Trump Leaves States to Fend for Themselves

The coronavirus is America’s first 50-state disaster, and each governor is dependent on outside help that may never come.

An illustration of a map of the U.S.
Vladimir Sviracevic / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The United States is about to find out whether the Articles of Confederation would have worked. The nation’s Founders scrapped that early charter because it left states to fend for themselves in moments of crisis. The Constitution that replaced it created a stronger federal government. But yesterday, President Donald Trump seemed to turn back the clock. In a conference call with the nation’s governors about the coronavirus pandemic, the president declared, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves.”

Until now, our country has not faced a disaster that directly threatened all 50 states at the same time. Although 9/11 had consequences for the entire nation, the days and weeks after the attacks—during which states and communities far distant from Ground Zero sent equipment and personnel to New York—were a triumph of a mutual-aid system that presupposes that not everyone is in trouble at once.

But now that containment efforts have so far failed to prevent community transmission of COVID-19 from occurring, governors in every state need to decide how to proceed. With little guidance from the federal government, governors—along with mayors, CEOs, university presidents, and leaders in the sports and entertainment businesses—have taken it upon themselves to try to slow the spread of the virus before it overwhelms the medical system’s capacity to respond. Or, better put, a 50-state strategy has emerged to fill the vacuum left by an administration that is still unable to distribute enough testing kits, is still focused on closing borders, and was slow to tell the American public to just stay home.

The actions of governors have been a model of quick thinking—a demonstration of the benefits of federalism when the White House is unprepared and disorganized. But while the administration deserves some criticism, many of the obstacles to faster action are architectural in nature.

The hard part of homeland security often has less to do with the security than with the homeland. The United States is made up of 50 homelands. Even though the Constitution gives federal authorities more power than the Articles of Confederation did, our governance structure was still designed to limit the role of the central government. The Tenth Amendment reserves powers not specifically listed in the Constitution for the states and, through their constitutions, for local governments. Public health and law enforcement are among those powers. Even when the problem is a pathogen that spreads across state and national borders, the principles of federalism still apply.

The standard operating procedure is that the response to a crisis should be locally executed, state-managed, and federally supported. Local communities are supposed to maintain control at the operational level; outside resources and assistance flow in should the need arise. A governor helps a mayor manage a crisis by drawing on the resources of other jurisdictions within the state’s borders. Should that not be enough, a state emergency-management agency will seek other states’ assistance. This is quite a formal process, known as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, and it essentially sets up a deployment-and-payment structure. It is, for example, how firefighters from Massachusetts assist with fighting wildfires in California. They don’t just show up.

With the coronavirus, state and federal authorities can talk a big game about unity of effort—we are all in this together—but the nation’s governance structure will make this more like musical chairs. No state wants to be the last one to secure necessary equipment. And so the operational difficulty is obvious: Every state’s emergency-management plans foresee an influx of resources and personnel through mutual-aid agreements with other states. But because all other states will be in the same bind, no one will be willing to share. Every governor will have good reason to hold back resources. Even a state that is currently reporting no COVID-19 cases cannot afford to send any capacity outside the state. How could it justify doing so?

The coronavirus pandemic won’t be the first disaster in which states have had to compete for resources. When five states along the Gulf of Mexico were affected by the BP oil spill, the distribution of resources became a flash point. The federal government had only so much containment boom—the floating lines that keep oil from spreading. So the Obama administration gave priority to states with pristine coastal wetlands—much to the chagrin of Alabama’s governor, who wanted to protect his state’s open beachfronts.

That states are rivals rather than allies explains why governors have moved so swiftly and decisively to restrict large gatherings and shut down schools, bars and restaurants, and other businesses. Because testing kits are not readily available, state and local authorities have had to assume the worst about how quickly community transmission is occurring. Because the federal government has not publicly disclosed plans for supplementing civilian efforts with military ones, the governors do not know which resources will be at their disposal. And because the administration has not pushed the private sector very hard to manufacture more equipment for future needs, states have every reason to believe that shortages will occur. They know that their only Plan B is to seek help from next door. Mutual aid doesn’t work when everyone needs it.

On Monday, the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut established three-state guidelines on social distancing and limits on recreation. Collaborative decisions like that are important. But who wins a fight for more respirators? As we head toward a crisis that will require a lot more stuff—ventilators, intensive-care beds, military field hospitals, temporary hospitals, volunteer staff to help, and the expansion of paid staff, at a minimum—the federal government has not seriously prepared for the surge of resources that will be needed.

For governors, the coronavirus isn’t a national disaster; it’s a 50-state disaster. If and when a surge of cases comes, every state is on its own.