Since the November U.S. election, many on the Left have taken a closer look at how local places like cities, towns, college campuses, indigenous communities, and states can challenge the coming Trump administration. After all, the political Right in the U.S. has long known that federal regulations can be blocked at the city or state level through local legislation, foot-dragging, and outright defiance. Why would the Left be any less able to engage in these tactics?
Much of the Left’s focus has been on how local jurisdictions could refuse to cooperate with expected discriminatory immigration policies through the declaration of sanctuary spaces, but there are also other efforts to encourage the construction of ‘rebellious places’ that not only resist Trump, but actively promote a larger progressive agenda of economic equality, environmental protection, and social justice. Recent articles have ranged from presenting how European cities can serve as examples of local autonomy, to theoretical pieces on the viability of building libertarian municipalism in the US. There have also been calls to develop a coalition of ‘rebel cities’ as well as the founding of an organization that explicitly aims to start building a network between places of resistance. Could, however, a constellation of rebellious places – without contiguous territory between them – hope to forward progressive policies in the face of a hostile national government run by Trump and a Republican Congress? According to contemporary thinking on how political power operates across space, the answer is definitively ‘yes.’
The key to appreciating this possibility for rebellious places is to first recognize that all systems of government function across their territories in highly uneven ways. Government control is never evenly spread across a nation’s territory. Instead, central governments are stronger in certain places and almost entirely absent in others. When we look at how governments command and control the spaces within their borders we actually find that there is a military barrack here, a border station there, a government building in D.C., a prison over there – and vast areas of empty territory between them. What holds a network of governance together across space is not necessarily having swathes of continuously controlled territory between the nodes of government as much as it is the coordinated actions of people at these nodes who accept and enact the edicts that are communicated to them from other parts of the government network.
The fact that governments operate across space in this way may appear to be an academic point, but there are real strategic implications for cities and individuals opposing Trump. First, if the federal government is not actually all around us all the time, it means there are ample spaces from which resistance can be nourished and grown. While there are some heavily governed places, there are also millions of smaller places we move through every day where the federal government is effectively absent. For instance, is the government actually controlling your kitchen right now? Second, if the central government relies on local compliance to carry out its orders, it means that government control can be challenged in the places of our everyday lives through non-cooperation (for fans of history, check out how the Rightist Kapp Putsch was defeated in 1920 Germany as an example of this).
Of course the federal government does have the ability to retaliate against places that rebel against their policies. Even if the government is not already everywhere, they can show up with force in ungoverned spaces (think of Standing Rock where – at last count – over 70 law enforcement agencies have gathered from elsewhere to try and quell protests). What happens, however, when the places in rebellion are not just protest camps or rural communities? What happens when it is an extensive collection of the nation’s largest population centers that are simultaneously resisting a policy? Are there enough police in the country to force New York City, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Burlington, Portland – and many other cities – to comply with a detested policy at the same time? The other strategy the federal government may use on rebellious places is financial coercion. Trump has made threats that cities resisting his deportation policies could lose millions of dollars in federal funding. Many cities have weighed this possibility and stated they will remain sanctuary cities anyway. If this threat to withhold federal funds becomes a reality, there is also the possibility for this to come back to haunt the central government. How long will local governments and citizens be willing to accept a situation where they are denied federal tax monies, but where they are still expected to pay federal taxes? This could lead to serious discussions over the merits of even greater local political autonomy.
While it is still unknown exactly what kind of political policies the new administration in Washington D.C. will try to establish in the coming months, the proactive response from cities, towns, college campuses, indigenous communities, and other rebellious places should cause Trump and his associates to pause before enacting anything too out-of-step with the wishes of the millions of citizens who voted against him. After all, it is almost impossible for any law to be enacted and enforced—whether it is focused on immigration, climate policy, public education or health care—if whole cities and states reject them. Furthermore, federal attempts to bully or seek retribution against local governments that pledge non-compliance with Trump’s policies are likely to backfire—badly. The question we should be asking is not whether ‘rebel cities’ can stand up to the new Trump government, the question we should be asking is whether Trump can govern the country without them.