Trump is getting medieval with the states
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) "must understand that National Security far exceeds politics," President Trump tweeted Thursday before immediately attempting to justify his suspension of a security program for his own political ends: "New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment [sic], start cleaning itself up, and lowering taxes. Build relationships, but don't bring Fredo!"
The president here is "expanding his abuse of power to blackmailing U.S. states," accused Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who was among Trump's impeachment prosecutors. "In this case, he's holding New York state hostage to try to stop investigations into his prior tax fraud."
It's not clear whether the lawsuits Trump referenced were those concerning him personally or New York State's suit over its exclusion from the "trusted traveler program." Either way, Trump, I'm certain, wouldn't see his tweet as blackmail. He referenced The Godfather, but the framework of his expectations for New York's cooperation seems a little older. Feudal, even. Trump's vision for federal-state interactions looks an awful lot like vassalage.
Western Europe in the Middle Ages organized many power relationships through the vassalage system. The details varied by time, place, and looming threat, but the basic idea was a pledged, transactional relationship between a monarch and lesser lords. The king granted his vassals authority over portions of his land and promised to provide them assurances of security. The vassals in turn would supply knights and men for their liege's army and swear to him their allegiance, or fealty.
Trump's ideas about honor and order in society are clearly medieval, as I've argued previously. Like our forebears of a millennia ago, he weighs the gravity of offenses more by the stature of the offender than the nature of the offense. As he ranks at the very top of the social hierarchy, it is all but impossible for Trump to conceive of himself as doing wrong. Allegations of his own corruption, I suspect, sincerely don't make much sense to him: Because of who he is, what he does must be right.
Seeing the states as vassals fits with that perspective quite comfortably. If Trump is king and commander-in-chief of the military, then governors, with their smaller territorial responsibility and National Guard forces, must be his vassals. Read his tweet about Cuomo in this light and it all makes sense: It's a breach of the vassal's fealty to sue the king or refuse him the tribute (in this case, driver records that could be used for immigration enforcement) he wants for his security agenda. "Uncooperative" vassals are intolerable. If there are vassals in breach of their vassalage, it can't be blackmail for the king to require them to abide by their pledge. He is but maintaining the right order of society, as he was chosen by God to do.
"I am born in a rank which recognizes no superior but God, to whom alone I am responsible for my actions; but they are so pure and honorable that I voluntarily and cheerfully render an account of them to the whole world," said Richard the Lionheart in 1193 when he was tried by the Holy Roman emperor. Richard's protests of his innocence have an eloquence Trump lacks, but the self-certain indignation is recognizable.
The trouble is Trump is not a king; it is not 1193; and to most of us — with more modern, liberal conceptions of societal order — Trump's behavior toward New York is suspect at best. That perception is reinforced by our national mythos of popular sovereignty, which survives despite two centuries of evolution of federal (and especially executive) power as well as its uncomfortable entanglement with antebellum proposals for compromise over slavery.
Our constitutional federalism — in concept, if no longer in practice — explicitly inverts the power structure of the medieval system: In feudalism, power flows from God to the king to his vassals to the populace. In the United States, power is supposed to belong to the people, and we for our convenience delegate some powers to the states, which in turn delegate some powers to the federal government. "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people," affirms the Ninth Amendment, and the Tenth adds: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Power in America is supposed to flow up, not down.
It usually doesn't, of course. Movements of popular protest across the political spectrum share the complaint that those in power persistently subvert the will of the people. And federal innovations in quietly coercing state behavior with financial incentives and penalties have transformed our system into something much closer to vassalage than we might like to admit. (New York University law professors Richard A. Epstein and Mario Loyola even echo medieval language in describing this arrangement at The Atlantic: "[States'] only viable option is to accept on bended knee the sovereign's offer to return their money back, in exchange for their obedience.")
In that sense, maybe Trump is not so much a man out of his time. Maybe his monarchical dictates to New York are less a historical anachronism than an unusually indiscreet exercise of the United States' increasingly feudal federalism.
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