by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Everything about the coronavirus crisis looks and feels like a war that is all the more unsettling because the enemy is invisible and immune to brute force. Yet amid all the signs of conflict — declarations of emergency, mobilizations of National Guard troops, the exercise of extraordinary powers — there is enduring constitutional danger in treating this crisis like a war. When this pandemic is over, generations will have to deal both with its terrible human toll and with the constitutional changes it yields.
Wars transform political systems, often in ways that are difficult to reverse. So do major crises. Even as Americans understandably focus their attention on the dire public health emergency the nation faces, they should allot some consideration to the effect of our response on the nation’s constitutional fabric. The political system that emerges from this pandemic is almost certain to concentrate more power — perhaps power of an acutely intimate nature, the kind that decides personal matters of life and death — in the national government generally and in the president specifically.
This particular crisis, which requires prolonged attention to detail and the magnanimity to set personal and partisan grievances aside, does not play to President Trump’s strengths. His propensity for short-term thinking was evident in his preposterous suggestion Tuesday that, against all the available evidence about public health, he wanted the country “opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter.” But in constitutional terms, his own personal capacity to rise to this moment is less important than whether the nation should want a lasting concentration of more power in executive hands. Even if Mr. Trump were better suited to the moment, that would not mean future presidents should have more power.