A Dangerous National Leadership Vacuum Pushes Us Through the Political Looking Glass
In the mid-eighties, during the last true wave of modern conservatism, it was difficult to imagine a time, some thirty-plus years later, when we would see a Republican president at war with the concept of states’ rights, especially during a crisis. That used to be a Democrat thing. You know, Franklin Roosevelt restructuring the entirety of the national economy over to the federal government during the Great Depression or Lyndon Johnson battling the southern states over civil rights. But we are in the Age of Trump, where down is up and black is white. In a Lewis Carroll-esque scenario we have a Republican president expressing lordship over a state’s rights to administer rules for dealing with social distancing and its economic fallout in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. At one point the President uttered these words, in public, into a microphone, in front of a press he has been at existential war against since he tried to convince them that a couple of thousand people at his inauguration were actually millions in the first hours of his presidency: “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s gotta be. It’s total.”
Of course, this is insane, even to Abraham Lincoln standards, the last Republican president to take on the mantle of a singular power during the initial weeks of the Civil War. Lincoln would have never actually said these things. Lincoln was a doer. This guy’s a talker.
When pressed further—because, well… who the fuck says this kind of thing out loud?—Donald Trump, who has consistently tried to run the U.S. government like Trump Enterprises, answered, “Well, if some states refuse to open, I would like to see that person run for election. They’re going to open. They’re going to all open.”
Like the whole “grab the pussies” thing, I am always unsure if Trump knows what the hell his is saying. “The authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be” is not nearly the craziest thing he has said in public, but this one makes political junkies like me, especially ones who believe most if not all political theories are complete bullshit when dissected under any measure of scrutiny, salivate.
Now, let’s have some fun.
During the aforementioned final gasp of conservatism as a governing principle in the mid-eighties, President Ronald Reagan, the last bastion of this since debunked political theory mused, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’” He said this on August 12, 1986, while his government was illegally shipping arms to a virulent enemy of the United States to fund a fascist guerilla war in Central America. It was high times for this kind of abject hypocrisy, but Reagan knew what he was doing. He was a functioning government official, who could quip about keeping government out of your life while criminally imposing it on others. Before his ascent to the presidency as an avatar for the pencil-pushing geeks like William F. Buckley and the zombie-eyed Heritage Foundation, Reagan ran the second-largest state in the contiguous United States, not a casino in Atlantic City or hosted some game show for the National Broadcasting Company.
Reagan’s Hollywood smile and down-home grandpa act put to rest wild notions of populism that by the 1950s was whitewashed enough to be an anachronistic Huey Long nightmare that the liberal press dreamed up. For Republicans in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the Tenth Amendment was a sacred cow: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This was the immutable law of conservatism, and thus, Republicanism forevermore. Until it wasn’t. There was George W. Bush, whom I have maintained here for a good long time, was the man who murdered the purity of conservatism and made it possible for knuckle-dragging trolls like Donald Trump to profess “total authority” vested in his title as CEO of America Incorporated.
It is important to remember when states’ rights were a big deal for conservatives. So much so, they embarrassed themselves in the 1960s arguing against the Civil Rights bill, because it took the rights away from southern states to deny the rights of African Americans. It should be noted that most of these states’ governors were Democrats. Soon the Democratic Party, in the wake of a Democratic president signing the Civil Rights Act, imploded below the Mason Dixon line, allowing for Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to help himself and later Reagan to dominate the South.
But I digress.
The idea this week that the President, this one or anyone, having the authority over the states without something as legislatively historic as the Civil Rights Act is silly. But Trump is silly, and before the week was out, and someone in the White House schooled him on the Constitution, he first tried to peddle the idea that he might “allow” the states to control their openings based on what the states’ governors deemed necessary. And then, finally, the day before I write this, Trump completely caved on his wacky assertions of kingly powers, colorfully announcing to the states, “You’re going to call your own shots.”
Of course, Trump was way late to the party. In a display of unity, while Trump was holding completely useless two-hour pressers with propaganda videos making him look like King Solomon meets Albert Schweitzer, both Republican and Democratic governors banded by region were creating their own timelines for lifting restrictions based on the level of infections, deaths, hospital needs, etc., not a guy in D.C shouting monosyllabic platitudes in between trying to salve his rock bottom self-esteem.
The vacuum caused by erratic national leadership during this crisis denotes one specific axiom, no matter what the flavor of the month or year, politics be damned, the founding fathers put in place a republic capable of handling things like this; especially when the bumbling at the top becomes so odious that events demand every man, woman and child for themselves. In a strange way, by claiming “total authority” Trump essentially abdicated his responsibility—a good move, since he sucks at everything—to the collective; a very democratic (small d) and American maneuver.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon” and “Accidently Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon”