We Live in a Potemkin Autocracy Now

The White House memo declaring New York City, Portland, and Seattle “anarchist jurisdictions” isn’t federalism; it’s half-baked feudalism.

Donald Trump
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

The Trump administration named New York City, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, “anarchist jurisdictions” on Sunday, threatening to slash federal funding due to protests against police brutality and property damage. The announcement built on an earlier order that accused several cities of “permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction”—but the three that made the final cut aren’t among the nation’s leaders in crime.

An American president seizing the fallout of political protests to defund cities seems rather terrifying. Sources I spoke with, however, said the move reflects a kind of Potemkin autocracy, where the appearance of absolute power serves to mask a paper-thin threat.

“The anarchist-jurisdiction order is a smoke screen,” said Scott Anderson, a senior fellow with the National Security Law Program at Columbia Law School. “This has never been done before, and there are hardly any city-funding programs that the White House has the power to cut. This is just naming and shaming, or pure marketing, more than anything with legal consequences.”

The memo’s centerpiece is almost certainly unconstitutional. Only Congress has the power to make federal grants to states contingent on certain conditions. The president is not Congress, and he does not have clear authority to unilaterally rescind funds authorized by the legislature. If the executive could punish disfavored states in this way, our system would start to look a lot more like feudalism than federalism.

While there is little precedent for the White House to defund cities by crying anarchy, the move is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s failed attempt in 2017 to withhold money from so-called sanctuary cities. When places such as San Francisco refused to turn over unauthorized immigrants to federal authorities, the administration tried to claw back law-enforcement grants. But several judges blocked the White House’s plans, calling the administration’s logic imprecise and unlawful.

“The cities challenged the administration over sanctuary cities, and Trump lost most of those decisions in the courts,” Anderson said. “The whole thing was seen as just a straightforward violation of federalism.” Loosely defined anarchy might be an even flimsier precondition for defunding cities than the reason given in the sanctuary-city cases from 2017, he added.

Issuing threats without the possibility of follow-through is routine for this president. If Trump matched every outburst of intimidation with hard policy, he would have already closed the border, thrown journalists in jail, punished the NFL with taxes over kneeling players, withdrawn troops from South Korea, shut down Twitter, released recordings of his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey, fired Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and imprisoned Hillary Clinton—at least 11 separate times. Summarizing these and other ramshackle ultimatums, Politico’s Jack Shafer observed that “Trump issues threats with the frequency other people take out the garbage.”

This latest “garbage” isn’t just unconstitutional; it’s also pretty nonsensical. Furious about the movement to defund the police, Trump is trying to … defund the police. In fact, the whole Republican Party is inadvertently pursuing a policy to slash U.S. law enforcement spending.

Here’s how: The pandemic has deprived state and local governments of sales taxes and other revenue sources, forcing them to cut spending on major items such as health care, education, infrastructure, and law enforcement. Although Democrats have tried valiantly to bail out state budgets, the GOP has refused to go along with them. And now Trump wants to make matters worse, depriving three cities of yet more federal funding. Thus, even as they rail against defunding the police, Republicans are accelerating the defunding of city and local governments, whose pain may be borne, in part, by law enforcement.

In the past four years, the GOP has been inconsistent on just about everything—deficits, trade, relations with Russia, rule of law—except its fealty to the president. Federalism has proved no exception. In the early days of the Trump presidency, the Department of Justice scrapped Obama-era reforms that successfully lowered police violence through federal oversight. This initially seemed to agree with the classic conservative position that the executive office should stay out of the states’ business. But the president has jumped headfirst into local issues as diverse as NFL taxation, state immigration enforcement, education curricula, corporate mergers, and, now, policing.

Rather than asking cities what they need to solve the concentric crises of public health, safety, and finance, the White House is resorting to the only move in Trump’s playbook: Start a political inferno and hope that you emerge from the flames with the other side more badly burned. In this way, the president’s chaotic, even borderline-anarchical, instincts make him resemble the protesters more than he might want to admit. When your only tool is a flamethrower, everything seems like it deserves to be set on fire.