In a Monday overwhelming with Big News, these two events kinda got lost.
Impeached president Donald Trump declared himself a dictator.
Democratic governors (and one Republican) banded together on the West Coast and Northeast to actually do the things that the federal government, in its rank incompetence, has utterly abdicated.
Both events are related.
First of all, Trump really did declare himself a dictator.
Now see in mind, in the same propaganda conference, Trump claimed that his power was absolute, yet he shouldered none of the blame for literally pulling off the worst coronavirus response in the entire world. It was a ridiculous conference for sure, so nuts that the CNN chyron writer just dropped all pretenses and filters and went to town.
But declaring his power “total” and claiming the states couldn’t do anything without his approval was just another whole level of delusional. Asked for where such power derived, he said “We are going to write up papers on this. It's not going to be necessary because the governors need us one way or the other. Because ultimately it comes with the federal government.” Don’t ask what the hell he’s talking about. Even he doesn’t know.
Of course, the 10th Amendment to the United States says “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.” That power includes police powers during a health crisis. And suddenly, those “federalist” Republicans, so usually keen on state’s rights, are awfully quiet.
Well, that’s not true, because the conservative publication The Federalist, which presumably is about, well, federalism, had this to say today:
Yes, up is down, black is white, water is dry and The Federalist is decrying federalism. It’s amazing the contortions conservatives have performed to align with Trump’s actions when their hero doesn’t have a single ideological bone in his body beyond “I and me and Ivanka the end.”
Still, his sudden embrace of authoritarianism, this idea that his power is absolute by decree, is deeply terrifying. I haven’t been one to give credence to claims that Trump may try to postpone the November election or ignore any results he doesn’t like. We saw in Wisconsin how both their state Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court were happy to subvert democracy for their own partisan gains. The move backfired, Democrats won anyway, but it shows that we cannot depend on the judicial branch to defend our democracy. I guess we knew that in 2000, when the Supreme Court literally ordered Florida to stop counting ballots, lest the Democrat Al Gore win the election. But rather than correct for this historical miscarriage of justice, the conservative court—bolstered by its own subversion of democracy, has only doubled-down on enabling the kind of voter suppression tactics that have kept them in power.
But we are a nation founded on democratic ideals. And there is only so far conservatives can go before blue America loses faith in the legitimacy of those institutions. That faith is beyond frayed, hanging on by a thread.
Which leads us to the other related bombshell:
California, which already calls itself a “nation-state,” has joined with Oregon and Washington to forge regional consensus on both the response to the pandemic, as well as how to best open their economies back up. (Hawaii shouldn’t be too far behind.) The same has happened in the East Coast, with New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts banding together.
It is beyond remarkable that states have been forced to join for collective action because of the rank failure of Trump and the federal government. This isn’t just a difference of opinion, this is responding to Trump’s “I am in charge and my power is absolute” insanity with a big, fat, “screw-you.”
But it’s even more than that—it’s the seeds to something history-altering dramatic, a hint to what might happen if conservatives decide to overtly subvert democracy this November. California Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t use the term “nation-state” lightly. No other governor has had the need to even hint at stronger sovereignty over the federal government. The implications are clear. He even talked about “exporting” materials to other states—the kind of language a country uses.
Now here is California, joined by its West Coast neighbors, saying “we’re going to ignore the useless and toxic federal government and do our own thing.” No other president has spurred this kind of rejection since the Civil Rights movement, and the federal government was on the right side of history. So was Abraham Lincoln the last time we had outright secession. There is nothing noble about the shit coming out of Trump and his administration today. Quite the opposite.
If Trump tries to steal the election, or otherwise postpone it, it’ll precipitate a breakup of the United States. The seeds are being planted.
Back in the early ‘80s, Joel Garreau wrote a book called The Nine Nations of North America. His argument was that the current borders were artificial and broken, and that his map was a better representation of the economic and cultural ties of the continent. This was his map:
It’s no accident that Monday’s two multi-state compacts adhere to the rough elements of this map.
What’s interesting isn’t just the possibility of a blue-state-led breakup of the United States. It is obvious that Republicans will deem a President Joe Biden as illegitimate. And if something happens to him and a woman vice president takes power, potentially a black woman, that claim of illegitimacy will only amplify. It may very well be red America that spurs this kind of breakup.
And boy, will Vladmir Putin have gotten his money’s worth!
Trump fancies himself a despot. He will not accept defeat without a fight. The conservative Supreme Court and House and Senate Republicans have defended him every step of his corrupt term. We can’t depend on those institutions because those institutions see what we do—that demographic and ideological trends are moving toward a more inclusive, open, welcoming, nurturing, and tolerant America. They are losing the America they believe in, and are using every possible artificial construct to delay the inevitable—from voting rights suppression, to the defense of an undemocratic Senate and House, to the undemocratic Electoral College. As such, they can’t be trusted to safeguard democracy, because democracy is the biggest danger to their power.
Now a breakup would likely to cleave the country in two, not nine, and would solve many of our current problems. Don’t like American overseas adventurism? All gone. The Rump Red States of America couldn’t afford to maintain a superpower-caliber military force. Heck, they’d lose most access to the Pacific, their navy stuck up in Alaska. Three of the four states most subsidizing the current U.S.—California, New York, and New Jersey—would be gone. Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming would have to figure out how to pay for their own shit, and good luck with that as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. The world’s media, banking, and tech centers would all be part of the Blue States of America. The Red States of America would get fracking, sunshine, and Austin. They’d be unhappy.
But really, as much as I want to explore this idea, and I will, let’s be up front with the biggest drawback, and it’s such a big one that we’d pray and hope that it never comes to this—we can’t abandon our liberal friends in Red America. What 50-50 balance exists would evaporate overnight, leaving outposts of indigo on a blood-red map. From our Democratic cities in Texas, to the destitute Latino communities of the Rio Grande, to the Mississippi Delta Black community, to cities like Memphis, Atlanta, Miami, and St. Louis.
Revolutions are bloody affairs, and even assuming this one was bloodless (which I can’t fathom Americans shooting at each other), the economic and cultural damage it would cause would be severe. The world has benefitted from knocking down border walls. The United Kingdom, even pre-coronavirus, was having a rough go with its Brexit. An American breakup would be like Brexit times 1,000—and maybe worse so if Republicans insisted on keeping King Trump in power.
That’s all to say, let’s really not hope it comes to this. If this is nothing more than a thought experiment, then great! Let’s all argue over whether North America is nine countries or some other number.
Problem is, we might not have a choice. And as such, it is only prudent for the smart states to start building the connections and bonds they’d need if the unthinkable happened.
This was a ridiculous notion until Trump made it less so. Let’s hope the rest of the Republican Party and its judges would stand up to Trump if it ever came to that. But let’s not pretend we can ever depend on them.