President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been disastrous. He has failed to coordinate the country’s actions at the federal level and to implement a nationwide mitigation strategy. But some have argued that this points to a silver lining: Trump is not seizing the moment to consolidate power or become the strongman many have feared.
This should provide little relief. The danger Trump poses has never stemmed from his having a carefully worked out playbook for weakening America’s institutions, step by calculating step. Instead, it stems from his reflexive disdain for independent institutions and for the separation of powers.
This is not the case for all authoritarian populists, some of whom have a highly developed sense of their ultimate destination. When Viktor Orbán became the prime minister of Hungary in 2010, he quickly moved to dismantle institutions that limited his power. Within a few years, he was well on his way to dominating the country’s electoral commission, weakening its court system, and limiting the freedom of the press.
Given Orbán’s capacity for discipline and strategy, his use of the pandemic as an excuse to consolidate even more power in his own hands is hardly a surprise. On Monday, the Hungarian parliament was officially suspended. For the indefinite future, Orbán has the power to rule the country by decree. Spreading “false rumors” on social media is now punishable by time in jail.