The people versus Trump

Many think US president Donald Trump is dangerously incompetent. Local politicians are taking matters into their own hands. Simon Wilson reports.

What’s the issue?

As far as many Americans are concerned, the United States is being led by a dishonest and unstable narcissist who is proving thoroughly incompetent at running a government. Donald Trump’s once-ambitious plans for tax reform show every sign of turning into a cut for the rich that leaves the unduly complex tax code as bewildering as ever.

His chaotic attempts at reforming Obamacare threatened to leave millions of his own voters sicker and poorer. His vow to eliminate the “administrative state” is undermining the ability of the government to function: earlier this month, of 562 key positions identified by The Washington Post, 390 remained without a nominee. His fragile egotism has so far undermined the courts, the intelligence services and the state department. And his rejection of the Paris climate deal has left the world wondering if the US is now determined to pursue a course of isolationist self-harm.

Isn’t that over-egging it a bit?

Perhaps. Trump is obviously not America’s first bad president. The US economy remains robust, for now. And Trump may only have four years (or perhaps less) as president. But the longer the Trump presidency lasts, the more focus there will be on the powers of individual states and cities to act, as The Economist puts it, as “islands of competence amid the dysfunction”.

The good news for those who want more from the US – and who recognise the continuing need for US leadership – is its “decentralised federal system”, says Ian Bremmer in Nikkei Asian Review. “Much power lies with state governors and big city mayors to enact and enforce laws that don’t exist at the federal level, even when these laws conflict with the president’s own priorities.”

What can they do? 

Act unilaterally to mitigate the damage. Notably, just one day after Trump explained his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord, the mayor of Pittsburgh publicly decried the president’s effort to invoke his city’s steel-town history and held a meeting on climate-change policy with Canada’s transport minister to discuss closer co-operation.

Canada’s federal government is busy quietly strengthening its relations with state governments in Florida, Texas, Michigan, New York and elsewhere, notes Bremmer. As Canada’s environment minister put it recently, “The United States is bigger than the [Trump] administration”.

What power do states actually have?

That’s a question that will almost certainly be subjected to legal challenges over the coming years. The US constitution is, on the face of it, very clear: under the Tenth Amendment no US state “shall, without the Consent of Congress… enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign power”.

Foreign policy is reserved for Washington, in other words. But what about environment policy? A few days after Trump quit the Paris agreement, the governor of California – the world’s sixth biggest “national” economy if it were a nation state – was warmly welcomed by China’s president Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and afforded all the pomp generally reserved for heads of state.

Did they make a compact?

Arguably, yes. California’s governor, Jerry Brown, who has vowed to hit ambitious emissions reduction targets regardless of what Trump does, hailed China’s own efforts on climate change and signed agreements with local Chinese officials on the development of clean-energy technologies. He has since done a similar deal with Germany.

California is the most significant US player here: its economy is the same size as France’s. But it is not alone: more than 200 US cities and at least 12 states have announced plans to carry on supporting the Paris Accord as part of a fledgling Climate Alliance. And according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (part of the Library of Congress), there’s an argument that such a move is unconstitutional – a sign of the stakes at play here. 

Is this just a climate issue?

No. Another core area of conflict between the Trump administration and local-level politicians is immigration. In April a US judge blocked Trump’s executive order to cut off funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” – those which have pledged to refuse to co-operate with federal immigration agencies in their efforts to deport undocumented migrants. This week Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, announced that the city is suing the Trump administration over its threats to withhold funding from sanctuary cities.

“Chicago will not let our residents have their fundamental rights isolated and violated, and Chicago will never relinquish our status as a welcoming city,” the mayor said. Other flashpoint areas for conflict between the White House and state or city-level authorities include Trump’s stop-start efforts to repeal Obamacare (New York mayor Bill de Blasio has led on this) and on protecting city databases from use by the federal government.

The power of the purse

Cities account for more than half of the world’s population and around 80% of economic output, but their rising wealth remains comprehensively outgunned by the political heft of the nation state. The next few years will see that tension come to dominate politics in the US and elsewhere, says Bruce Katz, co-author of The New Localism, in the FT.

Cities, if they want to take more power, will need to develop intermediate instruments and institutions that convert their market power into tangible fiscal and financial resources. One route would be to create “urban wealth funds” that put a true market value on all the (often undervalued) publicly owned assets in a given city, and then allow the city authorities to leverage that value.