A War on Blue America


During his term in the White House, Donald Trump governed as a wartime president—with blue America, rather than any foreign country, as the adversary. He sought to use national authority to achieve factional ends—to impose the priorities of red America onto Democratic-leaning states and cities. The agenda Trump has laid out for a second term makes clear that those bruising and divisive efforts were only preliminary skirmishes.

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Presidents always pursue policies that reflect the priorities of the voters and regions that supported them. But Trump moved in especially aggressive ways to exert control over, or punish, the jurisdictions that resisted him. His 2017 tax bill, otherwise a windfall for taxpayers in the upper brackets, capped the federal deductibility of state and local taxes, a costly shift for wealthy residents of liberal states such as New York and California. He moved, with mixed success, to deny federal law-enforcement grants to so-called sanctuary cities that didn’t fully cooperate with federal immigration agents. He attempted to strip California of the authority it has wielded since the early 1970s to set its own, more stringent pollution standards.

In Trump’s final year in office, he opened a new, more ominous front in his campaign to assert control over blue jurisdictions. As the nation faced the twin shocks of the coronavirus pandemic and the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, Trump repeatedly dispatched federal law-enforcement agents to blue cities, usually over the opposition of Democratic mayors, governors, or both. Trump sent an array of federal personnel to Portland, Oregon, ostensibly to protect a federal courthouse amid the city’s chaotic protests; reports soon emerged of camouflage-clad federal agents without any identifying insignia forcing protesters into unmarked vans. Trump responded to the huge racial-justice protests in Washington, D.C., by dispatching National Guard troops drawn from 11 states, almost all of them led by Republican governors. Later he sent other federal law-enforcement officers to combat rising crime in Kansas City and Chicago, a city Trump described as “worse than Afghanistan.”

Trump has signaled that in a second presidential term, he would further escalate his war on blue America. He’s again promising federal legislation that would impose policies popular in red states onto the blue states that have rejected them. He has pledged to withhold federal funding from schools teaching critical race theory and “gender ideology.” He says he will initiate federal civil-rights investigations into liberal big-city prosecutors (whom he calls “Marxist local District Attorneys”) and require cities to adopt policing policies favored by conservatives, such as stop-and-frisk, as a condition for receiving federal grants.

Even more dramatic are Trump’s open pledges to launch militarized law-enforcement campaigns inside blue cities. He has proposed initiatives that cumulatively could create an occupying federal force in the nation’s largest cities. Trump has indicated that “in cities where there’s been a complete breakdown of public safety, I will send in federal assets, including the National Guard, until law and order is restored.”

Trump envisions an even more invasive door-to-door offensive against undocumented immigrants. In an early-2023 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said he “will use all necessary state, local, federal, and military resources to carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” Stephen Miller, who was his top immigration aide in the White House, later added that Trump envisions establishing massive internment camps for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. Trump has also promised “to use every tool, lever, and authority to get the homeless off our streets,” and move them to camps as well. (On this front, Trump has said he would work with states, but in practice that would likely involve partnering with Republican governors to impose policies to clear the streets opposed by their own Democratic mayors.)

Michael Nutter, a former mayor of Philadelphia, told me that if a reelected Trump sought to implement these policies, the result would be “chaos, confusion,” and “massive demonstrations.” “Nobody is going to allow that to just happen,” Nutter said. “You are just going to see standoffs. It is going to be the Philadelphia Police Department versus the National Guard. Neighbors are going to be surrounding people’s houses. Folks are going to rush and seek safety in churches and synagogues and mosques and temples.”

Of course, Trump would face other obstacles in attempting to implement these plans. The president’s legal authority to deploy federal forces over the objections of local officials is murky. And the relatively small number of federal law-enforcement officers under his direct control at agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection could limit his options, according to Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University Law School who studies relations among cities, states, and the federal government.

But in Trump’s final months in office, he got creative about augmenting the forces at his command by drawing on National Guard troops provided by sympathetic Republican governors. His advisers are already talking about doing the same to staff his deportation agenda, as well as using the emergency authority he cited to fund his border wall to build his camps for undocumented immigrants without congressional approval.

Briffault told me that the inevitable court challenges to any Trump-ordered projections of force into blue cities would likely pivot on the courts’ interpretation of how much authority the president possesses under various emergency statutes. His advisers have already discussed invoking the 19th-century Insurrection Act, for example. As legal scholars have pointed out, the scope of the president’s emergency powers is much broader than most Americans recognize, and Trump is clearly signaling that if he returns to the White House, he intends to test the outer boundaries of that authority. The question for the courts will be “to what extent can he engage directly in law enforcement and having militarized law enforcement in the United States, in the absence of a request by a governor or a mayor that there is a riotlike condition or civil disorder?” Briffault said. “Can he declare an emergency even though he’s not being asked for it?”

As president, Trump seemed to view himself less as the leader of a unified republic than as the champion of a red nation within a nation—one that constitutes the real America. If anything, Trump has assumed that factional role even more overtly in his 2024 campaign, promising that he will deliver “retribution” for his supporters and dehumanizing his opponents. Powered by such fetid resentments and grievances, the agenda Trump seeks to impose on blue cities and states could create the greatest threat to the nation’s cohesion since the Civil War.


This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “A War on Blue America.”



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