We’ve seen states fight the federal government before. In 1860 and 1861, it was the states that set off the conflict, taking up arms to oppose the new president. Today, it’s the new president who has initiated the break, vowing to punish states and cities that treat immigrants with respect and the environment with care, and against California and Los Angeles most of all.
In his first weeks in office, Donald Trump took dead aim at the policies that state and local governments have put in place to enhance public health and safety. He threatened them with withdrawal of federal funds if they remain sanctuary cities—and no major city has claimed that status longer than Los Angeles, which has barred its police from cooperating in deportation operations since 1979. Trump also has pledged to abolish regulations that he claims hamper business, and he is almost certain to go after California’s ability to impose emission standards on cars and trucks that are stricter than federal requirements.
Since the day after the election, when Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and State Senate leader Kevin de León announced they would resist Trump’s attempts to impose nativist and racist policies on California, state leaders have almost welcomed the confrontation. Certainly they haven’t dodged it. Governor Jerry Brown, in his State of the State address, said he would oppose the president’s oppressive initiatives. Mayors up and down the coast have promised to preserve their cities’ sanctuary status, even in the face of Trump’s threats to reduce their federal funding.
Any such reductions will encounter a multitude of court challenges, many of them focusing on the question of which federal funds the administration can withhold. Cutting funds that bolster police work will likely pass muster with the courts, though the amount the feds currently devote to such work isn’t all that large. Eliminating the more considerable funds that go to cities for other purposes—say, community development grants—may not be legal. In South Dakota v. Dole, the Supreme Court ruled that conditions on federal spending “might be illegitimate if they are unrelated” to the purpose for which the funds are designated. That could pose a problem for Trump, since deportation efforts seem distinctly unrelated to, for instance, road building or research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.
The logic behind sanctuary cities couldn’t be more clear. Contrary to Trump’s alternative facts, the great wave of immigration over the last 30 years coincides with an epochal decline in crime. The numbers of murders in Los Angeles County fell from 1,944 in 1993 to 681 last year. As a study from the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “Immigrants are in fact much less likely to commit crime than natives, and the presence of large numbers of immigrants seems to lower crime rates.” One way to ensure that crime rates rise in a city like Los Angeles is to make many of its residents afraid to report dangerous behavior to the police, which, as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has stated, is exactly what compelling the police to engage in deportation activities would do.
Trump’s efforts to weaken the state’s fuel emission standards could be more difficult to forestall than his assault on sanctuary cities. Should the state fail to blunt that attack in the courts, the legislature could devise a way around it by, say, enacting a higher sales tax on any new cars that exceed what the state standards would have been. Calling it the Trump Tax wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Ultimately California’s defenses against the president’s policies will have to be just as extraordinary as Trump’s attacks.
Let’s say the courts grant the administration the authority to withhold all manner of federal funds from sanctuary states and cities. The most devastating move Trump could make would be to hold back California’s share of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance funding, which in 2015 came to roughly $55 billion, and today helps cover the health costs of more than 12 million state residents. California could then redirect tax payments from Washington to Sacramento—that is, by increasing state taxes to cover the federal shortfall. Simultaneously, millions of Californians could decline to pay a commensurate amount on their federal income taxes (on the admittedly untested theory that massive coordinated tax evasion provides a level of safety-in-numbers that individual tax evasion does not).
An extreme response, to be sure, to an extreme provocation. But when it comes to dividing the nation in two, Trump’s only peer as an American president—note I didn’t say a president of the United States—is Jefferson Davis.