Updated at 10:47 a.m. ET on May 14, 2020.
Even during the shared national challenge of the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump is escalating his attacks on the institutions of blue America. And a growing number of other Republicans are joining him.
Trump has long provoked questions about whether he respects the legitimacy of small-d democratic institutions. But in the crucible of the outbreak, he has grown more explicit than ever about rejecting the legitimacy of institutions controlled by big-d Democrats.
His recent targeting includes flatly blocking testimony to the House of Representatives by administration officials on the pandemic, asserting sweeping immunity from subpoenas at the Supreme Court, encouraging defiance from business owners and protesters against social-distancing orders from Democratic officials, insisting that blue states must adopt conservative policies to receive any further federal aid, and cheering on Attorney General William Barr as he hints at possible prosecution of officials from Barack Obama’s presidency.
So far, congressional Republicans have been way more likely to applaud than question any of these initiatives. And they all come as Republican governors intent on rapidly reopening their economy have moved aggressively to override the decisions of Democratic mayors and county executives.
“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.
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.
He’s pressured Democratic leaders in other ways, too. Standing at the White House podium, he famously acknowledged that he had told Vice President Mike Pence not to return calls for help from governors who have criticized him. He’s repeatedly encouraged the “liberate” protesters, primarily targeting Democratic governors. In the past few days, he’s loudly trumpeted his support for a beauty-parlor operator in Dallas and the Tesla founder Elon Musk, who each reopened in explicit defiance of local stay-at-home orders. Barr has also threatened to sue states that impose what the administration considers excessive restrictions.
The parallel to Trump’s pressure on Democratic governors has been systematic moves by Republican governors to supersede the stay-at-home policies of the big blue cities in their state. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp ordered the reopening of Atlanta businesses despite the fervent public objections of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott not only undermined local lockdown orders in Dallas, Houston, and other major cities; he also explicitly overruled the incarceration of the defiant beauty-parlor owner and invalidated a policy in Houston’s home county authorizing fines for people who do not wear masks in public.
Reed, the former Atlanta mayor, says these state interventions offer only a “more extreme” version of the frequent moves over recent years by Republican state governments to overturn regulations and laws in Democratic-run cities. The governors feel particular urgency to invalidate stay-at-home orders for a simple reason, he says: Most states have grown so financially dependent on their largest cities that they cannot revive economically unless the cities participate.
“What the current environment shows is that Republicans need Democratic cities to drive the economy,” he says. “By overruling what would be a traditional conservative philosophy of local control, they are really trying to achieve the financial interest for the state and for President Trump.” House Democrats pursuing a new round of state and local aid, Reed says, must recognize those diverging interests. They must “ensure that the next round of support flows directly to cities,” not through governors, some of whom might use the money to pressure local leaders.
While the conflict between Trump and Democratic-controlled institutions has heightened primarily around the COVID-19 response, the outbreak hasn’t slowed his offensive on other fronts. At the Supreme Court this week, Trump’s attorneys argued that he and his accounting firm should be immune to subpoenas from the Manhattan district attorney and a House investigative committee, in part because they have partisan motives. Efforts to obtain that information should be suspect, his attorneys wrote in one brief, because it “became a priority of the Democratic Party both before and after the 2018 elections.”
Trump’s announcement last week that he would not allow Anthony Fauci or other administration experts to testify before Congress—because “the House is a bunch of Trump haters”—followed the similar defiance he displayed during the impeachment inquiry. In some ways, Trump’s new blockade is even more remarkable because it seeks to sideline the House during a crisis affecting all corners of the country.
“It’s just a stunning denial of the most basic responsibility that he has to respect and respond to a coordinate branch of government,” says Democratic Representative David Price of North Carolina, who studied Congress as a political scientist before he was elected to the body in 1986. “And the fact that we kind of stammer around and are not entirely sure how to respond to that is because it’s so stunning. There is no precedent I know of.”
Most sweepingly, Barr’s decision to drop charges against Michael Flynn, the former Trump national-security aide who admitted to lying to federal investigators, marked another step in the attorney general’s long campaign to discredit the investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Barr has systematically worked to shift the focus from the Trump campaign’s actions to the decisions by Obama law-enforcement officials to investigate those actions. It is as if Barr is unraveling the Mueller investigation and weaving the threads into a new design.
Barr has hinted at future prosecutions of Obama officials, and Trump seems to have that prospect in mind with his repeated allegations that Obama broke the law. Just this morning, Trump raised the stakes even further by calling on the Senate to demand Obama’s testimony under oath on the Russia investigation’s origins, which he called once again “the biggest political crime and scandal” in the country’s history.
None of this has raised much alarm among congressional Republicans. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that had hoped to hear from Fauci, did object to Trump blocking the testimony, but his was a lone voice. (“One would think there would be some Republican cooperation in asserting institutional prerogatives,” Price said. “Maybe there will be, but I haven’t seen it so far.”) Former Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa has openly encouraged Barr’s moves to investigate the Russia investigators. “I think there are more shoes to drop, and I think there will be prosecutions,” Grassley insisted on Fox News earlier this month.
Barr has assembled copious legal theories to support each element of his campaign. But what binds it together is the delegitimization of any oversight of the president, especially from institutions controlled by members of the opposite party. “This whole pattern of events is a systematic effort to cut off all meaningful checks and balances,” Donald B. Ayer, the former deputy attorney general under George H. W. Bush, told me. “If you look at each piece in isolation, then you misunderstand what is going on.”
Even this effort to block oversight is only one piece of the larger whole—that is, how Trump is more overtly governing of, by, and for the places and constituencies he views as part of his base. The coronavirus crisis was so staggering that it compelled Trump to respond, however belatedly and belligerently, to the urgent public-health needs in both blue and red states. But his persistent sparring with local leaders over that response—and the relentless advance even during the crisis of his other efforts to undermine Democrats—underscores how committed Trump remains to a long-term project of eroding blue America’s ability to resist his direction or even to set its own course.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has seemed to view himself less as the leader of a unified republic than as the factional champion of a nation within a nation—one that, in his telling, constitutes the “real” America. Imagine for a moment that in 1860, the U.S. had elected as its president not Abraham Lincoln, but Jefferson Davis, and Davis had then used the instruments of national power to strengthen the South in its sectional struggle with the North.
That may be the clearest analogy to understand Trump’s zero-sum approach to governing: He is using the tools of national authority to advance the priorities of red America while weakening blue America’s capacity to impede them. From the office that symbolizes national unity, Trump is pursuing a form of secession from common purpose. Even the nation’s most wrenching crisis since the Depression and World War II hasn’t deterred him from that course. That may be the best portent of how forcefully Trump would execute his fundamentally separatist vision if enough voters grant him four more years to do so.