So Much for Federalism, Part 2

(John Mark Smith, Unsplash)


In an article for Vanity Fair, Katherine Eban describes how Jared Kushner, a man with no public health expertise whatsoever, was charged with coordinating a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. His plan was slipshod at best, relying upon other non-experts in public health, but at the very least it actually was a plan, with national scope:

Rather than have states fight each other for scarce diagnostic tests and limited lab capacity, the plan would have set up a system of national oversight and coordination to surge supplies, allocate test kits, lift regulatory and contractual roadblocks, and establish a widespread virus surveillance system by the fall, to help pinpoint subsequent outbreaks.

So far, so good, but by April

[No] nationally coordinated testing strategy was ever announced. The plan, according to the participant [Eban’s source], “just went poof into thin air.”

Why? For two reasons, according to Eban, both linked to some of President Trump’s manifest personality traits. First,

Trusting his vaunted political instincts, President Trump had been downplaying concerns about the virus and spreading misinformation about it — efforts that were soon amplified by Republican elected officials and right-wing media figures. Worried about the stock market and his reelection prospects, Trump also feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity.

So much for narcissism. Now, for the malignancy:

Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert. That logic may have swayed Kushner. “It was very clear that Jared was ultimately the decision maker as to what [plan] was going to come out,” the expert said.

It should be pretty clear to all at this point, excepting maybe that significant slice of the population whose heads are lodged firmly in the sand or elsewhere, that Donald Trump does not see himself as responsible to and for the citizenry of the nation at large. He is beholden only to himself, and, when convenient to his ambitions, his base. That he viewed a national coronavirus response through the lenses of his re-election and resentful contempt for critics should surprise no one. What is surprising — at least to me — is that the objects of his contempt and tyrannical ambitions have just rolled with his punches, believing that while he flouts Constitutional rules and Liberal-Democratic-Republican norms, they themselves “are bigger than that.” “When they go low, we go high.” It hasn’t yet proven to be a winning strategy against the American Right.


With the acceptably-competent responses of their governments, blue-states have, it seems, muddled through — although compared to competent Social Democracies like New Zealand and Iceland, the muddling is not all that impressive. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted to the red-states, one might expect the tune of the Trump administration to change.

No such chance.

On May 15, the Democratic House of Representatives passed a comprehensive second-wave $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, the “HEROES” act, extending the extra $600-per-week unemployment bonus, helping state budgets devastated by the virus, securing the 2020 elections, protecting renters, and funding hospitals and schools. The Republican Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, sat on this bill, and did not move until late July for an alternative, which by then was too late: the $600 supplements and eviction moratorium expired on July 31. McConnell refused to negotiate further.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer then began direct negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows. Their counterproposal — a $1 trillion deal that cut out state and election funding, was rightly rejected by Pelosi and Schumer as grossly inadequate, whereupon the President issued three memoranda and one executive order to address the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Trump’s memos direct FEMA to divert $70 billion from Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund — be it noted that this is in the middle of hurricane season, with the pains of hurricane Isaias still being felt — to provide an additional $300 monthly unemployment benefits to those laid off by the pandemic. However, there is a significant catch: states need to supplement this with a matching $100 from their own funds. Funds which, due to the failure of any adequate, coordinated national plan (see section 1 above), they do not have, given the fact that the economy has collapsed and states cannot set up their own treasuries and begin printing money.

In issuing these memos and executive order, Trump has accomplished three things. First, he has seized control of a narrative which, though false, is bound to be propagated by state media, i.e., Fox News: that he is the savior of the suffering classes, hampered only by the Democrats who insist on such irrelevances as, well, the fact that Congress and not the Executive has the power of the purse. While this is rank nonsense — he is taking away $200 from the original deal, and taking the rest back when the states cannot come up with their own matching funds — it will play in his base-land because he gets to cast blue-states as incompetent and unworthy. It will not play elsewhere, but in swing-states, it is a P.R. coup, although maybe not as effective as he thinks, especially if the infection and death rates swing upwards after schools re-open outside the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and West coasts, and the contagion yo-yos up and down the entire nation in North-South waves.

Second, Trump’s antics are a well-timed power-grab well beyond Executive Supremacy into Executive Autarchy. Pelosi and Schumer will cry foul, as they should: this is clearly Constitutional overreach since Congress alone has “the power of the purse”. But they also must realize that a Constitutional republic has authority only to the extent that all contending parties recognize it as such, otherwise it’s just ink-marks on parchment.

The center-Right and center-left characteristically underappreciate this truth. They fail to see that, since at least the beginnings of the Gingrich “revolution” in 1994, American politics has by chance shadowed the political theories of Carl Schmitt, who viewed politics not as a government of laws and civil policy debate but a power struggle between “friends” and “enemies”, where “sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” The cliché that Democrats habitually bring knives to gunfights, however tired, still rings true. Trump, and the Republican party, simply do not care about the niceties of Liberal Republican Democracy. They care about power, privilege, and winning. Period.

Third, Trump’s moves are yet another expression of his Iago-like malice at any and all who disagree with and oppose him. Coleridge once said of Iago that he possessed a “motiveless malignancy”, a desire to torture and hurt for its own sake, without regard for the consequences, even when he could anticipate them boomeranging and destroying himself. Shakespeare did not possess the term “sociopathy”, but Iago remains its archetype. He wants to destroy Othello not primarily because Othello is black, is blissfully in love with Desdemona, or because he gave the desired promotion to Cassio. All of these are part of Iago’s hatred of the Moor, but not its core. Iago wants to destroy Othello because, well, that’s what Iago does. He destroys people. He likes to make others miserable. Especially when they outshine him. He enjoys it all. The parallels with our present situation are evident.


What all this means, as I have argued elsewhere in Medium, is that the principle of Federalism — that some problems are national, some that of states and localities, but all these topoi form a synergistic and co-operative union — is, if not dead on arrival, at least on life-support and fading fast. The Federal government is no longer just useless to the states, whether red or blue: it is positively harmful. Add to this that it is no longer guaranteed that the national Constitution can protect states and localities from an aspirational despot, who admires the likes of Rodrigo Duterte and Viktor Orban and desires to centralize power in himself just as they did, and one cares to ask whether the United States is anything anymore? Maybe, as Benjamin Franklin quipped, if we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately. But maybe the metaphor is wrong. If some of us don’t run outdoors when the house is on fire, setting a precedent, we will all fry.

To make it clear: the breakup of the United States of America would be cataclysmic. I am not advocating it. I fear it. But what Americans are now enduring is fast approaching cataclysm too. It is no longer clear to me that the Federal government, as it stands, is doing State and local governments, particularly those in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and West Coasts, any good at all now. It is threatening them: economically, medically, and politically.

Absent any nation-wide groundswell of opposition to aspirational despotism, similar to that of Black Lives Matter or the newly-thriving opposition in Poland to the Law and Justice Party, it is up to smaller-scale pockets of resistance to stand firm and say “no.” Since it is the states and localities that are on the receiving end of Trump’s wrath, perhaps the opposition should begin there. Federalism cannot be revived without states and localities to federate.

(Special thanks to Heather Cox Richardson, whose newsletter Letters from an American was essential to writing section 2 of this essay.)