The virus is changing the US as Trump's antagonistic relationship with state governors compromises the nation's fight against the pandemic.
We may be entering a new ‘’Megapolitan Era’’ in American political history, one where the country’s megalopolises, major strings of cities, webs of suburbs and exurbs, dense urban corridors that criss cross state lines, become semi-independent segments of the political entity that is also known as the United States. These regional arrangements of rights and responsibilities could transform the future of the American experiment in government.
Driving ‘’cross-country’’, as its citizens say, from one coast to the other, on April 15, 2020 means crossing a landscape where coronavirus seems to be the sovereign authority. It determines the most essential habits of human life, the distance we keep from our own grandparents, the things we ask of our neighbours and what our neighbours ask of us.
The virus is a terrible tyrant, a mad king, and it rules American lives without mercy. It has killed more people there than anywhere else in the world, so far. There are now 26,000 Americans dead, and as many as 20 million unemployed, left jobless by lockdowns meant to stop the spread of the disease. It has upended every assumption of sovereignty that just six months ago seemed impossible to question.
Amid a newly raging recession, US President Donald Trump on Monday held a press conference where he asserted he has ‘’ultimate’’ and ‘’absolute authority’’ to lift lockdown restrictions imposed by state governors to curb the coronavirus. By law, state governors are the only politicians who can lift lockdown orders they themselves imposed. Unless the federal government wants to send soldiers to force people to attend summer blockbusters, Trump is largely powerless. His own control over the country is determined by the tyranny of the virus, too.
There is a potential for confusion between federal and local officials to compound the danger the coronavirus presents.
‘’There is so much confusion and different messages from the federal government, governors and mayors that the police will get caught enforcing policies that will not be well thought out,’’ said Joe Giacalone, a Philadelphia-based professor of criminology at John Jay College in New York City. He retired as a sergeant in the New York Police Department, serving between 1992 and 2012.
Speaking with TRT World, he noted that there has already been confusion in the application of Trump’s immigration crackdown.Some so-called ‘’sanctuary’’ state and city leaders have said they will refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Giacalone worries that as lockdowns continue, people will panic and start to steal out of desperation.
‘’The worst case scenario would be civil unrest in every city - looting. The best case scenario would be we get a vaccine approved, or find a drug that limits the death rate,’’ he added. ‘’I’m glad I’m no longer doing police work.’’
But just because it’s against the law doesn’t mean Trump won’t try to break it without getting caught, and even though it certainly means risking the lives of others. The trouble is that if Trump says it’s safe to surf and shop, some people might head to the beaches and malls this summer. Even if it’s only a few who trust Trump more than public health officials, it’ll still be an opportunity for the virus to consume some of them.
Trump has engaged in an antagonistic relationship with state governors, claiming they asked for too much medical aid from the government that they should have had stockpiled already, in case of a global pandemic. His comparison makes about as much sense as asking the state of New Jersey to develop its own nuclear arsenal, in case of nuclear attack.
But with Trump complaining for weeks that states were not prepared enough already for a global pandemic, states are fashioning their own weapons against coronavirus over a struggle that could take years.
‘’We almost need to devise a public-health government in exile which can take on the responsibility of national coordination,” Michael, Osterholm, the University of Minnesota epidemiologist, told The Atlantic.
Beyond whatever the federal government has managed to get to states, it is a profound lack of trust in the Trump administration that has motivated the state governors along the northeast and Mid-Atlantic region (New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey) to form a coalition of governors and public health officials to figure out how to safely ease restrictions on economic activity.
They will also coordinate on the provision of medical supplies, as state officials have said that they are bidding against each other and the federal government to purchase life saving equipment for patients and the protective gear doctors need.
Three west coast states, Washington, Oregon and California, have forged a similar pact. The governors of all ten of these states are Democrats. All besides Pennsylvania went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, and are unlikely to go to Trump in November elections this year.
Together, their populations sum to close to 100 million, or about a third of the overall US population.
Trump has noticed. On Monday, he held his daily coronavirus press briefing and answered questions about whether he has the power to ‘’open up’’ states without the consent of governors. What follows is an exact transcript, as it appears on the White House web site. In the exchange, Trump was insisting that governors would agree to his demand to lift lockdown orders.
The back and forth
THE PRESIDENT: This is — when somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.
Q: It’s total? Your authority is total?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s total. It’s total.
Q: Your authority is total?
THE PRESIDENT: And the governors know that.
Q: So if a governor —
THE PRESIDENT: The governors know that. No, you have —
Q: If a governor issues a stay-at-home order, you —
THE PRESIDENT: — a couple of bands of — excuse me. Excuse me. You have a couple —
Q: Could you rescind that? Could you rescind that order?
THE PRESIDENT: You have a couple of bands of Democrat governors, but they will agree to it. They will agree to it.
Q: What if it was a Republican governor?
THE PRESIDENT: But the authority of the President of the United States, having to do with the subject we’re talking about, is total.
Trump bemoaning ‘’bands’’ of Democratic Party governors, and blasted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for allegedly demanding ‘’independence’’ despite Trump’s generosity. It is partisanship any international observer of the US will be familiar with.
Before we continue, it’s worth reviewing the rather unique system of governance present in the United States. Each state’s sovereignty intertwines with the authority of the federal government. State laws must comply with the constitution, but a network of state, federal and appeals courts determine what the compliance means. Most laws a person will encounter visiting the US, if they get past the border, are laws drafted by individual states.
There are 50 states, and the federal government has helped them fund highways that link them together and enormous cities whose metropolitan areas that sometimes straddle multiple state lines. New York City is a prime example, where commuters from New Jersey, Connecticut and even Pennsylvania go into Manhattan to work.
Even the US capital, Washington DC, is surrounded by its neighbours Maryland and Virginia. Chicago’s greater metropolitan region extends into Indiana and Wisconsin. Western Pennsylvania is welded to Ohio’s Northeast. On the West Coast, commuting by plane between Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles was routine for millions of people just a month ago. Some planes still fly between states in the US, but they are still mostly empty.
Trump can declare the economy ‘’reopened’,’ but he can’t necessarily convince a critical mass of citizens to participate in it. Or, if they do, they will contract the virus and, if they survive, decide to be more careful next time. Assemblies of states could grow to include more states, determining what rights their citizens will have under coronavirus restrictions.
What would this new ‘’country’’ look like? One resident of the East Coast alliance, a 33-year-old environmental lawyer living in Philadelphia, says he is worried for his safety going forward because of Trump, and fears for the fate of others.
‘’It’s going to lead to some true pain for potentially tens of millions, economically and healthwise. And people do stupid stuff when they’re desperate,’’ he said. He requested anonymity to discuss his political views openly.
But the idea of states working together he sees as a hopeful trend.
‘’If states can manage to obtain needed resources more easily and share them collectively by working together, the test and trace programme should function better. They should communicate with officials in the other states, ensure you understand how your decisions affect each other, and listen to as many credible experts as possible before you start opening things up again. All that could have massive regional consequences,’’ he said.
‘’If you are going to plan for a phased re-opening of certain segments of society in your state, it seems like a good thing to work with neighbouring states that are essentially part of an integrated regional economy to do so safely.’’
So are we seeing a ‘’Megalopolitan’’ sensibility emerge in the United States? It may not be enough on its own to defeat coronavirus. For that, the US could have to turn even more to help from the rest of the world. But Trump is not the kind of president to ask for it. On Tuesday, he announced he would stop US funding for the World Health Organization, the United Nations organisation he blames for the pandemic’s spread across the world.
‘’A lot is riding on the election in November,’’ the Philadelphia attorney added.