Trump Is Exploiting D.C.’s Lack of Statehood

The president’s crackdown in the capital exposes its vulnerability to authoritarianism.

Getty / The Atlantic

On June 26, the House of Representatives will vote on whether to make the District of Columbia the nation’s 51st state. The measure is expected to pass with the support of the House’s Democratic majority—the first time ever that either chamber of Congress has backed legislation for D.C. statehood.

A great deal has changed since 1993, the last time advocates tried and failed to pass such a measure in the House. But the surge of support for statehood among congressional Democrats is in large part a backlash against President Donald Trump’s aggressive response within the district to the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. National Guard troops gathered with federal law-enforcement officers in the streets of the capital, arrayed against peaceful protesters without the city’s consent. For residents of D.C., who already go without voting representation in Congress and almost half of whom are black, it was a harsh reminder of the city’s limited control over its own affairs.

“Statehood fixes it all,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference announcing the House vote. That may be overstating things. But the congressional push for statehood—symbolic though it is, given opposition from the Republican-controlled Senate—suggests the scope of possible reform in the post-Trump era.

Trump’s authoritarianism has always been peculiarly weak-willed. He admires dictators, but he lacks the interest and attention span to break down the real legal limits on his power. Instead, his preferred method is to locate the spaces in which he is least constrained to begin with, then exert as much force as he can. The most consistent example throughout Trump’s presidency has been his actions concerning immigration—a realm where both the courts and Congress have historically granted the president great deference.

His crackdown in D.C. offers another example. Trump’s deployment of military and law-enforcement officers was frightening in part because it was so familiar. On one level, the sight of law enforcement attacking peaceful protesters to clear the way for a presidential photo op—not to mention the armed troops at national monuments, the police officers refusing to identify themselves, the helicopters using the battlefield maneuver of hovering low over city streets to intimidate protesters—was alien to American democracy. On another level, Trump’s spectacle looked like something that Americans know quite well from foreign news reporting. Trump brought into the United States capital a vision of power more at home in an occupied territory or a collapsing state. The New York Times compared the barricades erected around the White House to Baghdad’s Green Zone.

D.C.’s lack of statehood, and its unique relationship with the federal government, made this cartoonish show of force possible. Unlike state National Guards, which usually report to their governors, the D.C. National Guard is commanded by the president. Thus Trump could send troops into the district’s streets without having to invoke the Insurrection Act, the controversial legal authority he would have needed in order to call up the guard elsewhere in the country—and without requiring the city’s consent. The president’s control over federal law enforcement also enabled him to deploy heavily armed officers from various agencies across the city—again, without consulting local leadership. The Washington Post reported that the White House even considered seizing control of the D.C. police force, before deciding against it. Trump found in the capital a place that had no recourse against the expansive authority already granted to him and asserted that authority with the delight of a bully.

Again and again, in trying to understand the president’s approach to his office, I’ve returned to the concept of the “state of exception”—an idea central to the thinking of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In a moment of unforeseeable emergency, he argued, any constraints on power give way and the leader may act with all the force of legal authority but without restriction. Even in a liberal democracy characterized by limitations on authority, Schmitt says, this wormhole to absolute dictatorship will always exist.

More recently, theorists taking a critical view of Schmitt have suggested that states of exception come into being alongside hierarchies of race and colonialism. “Sovereignty,” the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe argues, “means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” I doubt that Trump is familiar with Schmitt’s work or the scholarship surrounding it. But there is an echo of the state of exception in Trump’s eagerness to use the southern border—and now D.C.—as staging grounds for authoritarianism.

Trump’s vision of the southern border as a realm of lawless violence is shaped by racist fantasies about Latin Americans corrupting the sanctity of the white United States. (Writing in January 2019, the immigration reporter Dara Lind argued that Trump has “only one note” to play when called upon to act presidential: the idea that “immigrants are coming across the border to kill you.”) D.C.’s lack of sovereignty, which allowed Trump to transform it into a kind of state of exception during the protests, is equally impossible to disaggregate from race. After black D.C. residents gained the franchise and political power within the district following the Civil War, a white backlash led to the abolition of the city’s locally elected government. The city reclaimed some autonomy in 1973 after the 1965 Voting Rights Act enabled black voters to push out the segregationist senator who had blocked all efforts toward local control. Republicans have made clear that their opposition to D.C. statehood stems from the fact that district residents, of whom black Americans make up the largest ethnic group, would vote in two additional Democratic senators. “Why would the Republicans ever do that?” Trump asked the New York Post in early May.

This history is why the president has such power over the deployment of troops and law enforcement in the capital city. And it is why a white president steeped in racial hatred was able to turn state power against protesters, many of them black, demonstrating against the death of a black man at the hands of the state. To paraphrase Mbembe, it’s hard to imagine, in the U.S. today, a clearer demonstration of sovereignty as the ability to decide who does and does not receive the law’s protection.

The president has a talent for sniffing out those places in the legal order where a would-be authoritarian can act out his ideal of governance with minimal restraint. Now that Trump has done the nation the uncertain favor of making those weak points known, the task is to shore them up to prevent similar abuses in the future. The June 26 vote for D.C. statehood is not a simple fix to this problem. For one thing, the bill is going nowhere in the Senate. But it nevertheless points to a possible way forward.

Although supporters of D.C. statehood have sometimes called the district “America’s last colony,” that appellation could just as well describe the U.S. territories that are still denied the full protections of the U.S. Constitution. Puerto Rico, still reeling years after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in the absence of a competent federal response, is another space of exception, and could also benefit from statehood. Authority over the border needs rethinking too: Some kind of reworking of presidential control is in order. It’s unlikely that much will happen under the current administration and Congress, but when Trump leaves office—perhaps as soon as January 2021, if Joe Biden wins in November—these reforms are worth a serious look.

Schmitt would argue that there’s no way to restrain sovereign power entirely, that the potential for dictatorship will always be there. Without getting into a philosophical argument over whether or not he’s right, it is at least possible to lend support to the dignity of those historically excluded from the law’s protections and to make it more difficult for the next president to punch through to authoritarianism. And it’s worth keeping in mind the declaration by Trump’s Justice Department, in a sneering letter to the D.C. mayor, that the protests “conveyed the impression that the United States was losing control of its capital city.” Which crisply frames the question: Whose control? And over whom?