Alan Zendell, April 7, 2020
Since becoming president, Donald Trump has in some ways been remarkably consistent. He has thumbed his nose at the rule of law and ignored the Constitution. He has attempted to nullify Congress’ oversight obligation and attacked every federal judge who declared one of his executive actions unconstitutional. He bristles at any suggestion that anyone has the right to hold him accountable.
In more subtle ways, he couldn’t be more inconsistent. He postures like a high stakes poker player, holding his cards close to his vest, lying, exaggerating, and contradicting himself, while claiming to have the most transparent administration in history. The master of insult and artless vulgarity knows no bounds when attacking people who disagree with him; yet, in recent weeks, in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic, he told Governors that if they didn’t treat him nicely, he wouldn’t talk to them. And he accuses every journalist who asks questions that challenge his decisions or address his misstatements of being nasty and not doing their jobs.
Trump is most inconsistent in the matter of state versus federal responsibility and authority. The most contentious issue in the early days of our democracy was the debate over the rights of individual states versus the reach of the federal government. This has been a constant issue during the coronavirus pandemic though Trump is neither a states’ rights advocate nor a federalist. He possesses no political ideology beyond the accumulation of personal power.
Even ardent Libertarians agree that the Executive has an essential role in the defense of the nation. We generally think of that in military terms, but since the administration decided to take it seriously, last week, it has been describing the fight against the pandemic as a war. Trump refers to the mobilization of resources and personnel as a military operation; yet, while he strutted as the all-knowing master of the situation, he reneged on his responsibility to individual states, claiming it’s Governors who should be held accountable. (Remember, accountability is the most obscene word in Trump’s limited vocabulary.)
The state Governors have been the pandemic response leaders, as Trump and the federal bureaucracy in general were caught flatfooted and remained weeks behind in every decision. Trump accepted no personal responsibility for assuring that states in crisis, notably New York, but soon to be followed by others, had the resources necessary to protect their citizens. Facing rising demands and opposition, he reluctantly allowed FEMA (which he called useless early in his presidency) and the Army Corps of Engineers to do their jobs and redeployed two Navy hospital ships to help, actions for which he now claims full credit.
The conflict between state and federal authority during the pandemic took a bizarre turn yesterday, when Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) issued an executive order to postpone today’s presidential primary election and extend the deadline for absentee voting. The Republican legislature got the State Supreme Court to stay the decision, and the U. S. Supreme Court ordered the election to occur as scheduled. The federal court, with Trump appointees in the majority, argued that Evers’ decision would disenfranchise some voters.
I have no idea what that means, especially in light of other court decisions in which blatant attempts by some states to strike minorities from voter rolls were upheld. But what is more interesting is that the Wisconsin decision occurred three weeks after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) took essentially the same action because in person voting violated CDC and state pandemic guidelines for social distancing. The difference between Ohio and Wisconsin was that Ohio’s Republican legislature supported the governor’s decision, and when a federal court rejected it, DeWine ordered his Director of Public Health to issue a emergency declaration which executed DeWine’s order, ignoring the judicial decision.
Clearly, the Republican agenda changed since March. On the surface there’s no apparent reason why Republicans care when the Democratic primary is held or who votes in it. Joe Biden led Bernie Sanders in the polls, and the outcome wasn’t likely to be affected by Evers’ order. So why take the unusual step of rushing a Supreme Court decision in hours?
The New York Times suggests that the Wisconsin case “stands as a first test case in what both national parties expect to be a protracted fight over changing voter rules to contend with the pandemic…” Many Democrats want Trump to issue an emergency declaration authorizing mail-in voting next November in the event the pandemic still poses a major health threat. Republicans believe that would allow more people to cast ballots, and conventional wisdom says that would benefit Democrats.
If you think COVID-19 has been exciting, wait until the voting rights battle heats up. Don’t let yourself be lulled into apathy after surviving the virus. The fight over the November election could be the greatest threat our democracy has ever faced.