One of the defining features of President Trump's management of the COVID-19 outbreak has been his unprecedented willingness to shift the blame and responsibility to the states. Trump has suggested governors should act appreciative if they want the federal government's help, and said the states are the primary line of defense against the disease, while sitting back and watching as they bid against each other for lifesaving equipment.
At his coronavirus press briefing Sunday, Trump managed — again — to pick a fight with a Democratic governor. The target this time was Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has been vocal in his criticism of Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump ticked off a list of federal actions in Illinois, while labeling Pritzker a "complainer" who is falling down on the job.
There's a nickname for Trump's approach to letting the states fend for themselves: "Darwinian federalism." But that's not quite right. What Trump is doing isn't federalism, and it doesn't involve any coherent idea or philosophy about how government should work. This president doesn't have many firm ideological commitments beyond his own advancement and aggrandizement.
Instead, we should understand that the president is doing what he always does when the nation starts to wise up to his failures: He is seeking a scapegoat.
Properly understood, federalism divvies up spheres of authority. The Founders committed the national government to a few responsibilities — defending the country, governing interstate commerce — and left the rest up to the states. There was always some overlap, but the separation between those spheres became fuzzier as the government grew and expanded its reach, particularly during the New Deal era. Many conservatives have spent the last few decades hoping and working for a return to the good old days when the lines were sharper — and states had more power — but there isn't much evidence Trump embraced that philosophy.
In fact, the Trump administration has been more than willing to assert authority over the states on issues it considers important. For example, the president has tried to undermine California's strict automobile emissions standards and pressure cities into enforcing federal immigration laws. Sure, Trump lets states and cities make their own decisions — but only when they make decisions he likes.
Even if Trump were an ardent federalist, though, confronting the pandemic would still require an "all of America" response which he would need to encourage and facilitate. This is a global pandemic. It doesn't recognize state borders, and states don't have the resources and authorities of the federal government — like, say, the Defense Production Act, which lets the feds press private enterprise into the fight against the virus. The president acknowledged as much by declaring the pandemic a national emergency. If such a declaration doesn't require the federal government to step forward and take the lead — instead of being a "backup" to the states, as Trump as proposed — why bother?
In this case, the president's faux federalism lets him shift blame for the federal government's shortcomings to the states — if New York is struggling, it's New York's fault, and so on. The more he shifts blame and responsibility to the states and their governors, the less likely Americans are to focus on his delayed response to the pandemic, his false promises of easy solutions to the outbreak, and his disregard of scientific expertise.
If there is a silver lining to all this, it is that a few governors have proven themselves resourceful and responsive to the pandemic in their states. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Gov. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) have both been earned plaudits for their effective actions to battle the outbreak. They've also done better than Trump at leading in cooperative fashion — Inslee on Sunday donated 500 ventilators from Washington back to the national stockpile, while Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) is reportedly working to create a consortium of states that can bid together, instead of against each other, for medical equipment. (A number of wags have suggested the consortium should be called the "United States.")
The same day Trump criticized Pritzker, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Illinois bought a supply of respirator masks from China — a purchase accomplished only when a state official rushed with a $3.4 million check to a McDonald's parking lot to ensure other bidders didn't grab the shipment first. That's ridiculous. If the federal government were doing its job, it would be coordinating the supply chain so states didn't have to compete in the marketplace.
Instead we have a president who takes credit for the federal government's accomplishments, and blames state governors when things go bad. Don't be fooled: That isn't federalism. It's failure.
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