Ask most scholars on the U.S. Constitution and they will tell you that the Constitution prohibits American states from seceding. They will point out that the U.S. Civil War settled the issue of secession in fact, as well as in theory. But all the constitutional principles considered does not prevent the United States from devolving from the political center’s authority in Washington, DC to the state and even large metropolitan levels.
Under Donald Trump's strongman policies, the United States is experiencing the same rapid decentralization that has seen other federations split apart in rapid fashion. Granted, the United States does not have the same underlying causes of ethnicity, language, and religion that helped propel the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, but the unilateral actions of the federal government are resulting in a steady movement by the American states away from the center in Washington, DC. Trump and his advisers, who rode the slogan of «states’ rights» into the White House, have shown a tendency toward disregarding the authority of the states and their representation in Washington, as embodied by the Congress, in favor of a strong unitary executive. The movement of the states toward more independence against the wishes of the center, as well as the Trump administration’s attempt to supersede the interests of the states is fraught with dangerous possibilities.
Federal forms of government are only successful when there is continual dialogue between the national and sub-national governments. When that dialogue is replaced by unilateral dictates from the center, the sub-national entities show their opposition by starting to ignore the national government. It was British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's unpopular poll tax in the 1980s that helped lead to the devolution of power from London to newly-formed regional governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The devolution of powers to Scotland helped lead the path to the political dominance of the Scottish National Party and a referendum on Scottish independence. The atrophy of successive Belgian governments led directly to a federalized Belgium where substantial powers were devolved to Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and the Brussels-Capital Region, each with their own parliaments and governments.
While it is illegal for American states to secede, as witnessed by the military defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, other forms of sub-national autonomy may be the ultimate outcome of the Trump administration's practical disregard for the federalism as embodied by the U.S. Constitution.
The drive toward more state autonomy from Washington is influenced by a number of policies enacted by the Trump administration, including those dealing with the environment, drug usage, health care, personally-identifiable data, relations with Cuba, immigration policy, and foreign trade. Although there are other issues that have driven wedges between the Trump administration and its Republican boosters in Congress, the aforementioned «big seven» are the current catalysts that have many states opting to seek their own political paths, without interference from Washington.
Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord resulted in the creation of the «United States Climate Alliance», a group of states that remain committed to achieving the goals of the Paris Accord, regardless of Washington's wishes. The first three states to declare independence from Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency's policies were California, Washington, and New York. Connecticut soon followed. The Republican governors of Massachusetts and Vermont also joined the alliance, putting an end to criticism that the U.S. Climate Alliance was a Democratic Party contrivance. These states were followed by Rhode Island, Oregon, Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota, and Delaware. Other states that remain committed to supporting the Paris Accord but have not formally joined the U.S. Climate Alliance are Colorado, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Illinois, Iowa, and Maine. The District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which are not states, also adhered to the Paris Accord.
The Climate Alliance has served as a backdrop to some governors conducting bilateral talks with leaders of foreign governments on not only the environment but also immigration. Washington Governor Jay Inslee met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Seattle and they jointly backed the Paris Accord. Inslee also discussed Mexican immigrants in his state in talks with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City. California Governor Jerry Brown flew to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. There, the two leaders reiterated their support for the Paris Accord and discussed bilateral economic interests. These included China-California trade issues during a time in which Trump is threatening to unleash a global trade war.
When it comes to thumbing noses at Washington and the Trump administration, the Pacific Coast states – which are becoming a sort of Pacific States of America sub-alliance within the United States – are leading the pack.
Washington, Oregon, and California have rejected threats by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to begin enforcing federal marijuana laws. The three states have legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational uses. These states were recently joined by Nevada. As Washington and Colorado, the latter also legalizing pot for medical and recreational use, have discovered, the tax revenue brought into state coffers by the marijuana economy have helped bail them out of financial destitution. Trump officials have not offered up any federal offsets for the loss of marijuana revenue, so the states have basically told Trump, Sessions, and the Drug Enforcement Administration to mind their own business when it comes to enforcement of federal drug laws within their states. These multi-use marijuana states are joined by Alaska, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.
Another group of states have declared their support for continued Medicaid expansion benefits under the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act (ACA) and have rejected the sweeping cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and veteran's health benefits being made by congressional Republicans and members of the Trump administration. Again, among the states instituting expanded Medicaid to cover low-wage earners in their states are the three core anti-Trump Pacific states of California, Oregon, and Washington, joined by Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Other Medicaid expansion states are Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
A pattern of early devolution is developing in the United States. This is also being seen in other policy areas.
An overwhelming 44 states have rejected a request for personally-identifiable voter registration data by Trump's politically-motivated President's Commission on Election Integrity, also known as the «Kobach Commission», named after the vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The commission is a ruse designed to conduct mass suppression of voting rights in the spirit of the old Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state-funded body entrusted by Mississippi's governor to suppress civil rights of African-Americans in the state. In a tweet, Trump asked, «what are they [the states] trying to hide». The simple answer is that they are not hiding anything but protecting personal data pursuant to state statutes. It is shocking that Trump does not understand the basic federal and state laws regarding the privacy of data.
California's Secretary of State Alex Padilla laid down the gauntlet to the Kobach Commission in declaring, «I will not provide sensitive voter information to a commission that has already inaccurately passed judgment that millions of Californians voted illegally». Mississippi's Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann told Kobach's commission to «go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from».
Trump's decision to roll back economic and travel agreements with Cuba established by the Obama administration has also set off a rebellion among states that see greater trade and travel opportunities with Cuba as helping their own states.
Trump's decision was met with defiance by Minnesota. That state's Democratic Lieutenant Governor led a bipartisan trade delegation to Cuba that declared its support for the Obama-led detente between the United States and Cuba. Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards and the state's Agricultural Commissioner Mike Strain, a Republican, declared that Trump's sanctions on Cuba will not affect Louisiana's growing agricultural trade with the island nation. They intend to increase trade with Cuba and not diminish it, regardless of Trump's actions.
The other issue that has spurred states to challenge the authority of Trump is immigration. The first aspect is Trump's travel ban affecting the issuance of standard and special refugee visas to individuals from six designated Muslim countries: Iran, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. Iraq was later dropped from the list. Among the states that filed federal suits against implementation of the federal government we find two of the rebellious Pacific states – Washington and Oregon.
The second aspect of Trump's immigration policy is the Department of Homeland Security's rounding up of undocumented migrants throughout the United States and their deportation to their countries of origin. California is about to become a «sanctuary state», which means it will refuse to assist federal law enforcement in the detention of illegal migrants.
Foreign trade may be the catalyst that drives some states away from the federal government in a constitutional showdown. Multicultural Hawaii, which is showing a desire to separate itself completely from Trump’s policies and has an active Native Hawaiian independence movement to help spur it on, is the only state to sue the administration over the constitutionality of Trump's visa ban. Hawaii sees itself as America’s gateway to the Pacific and Asia and freedom of travel is key to that view. Hawaii will not participate willingly in a Trump trade war as attested to by the state’s very active trade offices in Beijing and Taipei.
Other states, particularly the Pacific rebels, are not likely to adopt trade war policies by the Trump administration. The U.S. Constitution carves out foreign trade as a responsibility of the federal government and it will be trade issues that will see the first rifts between Washington, DC and the states. California has a major trade office in Beijing. Washington state and Oregon maintain trade offices in Shanghai. Some state trade representatives are afforded the same diplomatic courtesies by their host nations as diplomatic consuls. The states will not give up their foreign trade opportunities to satisfy the whims of a trade megalomaniac like Trump.
The decentralization forces now at play in the United States, spurred by the troubling power-grabbing moves by the Trump administration, are noteworthy for being largely bipartisan, largely trans-continental – except for a few regressive southern states and a few states in the prairies and mountain west – and showing no signs of abatement. If this is the situation six months into the Trump administration, political scientists are wondering if there will even be a «United» States at the end of Trump's term in office, particularly if that comes in January 2025.