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the pandemic thrusts american governors onto the national scene

May 28, 2020


by Victoria Gonzalez Maltes, doctoral student in American history at École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).




Donald Trump Tweets supporting a few State protests against the confinement.
Donald Trump Tweets supporting a few State protests against the confinement.

On April 17, President Trump encouraged the protests against the lockdown measures that were taken by the Democratic governors of these three States. This behavior is in line with a series of public confrontations between Trump and the state governors, mainly Democrats, but also Republicans. A rather contradictory move from a president who says he respects the role of federated states with respect to the health crisis. And so the White House Press Secretary stated that: "In times of national emergency, we seem to have had a trend in this country where presidents aggregate power at the federal level, but this President has devolved power.  He has invested in a principle (…) which is federalism".


The federal government's wavering between giving leeway to the states and antagonism between the President and the governors has thrown them in the national political spotlight. It brings up the issue of what should be an appropriate response to the crisis and the renewal of federalism.




When the crisis started, President Trump attempted to assert his authority over the governors, insinuating that those who disagreed with his decisions were committing "mutiny". He likewise stated on April 13: "When someone is President of the United States, their authority is total and tweeted repeatedly to repeat this position.

"Don't mutiny when you are really in need of the Captain!’ Donald Trump seems to throw out alluding to a famous movie.
"Don't mutiny when you are really in need of the Captain!’ Donald Trump seems to throw out alluding to a famous movie.

Very quickly though, he recognized that authority over lockdown measures and the reopening of the economy rested with individual states. This step backwards is presented by the White House post facto as the president respecting federalism. And yet, this position has been criticized by the governors as an abdication of responsability, though they acknowledge the importance of federal assistance given in other areas to deal with the crisis. For them, the federal government must fill its traditional role of coordinating between the different States and act as an interface between states and foreign entities, in particular regarding supply chains of medical supplies. It must also put forward consistent sanitary guidelines to enable a reopening of the economy. . Washington Governor Jay Inslee expressed his frustration in this way: "It’s like being in World War II and not getting the federal government to manufacture boots … It’s very difficult to understand. I liken it to Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying, 'Okay, Connecticut, you build the battleship and I’ll be there at the launch and break the bottle".

Gretchen Whitmer, one of the governors put in the spotlight because of her sparring with D. Trump on the pandemic
Gretchen Whitmer, one of the governors put in the spotlight because of her sparring with D. Trump on the pandemic

Despite his stated respect for the governors' authority, Trump often criticizes those with whom he disagrees, for example when he instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to reach out to governors who weren’t appreciative of his administration’s efforts. He has expressed contradictory views on the end of lockdown measures, calling for the liberation of certain states, but criticizing Georgia Governor Brian Kemp – a Republican ally of the President – reopening businesses in his State "too soon" (before coming back on his statements several days later).


That being said, the president has most often aligned himself with the wave of opposition to lockdown measures, and has portrayed the governors as his antagonists. In Michigan, protests of several thousand people took place on April 15 against stay-at-home orders. They took a more radical turn on April 30, when armed protesters entered the State Capitol building. If some of them stated that their disagreement was not political but only aimed at mitigating the economic consequences of the pandemic, a number of them displayed "TRUMP 2020" signs. It was in that context that Trump tweeted his calls to “liberate” the three states. Following his practice of calling his opponents by disparaging nicknames, he called Gretchen Whitmer “Half-Whitmer”. 


After vacillating between a reluctance to slow down the economy - when growth was going to be the cornerstone of his reelection campaign - and a wish to appear as controlling the national response to the crisis, Trump then finally chose to leave the responsability of managing the reopening of the economy to the governors. So he positioned himself as both the defender of the economy and American jobs, and as a supporter of a libertarian revolt against the ‘tyrannical’ authority of state officials. This is a reelection strategy since Trump's goal was to campaign for "capitalism" versus "socialism": with the anti-lockdown protests, he can capitalize on that rhetoric even though Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary. He establishes himself as an anti-leadership leader, along the same lines as his anti-establishment campaign four years ago.



In this context, some governors had to take on exceptional responsabilities, Whitmer talking about the difficulty of being in competition with the whole world in order to buy medical equipment. On his end, the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, directly negotiated with South Korea for the supply of tests thanks to his Korean wife's contacts. He then sent the Maryland National Guard to protect the shipment when it arrived in case federal agents tried to intercept it, citing the example of Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who had indicated that a shipment of masks to his state had likely been seized by a federal agency. The governor of Illinois also hid the flight details of a shipment of masks from federal authorities: in several cases, the federal government rerouted medical supplies ordered by states by outbidding them even after an initial deal had been struck. The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, declared that his state would have to order medical supplies in its capacity as a "Nation-State", since the federal government wasn't doing it. In the absence of stronger federal coordination, several states have formed alliances to ensure regional consistency in their gradual reopening. After several decades of an “imperial presidency” that accumulated power at the federal level, governors are benefiting from a wider range of action. 


This additional leeway for governors created by the president also carries risks. It seems to be a strategy to enable him to avoid the political consequences of the coming economic crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump “has asked White House aides for economic response plans that would allow him to take credit for successes while offering enough flexibility to assign fault for any failures to others.”




The controversies between Trump and the governors have put the governors on the national political scene, when many of them have long been models of bipartisan cooperation. In several states (13 out of 50, including Michigan), they govern with a legislative body from the opposite party.

The rise of protests against lockdowns in Michigan, in particular, has attracted the attention of the entire country and turned Whitmer into a national figure. Elected during the Democratic wave in November 2018, she became governor in a State held by Republicans since 2011. Whitmer presented herself as a candidate preoccupied first and foremost with the pragmatic concerns of her voters, as evidenced by her campaign slogan “Fix the damn roads!”. Two years after Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by a razor-thin margin of 10,704 votes, Whitmer won her race by 10 points.


But is it possible today to be a national figure without being a partisan one? Whitmer herself admits that the "unfortunate reality" is that some of her constituents will necessarily now see her through partisan lenses since she was thrown into a public confrontation with President Trump. As proof of these changes, she says that the April 15 protest "felt a lot more like a political rally than a statement about the stay-home order".


So, bringing the governors to the forefront seems to create an ever increasing polarization. While the polls show that the governors' handling of the crisis is perceived in a more favorable light than the President's in 49 out of 50 States, the proportion of Republicans who approve the work of their State's elected officials has dropped significantly more since March than that of the Democrats. This means that the the Republicans in particular increasingly distrust their State's elected officials since the beginning of the crisis. Evidently, it is difficult for Democratic governors to avoid a confrontation, but this period of conflict with the President can also be politically perilous for Republicans. Given Trump’s hold on the Republican electorate, a dispute with the president is likely to work against them.


The states’ handling of the crisis has brought national attention to local authorities. This could play an important role in November’s elections as 11 governors will be on the ballot, in addition to the president. Given the resentment created by the stay-at-home measures – mainly promoted by local and state officials – and the concern around the health crisis, it is difficult to predict how this factor will weigh in for both state and national elections.

Victoria Gonzalez Maltes is a doctoral student in American history at École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) at the Centres d’études nord-américaines of the UMR Mondes Américains. She is also part of the Institut d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine of the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) and the Institut convergences Migrations.