Every morning, the media decides whether today is a day where President Trump is insufficiently using his abilities to fix everything with the wave of a pen – instead letting the nation’s governors (why do we even have those?) take the lead on decisions regarding lockdowns– or whether he is a crazed authoritarian, dangerously insisting that his power is total as regards the reopening of the economy, overwhelming those smart local governors who know what’s what. It’s the first time I can recall seeing a reporter bring up the Tenth Amendment in the briefing room! I’m just seven more amendments from Bingo.
It is a fun little game, though a little tiresome. The media knows Trump well enough to grok that he will react to any questioning of limitations on his power by projecting his normal “Whatever, I can do what I want” persona. He often likes to pretend that is the case, though when pressed on the details yesterday, he just maintained that it would be politically untenable for states to stay closed after the White House announces things are back open. Which is, let’s face it, probably true.
As a legal matter, Trump assuredly does not have the power to order states to do such things or overrule their governors on the matter without provoking a major legal fight. But all of this talk about whose authority must be respected leaves out the practical reality at play here: the American people will decide when the economy is reopened. Until their fears fade, you can’t just flip a switch and make them go out to eat or interact or buy luxury goods. As Chris Jacobs notes: “Just because the Trump administration gives word that individuals and businesses can reopen doesn’t mean that most, or even any, of them will do so.”
The governors of northeastern states and the west coast states are banding together on this matter and looking at determining their benchmarks and reopening plans. As a legal matter, that’s where the Constitutional authority lies. As a policy matter, it makes sense to approach this regionally. And as a political matter – the most important to said politicians – it spreads the blame among a number of politicians instead of just one. This makes it ideal.
But the idea that even they can just reverse this process overnight – by dint of the president, or a governor, or a mayor, or anyone else in elected office – invests far too much in politicians as the drivers of economic activity. If Americans don’t feel confident that they are safe to conduct commerce, their activity will be altered significantly, particularly as it relates to places viewed as high risk, and in response to new and inevitable spikes post-reopening.
And on the other hand, those who desperately want to reopen and exchange in goods and services will do so in spite of any regulatory burden that is not delivered at the end of a gun. Just go to any mid-sized neighborhood and you’ll see that the number of small businesses that are quietly reopening, despite not offering an essential service, is growing every day. They are testing the limits of the willingness of police to shut them down. And really, unless they end up going viral, the cops are looking the other way.
The divide between urban America and everywhere else matters here. In the vast sea of suburbia, communities simply lack the police power to keep places shut. When the only thing blocking you from going where you want to go is a piece of paper, and when there are not enough officials with badges to ascertain where people are driving or walking and why, people start to behave normally. While dense cities have the power to enforce many things, outside of their limits the amount of land mass you have to cover to keep people inside is just impossible. They just don’t have the manpower. You can keep the Walmart from selling seeds. You can’t stop the kids on the side of the road. Imagine a speakeasy, except for everything.
Unless someone complains about what’s going on, most police who lack the Richard Jewell intensity are typically happy to let people make their own choices. The other day I realized that a nearby store and repair shop had reopened. They didn’t have a sign in the window, they weren’t broadcasting that they were open, but I saw half a dozen people walking in and out, carrying things to get fixed in a small, cramped store full of surfaces. No one was talking to each other, but nods were exchanged, and the workers inside were going about their business. Hey, it’s a free country, brother.
Churches are doing that, too, with secret vigils cropping up everywhere. They’ve quickly discovered that if things are unannounced and doors are left unlocked, who are they to prevent people from gathering to pray? The megachurches may not be able to play their drums, but you’re fooling yourselves if you think they aren’t gathering together to break bread and worship. Tim Carney has a piece today calling for churches to reopen. That’s a fine debate to have, but it also requires pretending they’ve really closed, when many of them have just scattered into dozens of tiny denominations. They even have their own shibboleths.
These tight-knit communities are defying the demands of officials not with brash mass events or loudspeakers, but by silently gathering in ways they will never share with the outgroup. In this, such groups reveal themselves to be the true communities within an atomized nation, and they’re all in this together.
Government and policymakers often operate with the illusion of total control. They assume something generally true in normal times that becomes less true in abnormal times: that because an order is given, the American people will abide by it.
Many people will. But many others won’t, and that number will increase steadily as citizens and communities test the limits of what they are able to do. That is as it should be in a republic marked historically by a remarkable lack of docility, and an eagerness to “live free, talk free, go and come, buy and sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.”