Is Sheltering in Place a Sign of a Nascent Dictatorship?

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In previous videos I’ve debunked conservative Americans’ claim that the government is not stamping on our rights and freedoms by closing businesses and asking people to shelter in place during a pandemic that has, as of this recording, killed 84,000 people in the United States and infected at least 4.3 million people worldwide. But I thought that for at least one video I could entertain the idea of what it would look like if a government decided to use this global catastrophe as an opportunity to move from a democracy to a fascist dictatorship.

To make it as similar as possible to the United States, let’s say that the president of this hypothetical country is a far-right populist, a man of the people who ran a campaign based on fear of immigrants and social conservatism, including a strong bias against transgender issues. And let’s say that his party has so much power thanks to gerrymandering, and not because they won the popular vote. Let’s say that in addition to the presidency he has significant power in Congress and the court system. And let’s say that he absolutely hates the press and constantly complains about “fake news.”

And let’s call this hypothetical country….oh, I don’t know…let’s just call it “Hungary.” Because this isn’t hypothetical, this actually happened! A few weeks back, the “Prime Minister” of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, passed a law that allows him to rule by decree, without consulting Parliament. He also canceled all upcoming elections, meaning that his rule will extend indefinitely, which…yeah, you’ve got a dictatorship there, pal. And I’m not kidding with the similarities to Trump: Orbán really is an anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ, far-right populist. His Parliament is controlled by a 2/3s majority from his own party, who got that majority despite losing the popular vote thanks to some over-the-top gerrymandering. And for awhile now, he’s been attacking the press for “fake news,” meaning news that is critical of his administration. The comparisons are truly stunning. Thanks to his party’s Parliamentary majority, he was able to push through his dictatorship law, while also criminalizing the spread of misinformation, threatening any journalist with jail time if they consider posting something he finds insulting. And not just journalists: a 64-year old man was detained by police this week over a Facebook post in which he referred to Orbán as a dictator and begged him not to relax the quarantine rules while the pandemic was still raging. He was released but the threat is clear: self-censor or face consequences.

Orbán is also about to push through a law effectively cleansing the country of transgender people. The new law would change the wording on driver’s licenses and passports so that instead of the word “nem,” which means “sex” or “gender,” it will now read essentially as “birth sex” — the sex a person was assigned at birth based on their genitalia. This new designation cannot be changed even if it is wrong, meaning that trans people who need to show ID (which they are required to carry at all times) will be outed constantly. Anti-trans sentiment is already high in Hungary, and this law will put many lives at risk.

It’s not clear where the country is going to go from here. Orbán claims that once the pandemic is over, the new dictatorship law will be lifted, as it’s ostensibly supposed to give him the ability to make quick decisions to help the country through the virus. But experts aren’t sure he’s actually going to do that, or if he does do that there’s concern over whether or not he’s going to make a big show of ending the law while still keeping a lot of the pro-dictatorship policies in place under the hood.

So, does that mean that American conservatives are right to worry about our government using these shelter-in-place orders to trample our freedoms and prepare us for a dictatorship just like Hungary? Let’s go over some of the reasons why the answer is “uhhh no.”

First of all, as Orbán illustrates the most likely person to do that is the far-right populist in charge: Donald Trump. The people spreading these concerns are by and large Trump supporters, which is why Trump has subtly (and at times not so subtly) encouraged the protests against quarantine. It’s not going to be Gavin Newsome, the Democrat governor of California, who suddenly decides to become a dictator, form his own country, and attack the United Midwestern States. It’s Trump. Newsome isn’t the one constantly crying about the free press, or weighing whether or not to cancel elections. That’s Trump. The President. The analogy to Hungary’s Prime Minister.

Second of all, Hungary has not been a true Democracy for years. You can argue about whether or not the US is, but for all our problems we’re not as bad as Hungary. Experts agree that this dictatorship isn’t actually new — it’s just the mask falling off. Orbán’s party controls the Parliament and the Courts, and the minority parties aren’t even close to gaining parity. He’s limited the funding those parties can even receive to run elections. He and his allies own approximately 90% of all news outlets. This didn’t just happen: the far-right party has been orchestrating it over the past decade.

That’s not to say Americans shouldn’t look at Hungary with a certain amount of anxiety. I’ve pointed out the similarities, and they’re not surface-level-only. It is worth considering how much power we give to our government in a time of crisis — I happen to remember the last time we went through something like this during George W. Bush’s years. He used the 9/11 attacks to grab an astonishing amount of power, including establishing the Patriot Act. It’s been 19 years and the Patriot Act is still allowing the government to use surveillance techniques on American citizens with no checks and balances. In fact, Mitch McConnell is now expanding the FBI’s abilities to spy on exactly what websites you are viewing, with no warrant needed.

Yes, you should be concerned. But you shouldn’t go off the deep end and assume that the government asking you to work from home for little while is akin to a dictatorship. It’s not. I go outside all the time, often without a mask! I go for runs and bike rides and swims. I talk to friends. I even hang out with them sometimes, being careful to maintain distance! I can still read, watch, and play whatever books, movies, and games I want. I can still be bisexual. I can still read independent journalists. Quarantine isn’t a prison sentence. It’s a way to protect my fellow human beings. Even the morons who don’t understand what a dictatorship is.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Ha! You read my mind! Hungary is the exact “nasty little dictatorship” I had in mind in my comment to a previous post about women leaders being good at managing the pandemic.

    Generalising about good government from a single metric is logically shaky and easily refuted.

    But the analogy with Trump is spot on. Another term with him and the US is going to degenerate from being the respected leader of the western world into being an irrelevant laughing stock.

  2. While we’re at it it perhaps you could explain something for me.

    How can COVID-19 be , at the same time:
    1. A weaponised virus engineered as a bioweapon in a lab in Wuhan and deliberately targeted against the US
    2. Fake News, a Democrat hoax, no worse than the flu but overblown by Democrats (and presumably, like, the whole rest of the World) in a conspiracy to take away Guns, Freedoms and Free Speech?

  3. I think Covid-19 is ideal for an aspiring dictator. Emergency powers are needed, fear of strangers and banning gatherings. It doesn’t get any more opportune than that. It’s both our despair and good fortune to have a mental patient running the US. Despair since any kind of intelligent and coherent response was beyond the feds. Good fortune since seizing an opportunity for anything other than short sight sighted graft and angry tweets is beyond him.

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