Asked during his press conference by what authority he intends to “reopen” the United States when the threat from coronavirus has dissipated, President Trump struck an absolutist tone. “I have the ultimate authority,” he insisted. “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.”
In fact, “the governors” do not know that, and nor does anybody else for that matter, because it is simply not true. The United States is a federal republic in which the national government enjoys only limited powers, and in which the president plays a subservient role to Congress within that limited government. There are many actions that the White House can take in the course of fighting this outbreak, but usurping the police powers of the 50 states is not among them. On this, the Constitution is clear.
It has indeed been galling to watch many within the press corps repeatedly ask Trump why he has declined to preempt gubernatorial decisions or shut down grocery stores when he does not enjoy the power to do either. It was galling, too, to watch many of those same voices erupt in indignation when, eventually, he began to talk as if he does. But that, ultimately, is of secondary importance. It is the responsibility of the American president not only to uphold the Constitution in action, but to proselytize on its behalf. To hear the words “the authority is total” pass the lips of our chief executive was jarring, unwelcome, and dangerous. Now, as ever, “L’état, c’est moi” does not translate well into English.
There seems little chance that President Trump will attempt to follow through on his declaration. It was only three days ago that he was praising “federalism” and insisting that the majority of the on-the-ground decisions will, as a matter of course, be taken by the states. And, besides, there is no mechanism by which the federal government can meaningfully force the nation’s governors to change course. As we learned during the previous administration, presidents are most effective at grabbing power that does not belong to them when they decline to enforce laws that they dislike; when attempting to coerce an outcome, they are considerably less potent.
Still, Americans, per Jefferson, enjoy a “peculiar security . . . in the possession of a written Constitution,” and they rightly expect their leaders to agree with them. These are extraordinary times, but it is in extraordinary times that the integrity of our institutions and our leaders is most keenly tested. Pandemic or no pandemic, nobody in this country enjoys “ultimate authority.” Let us hear no more of this ugly, caudillo-esque rhetoric.