Magazine | February 15, 2016, Issue

Federalism Is for Losers!

(Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

I say, this Trump fellow has everyone’s bloomers in a knot, eh? What a character!

Why, I’m starting to think he may go places. Hence I have paid keen attention to the tantalizing pearls of insight he strings with such care, in the hopes that his pronouncements — scant as they are — might yield an insight into the Man Himself. In an interview with Field & Stream, which I gather is a magazine devoted to agriculture and quaint, picturesque waterways, he defended federal ownership of vast swathes of land, and quashed the idea of letting the states control, you know, the actual land that makes up the states.

“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”

Bravo for wanting to keep lands great; from my offhand study of the fellow, I gather that a project of sustained and vigorous engreatening is a key aspect of his appeal. But you might wonder if the statement that “you don’t know what the state is going to do” might reflect on his long midnight cogitations about federalism. If you devolve power to the states, you don’t know what they are going to do.

It does seem like an awfully big risk.

From the masterfully opaque nature of his gnostic rhetoric, you could imagine a journalist asking him about his views of federalism and receiving the following reply:

Look, I love federalism. When I’m president, we’re going to have so much federalism you won’t believe it. You won’t. You can’t imagine. And all these things — these great things you can’t begin to think, they’re going to be even more, and we’re going to make things again. We don’t make anything. It’s a disaster. China is eating our lunch. I want Americans eating their own lunches.

Yes, but when it comes to the rights of states to pursue their own –

Look, I had to negotiate contracts with the vendors who ran the restaurants in casinos, and they said, “We can’t sell filet mignon at this price,” and I knew they were getting their beef from Brazil, okay, and Brazil, I don’t know if you know this, they’re made up of states, just like us. Different names of course. So I found a different state in Brazil that sold the steaks cheaper. Fantastic meat, best you ever had. Got it for a song. I understand states. I love states.

Such a response would reassure many that Mr. Trump would dissolve the Department of Education and let the states set their own standards and practices. I can see how one would draw that conclusion, but I am also quite adept at probing the entrails of birds and oxen to see if the auspices are propitious.

These stories will not convince everyone, of course. Some people will always display a mulish insistence on specifics, as if the Parable of the Steaks did not contain its own truth. It’s like asking for details on the story about the loaves and the fishes. Jesus? Great guy. Fed them all. I know supply-chain management. Quality work. But other people who call themselves conservatives seem uninterested in whether Trump’s statement supporting federal control over the states indicates not just a worrisome principle but a lack of intellectual engagement with the issues.

You can imagine the issue coming up in a presidential debate, where the candidates are blindsided with the question of federalism much as they were sandbagged with questions about the nuclear triad. We all remember Senator Rubio polishing the teacher’s apple with his pert little reply, right? No doubt Mr. Trump’s supporters would relish a win like this:

Moderator: The matter of federal control of state lands, which flared up in an occupation in Oregon over a reinstatement of criminal penalties relating to some private-land management that encroached on federal properties, has many wondering about your views on the relationship between Washington and the states. Governor Kasich.

Governor Kasich: My father was a mailman. He delivered mail sent from one state to another, but it was the national postal service. We can work together.

Governor Bush: When I entered office, Florida was a state. After two terms in office, Florida was still a state. I think my record of experience speaks for itself.

Mr. Trump: You know, Jeb’s at 3 percent. And I like him. But he’s a loser. If the state of Florida was at 3 percent, it would be a tiny sliver and everyone who lived there would be piled up on top of each other. A disaster. A lot of people don’t know this but I had the chance to build a hotel in Key West, it’s what I do, I’m good at it. I looked at the numbers. I looked at the bridge that connects the islands — they’re islands you know, not everyone does — and I thought, What if terrorists blew it up? Your occupancy rate, it’d be a disaster. It’s time we bombed the sh** out of ISIS.

Senator Rubio: Federalism, as a system that distributes power from a centralized source to constituent entities, has always been an important part of our system of government. It’s what keeps us free from tyranny. It’s what gives our states their distinctive character.

Thanks, Dr. Brainiac. Note: Nothing about ISIS. Do you want the Key West bridge to be blown up while we debate federalism? Of course not. On the other hand, do you want illegals using the bridge? Of course not. Whether the bridge should be blown up to stop illegals, I can’t quite decide, but at least we’re having a conversation about it.

And by conversation I mean “Listen, then cheer!” Grand times, these.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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