This week the Trump administration once again ratcheted up its war against the majority of Americans who didn’t vote for Donald J. Trump in 2016 and who don’t plan to vote for him in 2020: In a truly extraordinary move, Trump ordered the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget to work with federal agencies to identify “anarchist jurisdictions” with the intention of blocking them from receiving federal funds.
A preliminary list of these jurisdictions was reported to include Seattle and Portland on the West Coast, and Washington, D.C. and New York on the East Coast. But that list was, apparently, slated to grow considerably. Barr’s mandate is to come up with the names of all offending jurisdictions over the coming two weeks, and then to give federal agencies a month to work out what projects they can hold as financial hostages — meaning that the inevitable court battles around this ludicrous and vindictive power grab will kick into gear in the days before the election. Trump seems to believe that the more pain he can inflict on the U.S.’s urban centers, and the more liberal outrage he can generate in the run-up to the election, the more he will drive his white suburban and rural base to the polls.
Trump has tried to pull this trick before. On and off for the past four years, he has threatened to “defund” sanctuary cities. A couple years ago, he came close to pulling the trigger on this decision before backing off after California spearheaded a multistate legal response, and after his own legal experts concluded he didn’t have the power to take away highway funding, education dollars, health care investments, and other non-law-enforcement dollars as a policy response to a specific law enforcement dispute with local jurisdictions.
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More recently, another federal appeals court said Trump could tailor a response by specifically withholding federal law enforcement grants to cities and states; and soon afterward, the administration did, indeed, begin withholding law enforcement-specific funds. However, in the months following, Number 45 has, on the campaign trail, resurrected the more general defunding threat, holding it as a sort of sword of Damocles over his rivals.
Trump has also sought to exploit natural disasters for similar political ends. When large wildfire conflagrations destroy thousands of square miles of land, and thousands of homes in California, Trump repeatedly issues threats to withhold FEMA dollars from the state.
When political leaders in Puerto Rico didn’t praise Trump after Hurricane Maria, and instead critiqued the ineptitude of his administration’s response, Trump threatened all kinds of financial consequences to the island and its population. And when he did free up billions of dollars for the island, he insisted that Puerto Rico suspend its requirement that federal contract workers be paid a $15 per hour minimum wage.
Now, Trump is recycling this same political party trick, but on a far larger, and potentially even more dangerous, scale.
The administration is arguing that crime has spiked in larger cities over the past few months, a claim which is partly true but badly exaggerated. Murder rates are, indeed, spiking in many of the U.S.’s large cities; but other categories of crime, including other categories of violent crime, generally remain flat or are declining. And, despite the uptick of the past few months, all categories of crime, including murder, remain far lower in 2020 compared with a generation ago, when crime rates began a nearly 30-year decline. But Trump has never let a little thing like the facts stand in the way of a compellingly demagogic narrative. Latching onto the notion of surging crime, he says this alleged increase has been caused not by mass unemployment or by the social dislocation of the pandemic, but instead by a political conspiracy carefully crafted and implemented by local politicians.
The so-called “anarchist jurisdictions” under attack are all Democratic cities. And they are all cities that have aroused Trump’s ire because of their response to the ongoing Black-led uprisings against police-perpetrated violence. These cities’ political leaders rejected Trump’s requests to use federal troops against civilian protesters, and in the case of New York and D.C., the leaders approved the painting of Black Lives Matter murals on the streets near properties that Trump either lives in or owns. All of the cities are run by Democratic mayors and all have electorates that by overwhelming numbers reject the tenets of Trumpism.
This attempt to impose fiscal punishments on his opponents is anti-democratic and it is unconstitutional. Not to mention the fact that Trump’s claims about “anarchists” are wildly inaccurate — indeed, they are the stuff of dark-web fantasy.
Here’s the reality: None of the cities Trump is targeting are led by self-proclaimed anarchists, or even leftists. In fact, they’re run by Bill De Blasio, Ted Wheeler, Muriel Bowser and Jenny Durkan, all of whom have faced criticism from the left. For all the protests, Portland in 2020 is hardly Barcelona under the anarchist commune, circa 1937. And, to my knowledge, none of these cities, apart from Seattle, which has Kshama Sawant on the council, even have any self-proclaimed socialists in city-wide elected office.
If Trump, or any of his acolytes, had the faintest idea of the philosophy and methodology of anarchism, if they had read, say, the writings of Bakunin or Godwin, they would know better than to connect any of these individuals with the ideas of anarchism. But, of course, this isn’t really about ideas, it’s about smear tactics and demagoguery on a grand scale.
In fact, what Trump is proposing is the usage of all the levers of power at his disposal to fiscally punish locales that have the temerity to disagree with him politically. He is doubling down on the notion that he is president not of all Americans — regardless of whether or not they support him — but of Red America. To those on the other side of the political aisle, Trump is sending a hate note loud and clear, a note that says he will punish those who do not swear undying loyalty to his dismal vision.
Not to beat a dead horse, but none of this is how democratic politics works. To the contrary, this is the stuff of autocracy and of fascism.