Resolute Square

Here’s What States' Rights Would Mean In A Second Trump Presidency

David Pepper and Gevin Reynolds write, "Thanks to a toxic brew of partisan gerrymandering, intense voter suppression, dark money, and far too many uncontested races, many MAGA-controlled states have stopped resembling functioning democracies at all."
Published:May 17, 2024
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By David Pepper & Gevin Reynold

During a recent interview with TIME Magazine, former president Donald Trump invoked the doctrine of states’ rights to explain his position on the issue of abortion. The overturning of Roe, he argued, was necessary to return the issue to the states. Since Dobbs, states have “passed what they want to pass.” Now, he purportedly opposes a nationwide abortion ban because it would take away power from the states. “It’s all about the states,” he said. “It’s about…states’ rights.” 

Donald Trump is far from the first to argue in favor of states’ rights. During the nullification crisis of 1832, South Carolina lawmakers declared void tariffs passed by Congress to strengthen the northern economy. President Jackson nearly mobilized federal troops before a compromise was brokered. Leading up to the Civil War, both the pro-slavery south and the anti-slavery north used states’ rights arguments to support their positions. Southern states argued that the north was infringing on their citizens’ right to own Black people, while northern states countered that fugitive slave laws encroached on their right to keep slavery outside of their borders. And during the Civil Rights Movement, white supremacist southern governors like George Wallace asserted states’ rights while brazenly resisting federal desegregation efforts.

Now, as Donald Trump mounts his third presidential run, he is ready to lead a states’ rights revolution a la MAGA. Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers are laying the groundwork necessary to ensure its success. On reproductive freedom, Trump has fully embraced the role of states in determining the level of freedom that women have over their own bodies. In the nearly two years since Trump proudly “broke Roe v. Wade,” 14 Republican states have enacted total abortion bans, with numerous others having imposed significant restrictions. Trump has referred to these new laws as “beautiful harmony.” If he wins in November, we should expect more and more states to propose abortion restrictions, and we should be prepared for him and his fellow Republicans to do absolutely nothing to stop them. 

Trump’s first-term judicial nominees make very clear where he stands on the issue of voting rights. In the eleven years since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act through its Shelby County decision, around 30 states have enacted around 100 new and more restrictive voting laws, many of which have been found to be racially discriminatory. Trump nominated judges who helped defend and uphold those laws in court – both before and after they took their seats on the bench. Meanwhile, Trump’s Department of Justice brought only one lawsuit against a state suspected to have engaged in voter discrimination. The Biden DOJ, by comparison, has already launched four such suits in less time. Trump’s second-term platform includes a promise to empower state legislatures to continue making voting rights in their own image.

Donald Trump has also pledged to shutter the U.S. Department of Education. It’s a pledge Republicans have been making since Jimmy Carter created the department. The irony is that while the federal government does play a crucial oversight role, the nuts and bolts of education policy – including curriculum design and school funding – are already decided at the state and local levels. That is why states like Florida have been able to implement hundreds of unpopular book bans while writing alternative versions of our nation’s history. Trump has endorsed these efforts. During a second term, he would steer the federal government out of the states' way as they wage their culture wars, clamp down on free speech, and fail to provide their students with the quality education they deserve.  

To be sure, states’ rights can enable a state to fight back against regressive efforts at the federal level. That was the case for northern states that resisted the spread of slavery within their borders. And today, some states are on the vanguard of protecting certain liberties under threat nationwide. Citizens in Vermont, Ohio, Michigan, and California have led successful initiatives to codify reproductive access in their state’s constitution. In 2023 alone, at least 23 states enacted 47 laws to strengthen the right to vote. And since 2020, liberal states have enacted over 30 laws that affirm the right of students t0 learn – and the right of teachers to teach – sensitive but important topics. These are all examples of the role that progressive federalism can play in a healthy democracy.

However, thanks to a toxic brew of partisan gerrymandering, intense voter suppressiondark money, and far too many uncontested races, many MAGA-controlled states have stopped resembling functioning democracies at all. That’s why they have been able to pass policies – including extreme abortion bansrepressive voting measures, and dangerous gun laws – that reflect the exact opposite of the will of the people, yet never face accountability for doing so. Or in other cases, they defy the results of referenda directly passed by their own citizens. And still elsewhere, they run roughshod over local governments – as in Tennessee, where Republicans in the general assembly recently overturned a local police reform passed by the city of Memphis. These states might be laboratories, but it is autocracy – not democracy – that they are cooking up. 

If Trump wins in November, his doubling down on states’ rights at the very moment many states are locked down as laboratories of autocracy would deal a one-two punch to freedoms around the nation. States need not be aligned on every issue, but it’s important that all Americans have equal access to the most fundamental rights. Whether you can receive life-saving reproductive care when you need it, easily and safely cast a ballot, and trust your local school to teach your children our nation’s true history – these should be assured by virtue of your citizenship, not determined by your state of residence.

The MAGA movement has created our nation’s latest sectional states’ rights crisis. We are currently careening towards a future in which red states and blue states are united in name only. And if Donald Trump retakes the wheel, there is no going back.

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