Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN
It was a statement that should have stopped every American cold: “The president of the United States calls the shots. [The states] can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”
There was more: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total. The governors know that.”
That was Donald Trump at Monday’s coronavirus news briefing, asserting his total – and largely imaginary – authority over the American states. His comments weren’t just chilling for all of us who believe in American democracy; they threatened a constitutional confrontation over when and how to reopen the country in the thick of a pandemic.
But by Tuesday, after a day of pushback from governors, he was alternately trying to walk back his previous comments and spin them.
He told reporters he would “be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening – and a very powerful opening plan – of their state at a time and in a manner as most appropriate.” Later, he said, “I’m not putting any pressure on the governors.” Sure. Other than telling them he had total authority over them, no pressure at all.
And how did Republicans, who typically trumpet state’s rights, respond to his toothless power grab Monday? Most stayed silent.
But those “total power” declarations did bring three things into sharp focus. The first is that the President is, as his detractors have long argued, a wannabe totalitarian, a man who is less interested in public service – and public health – than he is envious of authoritarians, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to China’s Xi Jinping, to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“Total power” is, after all, exactly what totalitarians grab.
The second is that the President is ignorant and unintelligent. And finally, any claims Republicans once had to a reasoned ideology or conservative philosophy have proven fabricated; it was just about consolidating power all along. In this instance, it’s power without any coherent plan for dealing with a crisis that has already claimed the lives of more than 25,000 Americans.
The truth is, no reasonable person believes executive authority is total. Even GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming – who often, but not always, lines up with the President – has stepped up to say that no, Trump is not an all-powerful Dear Leader. But she’s an exception in her party.
So, first things first: the president of the United States does not have “total authority” over the states. You don’t need to be a constitutional scholar to figure that out – you just have to read the document itself. The 10th Amendment states, “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.”
But in case that’s not sufficient, constitutional scholars the nation over are attempting to clue the President and his supporters in as well: Trump does not have all the rights of a dictator, and it’s unclear where he even got that idea.
This is an important moment to reemphasize that Donald Trump is not a learned man. Yes, he has a business degree, but he shows no interest in learning, no curiosity about the world around him, and little apparent ability to ingest much in the way of new information that is not presented in simple pictures or on TV. Comprehending complex material seems far beyond his grasp.
His intelligence briefings have to be pared down to child-like levels, and he still barely reads them, and resists receiving them regularly. Some believe he’s indifferent to the printed word. Does anyone really think this man has even read, let alone understood, the US Constitution?
Or, for that matter, grasped the reality of a global pandemic?
Clearly, he either does not comprehend the severity of the lethal threat we are facing, or doesn’t care – it’s a market downturn that seems to truly concern him. For months, The New York Times found, global health experts laid out the risks of pandemic; now, the experts are warning the President about the dangers of reopening the country too soon. What’s at stake: widespread illness, death, and an even worse economic disaster.
Still, the President offers no consistent or intelligible plan, nor a lick of evidence that he even understands the considerations at hand.
Governors across the country, and particularly in heavily afflicted population centers on the east and west coasts, are taking the threat more seriously. And without a real leader in the White House, they are coordinating among themselves on when and how to eventually reopen. This is their right and their responsibility.
What’s happening here is that Trump is asserting his dominance to slap back at Democratic-controlled state governments. The White House response to coronavirus has been chaotic, wildly inconsistent, and often dangerous. Trump is threatened by the prospect of governors working together outside of his authority, because he’s already seen many of them prove themselves more competent leaders than he is. And they have the approval ratings to show for it.
But instead of stepping it up and doing better himself, he tries to bigfoot the executives who have shown real leadership. Trump has never believed the rules apply to him. The idea that there might be a constraining force larger than himself just does not seem to compute.
In a sane democracy, a man like Trump would never serve in any elected office, let alone find himself elevated to the most powerful position in the land. Yet here we are. And while Trump is responsible for Trump, so are Republicans.
Their hypocrisy is hard to watch. For decades, Republicans have pushed the concept of “state’s rights,” often as a way to resist a federal government trying to implement civil rights legislation. Trump’s statements of preeminence, and the general lack of response from the GOP, reveal that argument for what it always was: just a way of maintaining white political, economic and legal supremacy. A grip on power.
Trump’s tactic is that of a playground bully, per usual. But it is coming from the most powerful man in the world – which makes it actually dangerous. Republicans could set him straight.
But troublingly, I think we’re seeing where their allegiance lies. And it’s not with the country, or the people they are sworn to serve.