On Monday, President Donald Trump in a tweet compared himself to William Bligh, captain of the HMS Bounty, whose sailors tied him up and cut him adrift in the South Pacific in 1789.
Bligh is a favorite bloated villain of pop melodrama, long portrayed as a victim of his own sadism and paranoia. Sometimes even Trump hits the nail on the head.
Earlier that day, governors from the West and East coasts had formed coalitions committed to making public health the first consideration in any plan to restart their economies during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Western States Pact and the Multi-State Council — heroic names straight out of Tolkien or “The Hunger Games” — promised to pursue policies grounded in science, rationality and common sense. (Seven Midwestern governors announced Thursday that they will coordinate on reopening their state economies.)
The states’ effort comes as Trump has shown that his own approach to the COVID-19 pandemic is vindictiveness, vanity and lies.
So, yes, the governors are pulling off a kind of mutiny, but it has to be the most responsible and reasonable mutiny in history. No muskets or bayonets, although it’s plenty aggressive, mounted by some of the richest and most powerful states in the union — California, Oregon, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Nonetheless, the two plans represent less a rebellion than civilized, disciplined, even elegant governance.
In this version of a mutiny, Trump’s Fletcher Christian might be played not by snarling Marlon Brando but Anderson Cooper — or, better yet, the unflappable John Slattery of “Mad Men.” He’d brandish not a cutlass but ineluctable logic: We must continue to mitigate this deadly pandemic while gradually reopening the economy.
When demented Trump is captain, logic itself seems mutinous.
On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded to Trump’s Capt. Bligh tweet. The president indicated he’d relish a showdown with “Democrat Governors.” Said Cuomo: Yeah, no.
Trump, Cuomo observed, was “spoiling for a fight” he wasn’t going to get. The governors of the collaborating states, he said, were just doing their jobs, invoking their constitutional authority to decide public health policy in their own states.
And far from an act of war, the formation of the coalitions implies an act of conscientious objection. A refusal to bow and scrape to Trump, of course. But also a refusal to fight one another for federal resources, or for Trump’s attention and fleeting favor.
To make this point, Cuomo turned to a cultural reference of his own, throwing down a surprisingly high-minded gauntlet in a showdown between two Queens natives. He mentioned a line from the pacifist poet Carl Sandburg that was paraphrased by Vietnam War resistors: “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
The message is clear: If Trump wants a fight, these governors plan to skip it. They have too much else on their minds — namely, their oaths of office.
The Western States Pact, signed by California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, asserts just three points: “Our residents’ health comes first.” “Health outcomes and science — not politics — will guide these decisions.” And “our states will only be effective by working together.” The statement of the Multi-State Council on the East Coast is just as straightforward.
How could efforts so mild and reasoned get under Trump’s skin?
Without addressing Trump’s failures as a leader, the governors have cooly reminded the president that, whatever yawp he might issue about his “total authority,” he’s wrong. The Constitution grants state governors “police powers” to enforce behavior in the event of a public health crisis.
The American people have seen the judiciary, under Atty. Gen. William Barr, truckle to Trump when it declined to charge him with obstruction of justice despite copious evidence of just such wrongdoing.
And we’ve seen the Republican-led Senate, with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the helm, truckle to Trump when it refused even to try him for high crimes and misdemeanors, again despite copious evidence.
But the allied governors aren’t truckling.
As of this writing, there are more than 600,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, where the virus has caused the deaths of some 28,000 people. (Last Saturday, my aunt was one of them.)
On Wednesday, Trump flailed around and even seemed to retreat from his “total authority” claim. He framed it this way, sounding petulant: “I will then be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening, a very powerful reopening plan of their state at a time and in a manner as most appropriate.”
Sure, bud. Authorize away.
The governors, as they well know and we should too, don’t need Trump’s authority. They have stated their intention to act rationally on behalf of their citizens. And this time it’s Trump who has truckled.
Now that’s a mutiny even Fletcher Christian couldn’t have pulled off.