Staff Columnist

Trump sets up states' rights battle; most conservative governors surrender

That should be a flashpoint for conservatives, the beginning of a revitalized Tea Party that recognizes the enormous threat Trumpism poses to our values.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vu
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

After more than a decade in the making, the Tea Party moment has finally arrived.

The movement originated in 2009 as a challenge to runaway taxes, spending and regulation. Organizers sought to restore the constitutional balance of power between the states and the federal government.

Eventually, the Tea Party devolved into a catchall for right-wing populism, and a magnet for xenophobes and culture warriors. In 2016, its early adherents overwhelmingly fell in line with President Donald Trump, choosing protectionism over freedom.

But that original Tea Party spirit — the charge to buck the national government in favor of local control — was on full display recently from two unlikely sources.

Trump decided early on in the coronavirus pandemic that the federal government would not centrally coordinate the purchase and distribution of medical supplies. That might have worked fine, except the Trump administration actively undermined state governments’ efforts. The federal government has outbid state buyers and even seized products from states.

After 3 million masks ordered by the Massachusetts governor were confiscated in New York, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker decided to sidestep the usual procurement process. He sent a New England Patriots’ private airplane to bring supplies back from China.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan coordinated a large COVID-19 test order from South Korea. The delivery was facilitated by the National Guard and state police, and the tests were put in a secure location with armed security.

“We guarded that cargo from whoever might interfere with us getting that to our folks that needed it,” Hogan said last week in an interview with Washington Post Live.

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Hogan and Baker don’t fit the common perception of the Tea Party mold. They both have harshly criticized President Donald Trump and supported the impeachment inquiry. Hogan openly considered challenging Trump for the GOP presidential nomination.

They are among the last vestiges of moderate conservatism in American executive office, and yet they are the ones waging a battle over federalism and states’ rights.

The political minds built for this moment — the ones who have long fantasized about escalating the state-federal power struggle — are not up to the task. The conservative firebrands who should be taking up this fight instead are beholden to Trump and whatever cockamamie plans he comes up with.

At a news conference last month, Trump made a striking claim about his powers in managing the public health crisis: “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.”

That should have been a flashpoint for conservatives, the beginning of a revitalized Tea Party that recognizes the enormous threat Trumpism poses to our values.

But it wasn’t. Loyalists brushed it off, again, as Trump misspeaking.

The small-government philosophy is founded on the likelihood that the levers of government power will eventually be grabbed by some menace, an incompetent or malicious figure. But when that menace is your friend, your fundraiser and your public relations manager, it proves hard to slap his hand away.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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