Donald Trump and William Barr
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential bid in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from where three civil rights workers were murdered. His “states rights” call was a racial dog whistle.

I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

Not long after Reagan spoke, the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society was formed by students at some of the nation’s top law schools. As their web site documents, “It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.” It soon became one of the most powerful legal organizations in the country, as the center of conservative thought regarding state’s rights.

But as Zachary Roth wrote in The Great Suppression, once Republicans realized that they were drifting into becoming a minority party, they began to abandon those principles. That was demonstrated by their embrace of something called “preemption.” The tactic was originally developed by tobacco companies to overturn local anti-smoking ordinances. But as major cities in deeply red states became more Democratic, state legislatures began passing laws to override ordinances adopted by cities on issues such as minimum wage increases, gun laws, and bans on fracking. The whole concept of local control was thrown out the window.

Now, even as Trump and McConnell rely on the Federalist Society to provide them with the names of extremists to put on the federal courts, the president is demonstrating that the commitment to state’s rights was a lie all along. The White House released a memorandum on Wednesday that would cut off federal funds to “anarchist jurisdictions.”

My Administration will not allow Federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones.  To ensure that Federal funds are neither unduly wasted nor spent in a manner that directly violates our Government’s promise to protect life, liberty, and property, it is imperative that the Federal Government review the use of Federal funds by jurisdictions that permit anarchy, violence, and destruction in America’s cities.

The memo directly names Seattle, Portland, New York City, and Washington D.C.and tasks the attorney general with identifying other “state and local jurisdictions that have permitted violence and the destruction of property to persist and have refused to undertake reasonable measures to counteract these criminal activities (anarchist jurisdictions).” While it includes a list of how those jurisdictions are defined, they gave Barr plenty of room to maneuver with the inclusion of “any other related factors the Attorney General deems appropriate.”

What we have is the Trump administration preparing to deny federal funds to cities and states that don’t toe their line of viewing protesters as a “mob” that must be controlled via dominance. In other words, it is the direct opposite of what the Republican Party has claimed to embrace.

This memorandum has all the markings of being dreamed up by Attorney General Bill Barr. He continues to rail against anarchists (ie, Antifa) as the violent actors behind the police protests. On Wednesday, he actually provided cover for the conspiracy theory being peddled by Trump about Antifa on airplanes.

Last December, Barr told a group of prosecutors and police that if communities didn’t show enough respect and support to law enforcement, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” Given this most recent memorandum, it appears that the attorney general will set out to determine which communities aren’t doing enough to support law enforcement and use that to block federal funds.

Democrats are already weighing in about this action being unconstitutional and nothing more than a political ploy.

Evan Hollander, a spokesman for the Democratic majority of the House Appropriations Committee, said Mr. Trump’s directive “intrudes on Congress’ power of the purse, would never stand up in court and is nothing more than a distraction from the fact that Americans are less safe under the Trump administration.”

As Barr has demonstrated, he isn’t particularly constrained by how we’ve traditionally interpreted the Constitution. His assumption is that the president and the attorney general get to make up their own rules.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris actually agree that federal funds intended for police departments shouldn’t be conditional.

That clarifies yet another choice on the ballot this November: threats, dominance, and chaos versus listening, accountability, and justice.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.