is not to be wasted, and the Left has also generated ideas for using the COVID-19 crisis to enact fundamental changes in national policy (as in DSA’s period COVID-19 Bulletins and an article in Democratic Left by Dee Knight). COVID-19 has exposed the racial and class fault lines in the United States; while the virus has attacked and killed across the spectrum of income and race, minorities and the poor have suffered disproportionately. Even before the economy fully reopens, look for calls to enact full employment programs as part of a Green New Deal, expand unemployment insurance and enact universal sick and family leave, direct development aid to struggling minority communities, expand voting by mail, and – perhaps the most obvious need of all – bring Medicare for All to fruition, and the sooner the better. Too many lives were lost because of lack of health insurance, and too many lost their insurance coverage along with their jobs due to the massive closure of workplaces.

Does the Left’s eagerness to remake the country in the face of the crisis make it the mirror image of the Right? Well, one side wants to use the COVID-19 experience to constrict democracy and exacerbate inequality, the other to expand the franchise and improve the quality of life for the 99 percent. Not exactly tomato, tomahto. The Right has won most of the battles so far; it’s time to fight back.

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