Born in Queens, New York on June 14, 1946, Donald Trump was a central figure in the city’s political and social life decades before he was elected president in 2016. He attended Fordham University, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics. The son of a prominent real-estate developer, Trump took over the family business in 1971, growing the Trump Organization into an international brand.
While known primarily for his business ventures, Trump was long in the media spotlight before declaring his candidacy for president – the first elected office he would hold. His business was involved in the revitalization of several New York City landmark buildings, which often placed him in the middle of the city’s politics. On occasion, he purchased full-page advertisements in national newspapers to advocate specific political positions, and he leveraged his fame and media connections to comment on newsworthy events.
His official political affiliation changed several times before declaring himself, for the second time, a member of the Republican Party in 2012. He also flirted with the idea of running as a third-party candidate decade before capturing the Republican Party nomination. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Trump’s political activities came into sharper focus, especially in criticizing the president’s positions on global trade, the Iraq War, and immigration. Trump cemented his distinctive brand as a politician when he helped stoke doubts about Barack Obama’s birthplace and his eligibility to serve as president.
Federalism was central to Trump’s presidency (2017-2021). Under both a unified and divided federal government, the Trump administration pursued its most significant domestic policy objectives in an intergovernmental context, which often frustrated its largest reform ambitions. Administrative and regulatory politics largely defined intergovernmental politics, as Congress remained closely divided and gridlocked. The coronavirus pandemic, at the end of President Trump’s term, further reinforced the centrality of federalism to nearly every aspect of executive-branch policymaking. Although largely unprecedented, the crisis fit a pattern endemic to the exercise of presidential power in a federal system mired by partisan polarization.
The pattern of presidency-led federalism includes three prominent features, which have endured throughout the early 21st century: a reliance on presidential discretion in making intergovernmental policy; the persistence of partisan polarization manifesting in the growing geo-political divide between “red” and “blue” states; and the uncooperative relations between the federal government and states led by opposition-party governors.
President Trump campaigned on an aggressive vision of presidential power, that he “alone can fix it.” Belying traditional Republican Party talking points about limited government, Trump promised to use the powers of the federal government to “Make America Great Again,” even if that meant expanding federal powers.
However, once in office, and as many presidents soon learn, Trump confronted the reality of American federalism. Trump campaigned on a promise to crack down on unauthorized immigration into the United States, but because the federal government requires support from state and local authorities to implement immigration policies, many of Trump’s efforts were unsuccessful. By 2020, over 40% of Americans lived in “sanctuary” cities and states, most of which formed during the Trump administration as a response to his immigration plans. The civil protections granted by these jurisdictions to unauthorized migrants varies, but they all restrict the degree to which local and state police can cooperate with federal immigration officials, such as permitting them access to detained immigrants, or in sharing records. When Trump threatened to withhold funds from these locales, almost entirely led by Democratic governors and mayors, the federal judiciary ruled that this violated the president’s discretionary powers. Likewise, as the result of lawsuits initiated by Hawaii and Washington, the administration’s immigration restrictions on several countries – a so-called “Muslim ban” – was significantly delayed, and then modified. These would be among the first of 126 multi-state lawsuits brought by Democratic attorneys general against the Trump administration – nearly three times more than what Republican attorneys general filed during Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
Federalism also limited President Trump’s efforts to enact sweeping changes to environmental regulation. The Trump administration, primarily through the Environmental Protection Agency, rolled back or reversed 98 rules and regulations pertaining to air and water pollution, wildlife protections, and required environmental-impact reviews. This freed states from federal regulatory requirements, but many reimposed similar standards within their borders. For example, when the White House withdrew from the international Paris Climate Accord and ended the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, 21 Democratic and 3 Republican-led states, and 427 cities agreed to their own “Climate Alliance” in spite of federal action. The unpopularity of President Trump in many parts of the country spawned a resurgence of state and local environmental regulation as those governments took leads in subsidizing green energy technologies, reorganizing state governments around climate change problems, setting new restrictions on polluting industries, and altering building codes. The federal government was limited in stopping the states, although, in one high-profile example, the administration repealed a multi-state waiver that permitted California to adopt more stringent fuel efficiency standards.
The Trump administration enjoyed more success in using the intergovernmental nature of health-care policy to advance its agenda. While the president was unable to “repeal and replace” the signature policy legacy of his Democratic predecessor, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the White House was able to undermine the Affordable Care Act by slashing its advertising and outreach budget for the states’ health insurance exchanges, which state governments had depended on to increase the number of enrollees. The administration also reversed several key Obama-era directives, which had the effect of weakening national standards for what health insurance plans must cover, leaving state regulators greater discretion to lower coverage requirements.
The Trump administration also reinforced the centrality of executive-branch waivers in making healthcare policy, especially through Medicaid, the country’s largest intergovernmental program. Waivers, authorized by Congress, permit states to forgo certain statutory requirements, ostensibly with the goal of furthering a law’s overriding policy objectives. Various states, mostly led by Republican governors, received federal waivers to alter the regulations governing their state’s private insurance marketplaces, such as by establishing minimum payment requirements, preventing retroactive coverage, and locking-out certain enrollees from future coverage, including for failure to pay on-time. Most controversially, 19 states, all led by Republican governors, sought approval to place a work or volunteer requirement on new Medicaid recipients. As before, the legacies of these administration actions are a bit muddled, as a majority of waiver requests were set aside by the federal courts. At the end of Trump’s presidency, only Indiana and Utah had successfully implemented Medicaid work requirements.
The spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in the winter of 2020 further reinforced the governing dynamics that defined the Trump administration’s first three years in office. At the start of the pandemic, there was widespread, bi-partisan commitment to use the federal government – especially its purse – to offset the budgetary and economic consequences of the public health emergency. After passing each chamber with near universal support, Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (March 18), the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (March 27), the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (April 23), and the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act (June 5). Across these new programs, the Trump administration oversaw $1.9 trillion in new federal spending, directly targeting individuals and small businesses, as well as state and local governments. At the end of the calendar year, Congress also approved an additional $900 billion spending package, which, after Trump’s vocal opposition, did not include additional grants to states and localities.
The trillion-dollar changes in fiscal federalism comprise a small part of the intergovernmental response to COVID-19. Regardless of who was president, the federal administration would have depended on the states for much of the public health response. State governments adopted divergent policies in such areas as reopening schools, closing non-essential businesses, requiring mask-wearing, and limiting social gatherings, including church attendance, concerts, and sporting events. As with many other policy domains, the different state approaches were defined by partisan leadership and the particular demands placed on them by their constituents. Republican voters and Republican governors generally approved of President Trump’s approach and the flexible guidance offered by federal officials. Democrats condemned the president for failing to advocate for the full use of federal powers in managing the public health crisis. In response, President Trump openly criticized Democratic governors, calling for the “liberation” of various states, which had decided to remain shut down, and criticized calls for additional financial aid as a “bailout [to] poorly run, high crime, Democrat States.”
This partisan tug-of-war occurred in the midst of the 2020 Presidential Election, which also revealed another, commonly overlooked, institution of American federalism: the Electoral College. The Constitution decentralizes the election of the country’s chief executive. State officials have their own procedures for certifying the ballots cast in their jurisdiction and finalizing the slate of electors, whose decision is then sent to Congress. After election day, President Trump and his campaign team lobbied local election officials, demanding that they overturn or publicly question the validity of the results. Although many of these officials were Republicans, including secretaries of state in Georgia and Nevada, their electoral and governmental independence helped ensure that they preserved the integrity of the country’s federated elections process.
Americans were politically and socially divided before Trump; they remained divided after Trump left office. Nevertheless, partisan divisions between the states and federal government are deeper in the United States than elsewhere, which has led to more fragmented policy approaches, and less intergovernmental cooperation between the states and federal government. Those divisions grew under the Trump administration, as it further consolidated the dynamics of American federalism into the presidency’s institutional prerogatives and goals. This is a continuation of long-standing trends in the development of American federalism, even as it accelerated and was given greater force during Trump’s presidency.
SEE ALSO: Presidency;
Greg Goelzhauser and David M Konisky. 2020. “The State of American Federalism 2019–2020: Polarized and Punitive Intergovernmental Relations.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 50 (3): 311-343; John Kincaid and J. Wesley Leckrone. 2020. “Partisan Fractures in U.S. Federalism’s COVID-19 Policy Responses.” State and Local Government Review 52 (4): 298-308; Frank J. Thompson, Kenneth K. Wong, and Barry G. Rabe. 2020. Trump, The Administrative Presidency, and Federalism. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; Timothy J. Conlan. 2017. “The Changing Politics of American Federalism.” State and Local Government Review 49 (3): 170-183; John Kincaid.2017. “Introduction: The Trump Interlude and the States of American Federalism.” State and Local Government Review 49 (3): 156-169.