These are difficult times. The world is unraveling around the edges. Societies are reeling under the threat of “The Virus”. Fear is spreading faster than the virus itself. People are looking to survive. Survival instincts are or could start to set in. Citizens are also looking for decisive and strong leadership by those in power around the world.
This is a moment where national security becomes paramount. Nations are looking to solutions, some based on law and in other ways—perhaps. In our age of the strongman, under the guise of nationalism with a dose of populism, this mixture of fear and preserving/securing the nation from the virus, advisers to these various strongmen across the globe see an opportunity to seize further power or at least maintain power.
Dictators, strongmen, and various tyrants who are in power understand deviously the implications of “power”. It keeps them in office and it is worth its weight in political gold. They also understand “fear.” A populace that is afraid is easier govern. They look to the the strongman for guidance. Confronted with an external threat they will rally around the guidance of the head of state.
One tried and true technique by strongmen is using that power, coupled with fear, and focus it on an internal or external threat. I call this the “boogeyman”. Strongmen select a boogeyman to shift the populace’s unease on a perceived or actual threat, allowing that populace to focus their fear and frustrations on that threat. While their citizens are venting their frustrations and fear on the boogeyman, the strongman uses it to rally the nation against it, and seek further power to defeat the threat. The strongman knows all to well how this works—give me the power to deal with the boogeyman knocking at our door. I can save you and our nation if you let me, the strongman will say. History shows us this works and works well.
So in this time of “The Virus”, strongmen have their moment using power, fear, and a boogeyman to not only survive, but thrive. From the perspective of the strongman, this is almost too good to be true. The boogeyman is easy to identify—its “The Virus”. The fear is real and spreading. The move towards greater power all in the name of national security is already happening. In large measure, in a liberal democracy the law does give a head of state, executive, or a commander in chief authorities to protect the nation. This is as it should be. Through this period of the pandemic we are seeing governments declare this power and handing that amazing power to an Executive to protect the nation and save the lives of its citizens. All this is legal and appropriate.
Yet, we see in this age of the strongmen, subtle signs that various heads of state using the pandemic for their political gain. A perfect example of this is watching the Prime Minister of Israel, an ersatz strongman, hide behind the the pandemic to remain in power to “save the nation”, using it as a shield from his political weakness and criminal indictment. This is troublesome and bears watching. Certainly other strongman are watching and considering the possibilities.
In the United States we have a President who is an unabashed admirer of strongmen. He would love to have the ability to consolidate power and be the sole authority over American citizens. His advisers see the extensive powers he has and is being granted by our laws to face the pandemic as an avenue to take further power onto himself. We are just a step away, perhaps within days, of this President in the name of national security, legally seizing our manufacturing system, distribution system, our medical infrastructure, using it to leverage practical and political advantage against and for desperate State governors. Taking this a possible step further, again in the name of “saving the nation”, this President suspending the Constitution, abolishing free speech, political parties, and of course the 2020 election. The ultimate power grab. Fantasy, fiction, a bad dream? Will a fearful and cowed nation allow this to happen?
With a different President it would be fantasy, but for this strongman-wannabe, the current President, it is not. We are not there yet, but we need to be very wary of the possibilities. A President who only governs for his own personal gain and vanity, can couple the boogeyman that is “The Virus” with that fear of that virus and make a move to consolidate his power over the short, medium, and long term. Beware.
Let’s heed the words of Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, Robert H. Jackson, in an article in 1953: There is no such thing as an achieved liberty; like electricity, there can be no substantial storage and it must be generated as it is enjoyed, or the lights go out.
David Crane is founding Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is also a retired member of the Senior Executive Service of the United States and founder of the Global Accountability Initiative.
Suggested citation: David Crane, Power and Fear—Strongmen and “The Virus”, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 27, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/03/david-crane-COVID-19
This article was prepared for publication by Brittney Zeller, Deputy Managing Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org