It is the second pillar of the anti-Trump case that has wobbled curiously in recent weeks. This president allegedly is not just a near-term menace but a long-term one—a leader bent on amassing personal power and undermining constitutional democracy in ways that would last beyond his presidency (which, under the worst scenarios, he might even try, Vladimir Putin-style, to extend illegally if he loses in November.)
The notion of Trump as authoritarian strongman, however, has been cast in an odd light in this pandemic. Would-be tyrants use crisis to consolidate power. Trump, by contrast, has been pilloried from many quarters, including many liberals, for not asserting authority and responsibility more forcefully to combat Covid-19. Rather than seizing on a genuine emergency, Trump was slow to issue an emergency declaration, moved gingerly in employing the War Production Act to help overburdened local health systems, and even now seems eager to emphasize that many subjects—closure of schools and businesses, obtaining sufficient ventilators—are primarily problems for state governors to deal with.
Trump’s apparent personal affinity with Putin, and other dictators, has caused foes to conclude that he has an aesthetic attraction to leaders who don’t let procedural niceties of democracy or law get in their way. But he has shown passivity in what by all rights would be a dream scenario for an authoritarian strongman.
Perhaps the way to think of Trump is as an authoritarian weakman.
“I don’t take any responsibility at all,” Trump said, a line that seems likely to join a pantheon that includes George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you‘re doing a heck of a job,” and Bill Clinton’s “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” as debacle-defining one-liners.
That was in response to a question about inadequate supplies of coronavirus testing kits, which many health experts regard as the essence of why the United States has been flat-footed in containing the spread of disease. But the spirit has animated other dimensions of Trump’s response, in which he has been reluctant to make Washington the focal point of pandemic policy. “The governors,” Trump said at a media briefing on Sunday, “locally, are going to be in command. We will be following them, and we hope they can do the job.”
Quotes like these don’t mean the critique of Trump as aspiring dictator is in terminal condition. But it is on bed rest with a high fever. He “has abdicated the role played by U.S. presidents in every previous global crisis of the past century, which is to step forward to offer remedies, support other nations and coordinate multilateral responses,” editorialized the Washington Post. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt criticized Trump for declining to “mobilize American business” by invoking an emergency, and said the voluntary initiatives he backs instead “are far less aggressive than a mandatory national effort would be.”
Of course, even if Trump isn’t grasping for new power, others in his administration may be. POLITICO’s Betsy Woodruff Swan first reported on the Justice Department’s plan to seek new authority during emergencies, including asking judges to detain people without trial. “Over my dead body,” responded conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah.) “Hell no,” added liberal Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Experience suggests one should not get too fixated on any single image of Trump—a kaleidoscopic figure at most times, and especially including this one in the midst of highly fluid circumstances like a global pandemic. Many appraisals of Trump, from admirers and foes alike, depend in part on how one holds any particular moment up to the light.
The diverse interpretations of Trump critics tend to fall along a spectrum. They tend also to return to a couple of deeply rutted debates.