The left has long regarded federalism as a total sham whose real purpose, since slavery, has been to maintain white dominance, not limit federal power over states. And President Donald Trump—aided by his administration's enablers—is doing everything in his power to prove leftists right. Even before the pandemic, but certainly after it, Trump has toggled between invoking and dissing states rights depending on what would go down best with his predominantly white base.
Trump got elected on an anti-immigration platform that played on nativist fears. Its central pillar consisted of attacks on so-called sanctuary cities that don't fully cooperate with federal efforts to eject undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom happen to be Latino. And true to his word, Trump has left no stone unturned to go after these jurisdictions in his four years in office. He has made multiple attempts, including via executive order, to strip federal aid from such cities. Courts have repeatedly rebuffed his efforts—but that didn't stop him from threatening again in April to even deny pandemic-related aid to these cities if they didn't fall in line with his immigration enforcement priorities.
Nor has President Trump shown much appreciation for state autonomy when it comes to reopening the economy in the midst of the pandemic. He claims to have "ultimate authority" to force states to end their lockdown. If a liberal president made such statements to, say, deal with a climate emergency, Republicans would have conniptions. Yet when Trump invoked it, Vice President Mike Pence, a religious conservative who built an abandoned run for the presidency in 2016 around a "renewed vision of federalism" to push back against federal diktats on gay marriage and other cultural issues, insisted that there was a "long history" demonstrating that "the authority of the president of the United States during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary."*(Plenary power means that the president can act without regard to constitutional constraints.) To be sure, governors who are prolonging the lockdowns without factoring in economic costs deserve pushback. But that hardly means that a president lacking granular knowledge of local disease spread should usurp local control, something that Pence of all people ought to understand.
Likewise, Trump wants to withhold federal education dollars from school districts that are reluctant to physically reopen. He was originally proposing to strip them of existing federal funds but that is unlikely to pass legal muster. Hence, as with sanctuary cities, he is now is toying with tying new coronavirus relief funding to the reopening of schools. Trump hasn't ruled out a veto on the trillion-dollar "stimulus" package currently in the works if it fails to make school aid conditional.
Does Pence, who, as governor of Indiana, refused the Obama administration's $80 million federal pre-school grant, claiming it would result in "federal intrusion," have any qualms about Trump's intrusions? Nope! He's all on board and has pledged to explore ways to "give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school."
But such soft extensions of Uncle Sam's powers of the purse in violation of principles of federalism pale in comparison with the hard police power that Trump is deploying in cities experiencing protests against police brutality.
To burnish his bona fides as a "law and order" president, Trump dispatched federal agents wearing tactical gear driving unmarked vehicles to scoop up and detain protesters in Portland, Oregon, who Trump has branded as "violent anarchists." His initial pretext was to safeguard federal buildings from "vandalism" (which initially mostly consisted of graffiti). But on July 11, as per The Dispatch's Charlotte Lawson, a "rapid deployment team" cracked down on a largely peaceful crowd with "brutal" force deploying tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets—cracking the skull of one protester. This has only escalated the situation, inciting even more—and less peaceful—protests, prompting local and state lawmakers to plead with Trump to call off his troops and to sue him.
The leader of a party that champions federalism and respect for states' rights would listen to them. Trump, however, is doubling down. He is threatening to send more federal forces to Chicago and other cities "run by very liberal Democrats."
This is reminiscent of the tactics that President Richard Nixon, another law and order president whose political strategy Trump seems to be channeling, deployed to court his Southern white base. In fact, notes Foundation for Research and Equal Opportunity's Jonathan Blanks, federal SWAT teams are a 1970s invention whose express purpose was to quell white fear of racial unrest.
But its not just Trump's assaults on federalism that are calculated to rally his base, his invocations of it are too.
Masks are deeply unpopular with Trump supporters and have become yet another flashpoint in the culture wars. Until recently, Trump was refusing to wear one himself much less use the bully pulpit to encourage their use despite their widely accepted efficacy in stopping the spread of the disease. So when asked why he didn't support a national mask mandate he said he wants to "leave it up to the governors" and that "people need a certain freedom."
This would of course be a perfectly respectable answer—just because something is desirable does not mean it should be imposed!— if Trump weren't simultaneously cracking heads of protesters in violation of their freedoms and strong-arming states to do his bidding on other issues. Under the circumstances, however, it is not just hypocritical but a dangerous mockery of individual freedom and states' rights.
Liberals never had any use for federalism and have always been perfectly willing to deploy federal power to advance their tyranny of good intention. But Trump's brazen and self-serving inconsistency will make it all but impossible for genuine federalists to rely on this principle to push back against such tyranny.
They can blame Trump when the left turns around and accuses them of being mere protectors of white power.
*CORRECTION: Vice President Pence abandoned the run for presidency, contrary to what this line originally suggested.