“What we’re having is a wedge that is being driven deeper and deeper between the federal government and some of the states, and, in the states, between Republican governors and Democratic mayors and Democratic cities,” says Donald Kettl, a public-policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of The Divided States of America. “It is a deep, profound, and growing chasm that is almost unprecedented in American history.”
This multifront assault could mark an ominous new stage in the nation’s political polarization and separation. The tension between Washington Republicans and Democratic-run state and local governments “is as bad as I’ve seen it in my lifetime, and [if there is a second term] it is going to be worse just because of the aggressive nature of this presidency,” says Kasim Reed, the former Democratic mayor of Atlanta.
Long before the outbreak started, Trump pursued a broad array of policies meant to pressure or punish Democratic-run local governments, such as ending the federal deductibility of state and local taxes in the 2017 tax bill and seeking to revoke the authority California has wielded under the Clean Air Act since the 1970s to set its own air-pollution standards.
Read: Trump’s war on blue America
Trump revealed volumes about his mindset at a recent White House event, when he was asked about providing more federal aid to states buckling under the lost revenue and increased cost of grappling with the coronavirus. Trump said he might be open to considering such assistance, if it were narrowly tied to costs directly linked to the outbreak. But then he added: “We’d want certain things, also, including sanctuary-city adjustments.”
The most telling word in that sentence is the pronoun we. It suggests the existence of an American community from which blue states are distinct and separate—and to which blue states must provide concessions if they are to receive help from the federal government. Leaving aside the reality that many Republican-run states are facing financial difficulties as great as the Democratic-run ones, Trump’s formulation shows how little obligation he feels to represent the places where fewer of his own voters live. Instead, he portrays those places almost as foreign supplicants seeking aid from his America. “This president is seeing himself as the president of red America, where blue America is pushed aside and is not even legitimate,” Kettl says.
Trump isn’t the only Republican who has resisted providing financial aid to state and local governments run by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has portrayed granting more federal assistance as a “blue-state bailout,” and suggested instead that states should declare bankruptcy (though he’s edged slightly away from his initial remarks). On Tuesday, the conservative House Republican Study Committee charged that blue states and cities “have historically demonstrated a lack of respect for federal law and constitutional rights, and more recently a penchant for overly restrictive shutdown orders.” Helping “these jurisdictions,” the group continued, “would only serve to condone these actions and encourage economically oppressive restrictions on American people and businesses.” Trump has similarly argued that in granting any further aid, the federal government should require states and cities to cut taxes; indemnify businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits; end sanctuary-city policies in locales that don’t readily cooperate with immigration authorities; and adopt other conservative priorities.