Many American institutions and traditions have been challenged in the era of Donald Trump. The latest is federalism, the idea that power should be shared between the federal government and the states. The president’s response to the coronavirus epidemic has had a curious impact, overturning the historical preferences of both parties. Put simply, coronavirus has meant federalism for Democrats who have been abandoned in the face of the pandemic, and slavish devotion to federal authority for Republicans.
Federalism provides a logical way for the United States to respond to epidemics. States have the primary responsibility for their citizens’ health – about which they have the best information – but the federal government needs to take the lead in coordinating a national response. Supplies need to be sent where they are needed most, and measures like lockdowns have to be implemented and lifted in accordance with a national plan rather than haphazardly at the state level – because, as Andrew Cuomo has said, “state boundaries mean very little to the virus”.
Yet a vacuum of responsible leadership from the White House has meant that the system has not worked as intended. Rather than seeing it as his role to work with the states to develop a national plan, Trump instead spent months denying that a problem even existed and stating that he took “no responsibility” for fighting the virus. When the prospect of emerging as the hero who restarted the economy beckoned, he swung to the other extreme, claiming “total authority” to supersede decisions made by the states and suggesting that governors who wanted to lift lockdowns at their own pace rather than his direction were committing “mutiny”. On Friday, Trump went on a bizarre, all-caps Twitter rampage, calling on citizens to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia from state quarantine measures.
Many Republican governors have responded by following the president’s lead. Even as the government’s top infectious diseases expert was pleading for a nationwide lockdown, governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis chose to sacrifice the health of their constituents on the altar of their desire to please the president.
When DeSantis did eventually issue a stay-at-home order, he explicitly cited Trump’s changing “demeanor” as his reason for doing so. Other Republican governors took their cues from the federal government too, for instance by waiting for Trump to issue a national emergency declaration before they issued their own. Some Republican governors – such as Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland – acted earlier, but they represent states in which Trump’s popularity is much lower than average among Republican-governed states.
Democratic governors have been more in tune with the needs of their localities than the president’s shifting moods, issuing emergency declarations and lockdown orders sooner than their Republican counterparts. When their pleas for a more effective federal response were ignored, they turned to self-help instead. As it becomes clear that Trump is pushing for an irresponsible reopening of the economy, Democratic governors in the west and north-east have established working groups consisting of public health experts and economists to plot their own way forward.
Why did Republican governors stick with the president while Democratic governors went their own way? Much of the explanation can be found in the power of partisanship, and the nationalization of state politics. Trump’s grip on the Republican base is so absolute that the governors of red states value their relationship with him above almost any other. And so much of local politics is now filtered through a national lens that Republican governors must be seen to be toeing the president’s line even on local issues in order to please that base.
The particular way that Trump exercises power has also contributed to the reaction of governors from both parties. Trump has made clear that he will dole out federal largesse according to political loyalty, even preventing Colorado’s Democratic-led government from purchasing ventilators on the open market and later sending a hundred units “at the request” of the state’s Republican senator, who is facing a tough re-election battle. The message is clear: Democratic governors need to help themselves, because Trump sure won’t. And Republican governors need to stick close to a president who sees himself as his party’s feudal patron rather than the leader of the entire nation.
The result has been an inversion of what the Founders intended, with some states slavishly following federal dictate in flagrant disregard of local needs, and others hung out to dry as a national crisis looms and Washington does little to shepherd a national response. Democratic governors cannot rely on the president to protect the lives of their citizens, and Republican governors find themselves acting more as the lackeys of a monarch than representatives of the interests of their states. Taken together, these developments suggest that federalism has become another casualty of a president unprecedented in his disregard for everything which truly makes America great.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University in the Netherlands“