October 27, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

The simultaneous defining down of both democracy and despotism is 2020’s darkest legacy. Voters are recognizing that their ballots merely choose elective dictators who can exempt themselves from the Constitution simply by pronouncing the word “emergency.” At the same time, despotism is being redefined to signify government failing to force people to do the right thing.

Hundreds of millions of Americans were locked in their homes via governors’ shutdown orders earlier this year. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he may decree a national lockdown if Covid infection numbers rise. More than 10 million jobs have been lost thanks to the shutdown orders and countless misery has been imposed on scores of millions of people unnecessarily isolated from friends and family. 

New York, the state hit worst by Covid, had one of the earliest and strictest lockdowns in the nation. After Gov. Andrew Cuomo swayed the legislature to give him “authorization of absolute power,” as the New Yorker declared, he issued scores of decrees, including one compelling nursing homes to admit Covid-infected patients and permitting Covid-infected staffers to keep working at those homes. More than 10,000 New York nursing home patients died of Covid. In June, Cuomo said the nursing homes deaths occurred “because the staff brought in the infection,” 

A New Yorker profile explained that Cuomo and his aides saw the battle over Covid policy as “between people who believe government can be a force for good and those who think otherwise.” For many liberals and much of the nation’s media, placing people under house arrest, padlocking schools, and bankrupting business vindicated government as “a force for good.”

But the lockdowns failed to prevent almost nine million Americans from testing positive for Covid (the actual number of cases may be ten times higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control). As AIER’s Jeffrey Tucker quipped, “Mitigating disease through compulsory lockdowns is like cleaning your house by bombing it.” The World Health Organization’s envoy for Covid-19, David Nabarro, warned that “lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.” Nabarro also warned that “we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year” or “at least a doubling of child malnutrition.”

Lockdowns that were initially justified to “flatten the curve” have been perpetuated on increasingly ludicrous pretexts: 

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently decreed that Covid restrictions would be perpetuated in California counties based on voter turnout, alcohol availability, and other non-health factors. California assemblyman Kevin Kiley groused, “An entire county can be kept shut down because certain areas are judged to be lacking in ‘equity,’ even if the whole county has relatively few cases of Covid.”
  • In Washington, D.C., the local government is perpetuating private and public school shutdowns and other restrictions as long based on a newly-decreed standard: “a requirement that more than 60 percent of new cases be closely connected to other known cases.” The city currently can connect less than 10% of cases, so this Veto on Normalcy can last forever – or at least as long as devotees pledge their devotion to (mindless) “data and science.” D.C. Covid mania is so extreme that worshippers at the Basilica at Catholic University have been prohibited from performing the “stations of the cross” inside the church, instead being ordered to sit in a pew. 

The contract between citizens and the government in this nation hinges on elected politicians obeying the Constitution. After Covid crackdowns obliterated constitutional rights, courts slammed run-a-mok rulers: 

  • Federal judge William Stickman IV last month condemned Pennsylvania’s Covid restrictions: “Broad population-wide lockdowns are such a dramatic inversion of the concept of liberty in a free society as to be nearly presumptively unconstitutional.”
  • The Michigan Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had extended a “state of emergency” far beyond what an unconstitutional state law allowed.
  • Federal judge Daniel Domenico last week ruled that some of Colorado’s Covid restrictions violated religious freedom: “The Constitution does not allow the State to tell a congregation how large it can be when comparable secular gatherings are not so limited, or to tell a congregation that its reason for wishing to remove facial coverings is less important than a restaurant’s or spa’s.”
  • In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down a state official’s stay-at-home order as “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable.”

The U.S. Department of Justice declared earlier this year: “There is no pandemic exclusion … to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards.” Attorney General William Barr declared last month that imposing “a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery… this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

But most of the media cheered almost every arbitrary restriction imposed by any government official in the name of fighting Covid. University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner fretted in the Washington Post that “judicial opposition to the lockdown orders is not just about religious liberty. It’s also, and perhaps really, about the role of government in American life.” And any limit on government power is equivalent to national suicide, apparently. A New York democratic legislator told the New Yorker that Gov. Cuomo is “inclined towards tyranny. But in a crisis that’s what people want.” The media’s valorization of Cuomo helped make his new book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, a bestseller. Tyranny is comforting to some people regardless of how much havoc and pointless suffering tyrants inflict. 

For many liberals, mandatory masks have become the new version of the Emancipation Proclamation. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, presidential candidate Joe Biden declared, “We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask — not as a burden but as a patriotic duty to protect one another.” When asked if he will force everyone to wear a mask, Biden replied, “This isn’t about freedom, it’s about freedom for your, your neighbors.” Biden also declared, “Every single American should be wearing a mask when they’re outside for the next three months, at a minimum.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in July that a federal mask mandate would be “authoritarian” but endorsed a national mask decree last week. 

The ultimate symbol of maskless tyranny became Trump’s White House balcony appearance, when he removed his mask and muttered a few words after exiting Walter Reed Hospital. Even though no one was standing close by, Trump was widely compared to Mussolini – as if not wearing a mask was the ultimate betrayal of the American people. 

Rather than campaigning against Trump’s abuses of power, Biden and the Democrats are condemning Trump for not seizing far more power to pretend to keep everyone safe from everything. During the first years of the War on Terror, some servile Republicans cheered on Bush administration travesties with the throwaway line: “You don’t have any constitutional rights if you’re dead.” Nowadays, many frightened Americans seem ready to support perpetual lockdowns based on the axiom: “You don’t have any rights if anyone tests positive for Covid-19.” A virus with a 99.9% survival rate has spawned a 100% presumption in favor of despotism. 

The failure of iron fist policies should be the storyline of the 2020 election but instead Biden and much of the media want to double down on repression. Can the votes that are cast in the coming week close the authoritarian Pandora’s Boxes that have opened across the nation? Or will conniving invocations of “data and science” suffice to blight Americans’ rights and liberties in perpetuity? 

James Bovard

James Bovard

James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications. He is a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a frequent contributor to The Hill, and a contributing editor for American Conservative

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