President Donald Trump is a wizard capable of conjuring a widespread sense of resentment and distrust by relentlessly repeating the same lie, and then using the mass delusion he has spoken into existence as a cudgel with which to hammer the credibility of anyone who denies it. Trump’s remorseless slander of “sanctuary cities” and those who support them is a powerful example of this dark, demagogic art.  

“Sanctuary cities and states like California,” Mr. Trump said in an April White House law enforcement roundtable, “put innocent Americans at the mercy of hardened criminals, hardened murderers …” That sounds pretty bad! What might explain such egregious contempt for public safety? Well, Trump would like you to think that “the Democrats’ priority is to protect criminals, not to do what’s right for our country.” For his part, the president suggests that his honorable aim, unlike the treacherous Democrats’, is “to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States.”

The War on Sanctuary Cities Is Meant to Undermine the Legitimacy of the Opposition Party  

What’s actually going on here is not so hard to see. The point of the president’s indefatigable mendacity about sanctuary cities is to propagate the lie that the first concern of the opposition party is the unhindered freedom of foreign machete rapists, not the welfare of Americans. The immediate implication of this is that Democratic politicians are traitors who imperil the safety of “real” Americans—the ones who don’t live in sanctuary cities. It hardly needs to be said that a politician or party in the business of treasonously selling out “the people” has no moral right to govern. So Trump doesn’t exactly say it. He just incessantly suggests it.

Trump knows that his followers will infer the rest. And they do. For example:

It’s tempting to dismiss this sort of talk as the raving of marginal extremists. But this is exactly what the President of the United States, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, is goading his followers to conclude. The idea that Democrats are essentially criminal comes with the full imprimatur of the White House. (You may recall that “Lock her up!” was a popular refrain of Trump’s campaign.) The president’s base has been picking up what he’s been setting down and is giving voice to the intended implication of Trump’s convenient untruth that Democrats willfully inflict violent criminals on real Americans.

As the idea that there’s no daylight between an un-American traitor and a Democratic politician responsive to the interests of urban Democratic constituencies slithers its way through the grassroots, Republican politicians are emboldened to pick up the banner and wave it.  In December, Todd Rokita, a Republican congressman from Indiana, introduced the Stopping Lawless Actions of Politicians (SLAP) Act, which would send municipal officials to prison for refusing to do the bidding of ICE.  It just happens that nearly all the city and state officials who are currently implementing sanctuary policies are Democrats. Constitutionally, the SLAP Act is a joke. Culturally, it’s a vicious swipe at the loyalty, legitimacy, and legality of Democrats.

Populism Works by Defining Citizens out the “the People”

The further insidious implication of the idea that Democratic leaders are in cahoots with criminal aliens to hurt Americans is that Democratic voters, who routinely elect politicians whose “priority is to protect criminals, not to do what’s right for our country,” are a threat to the nation. If you believe this, the next thought you’re likely to entertain is that people who habitually vote to destroy the country probably don’t deserve to vote, or to have their votes counted. At the very least, you’re likely feel comfortable with the idea that the un-American people wrecking the nation shouldn’t find it easy to vote, and that it’s not such a bad thing if, when the votes are tallied, their ballots are more likely to get binned.  If you’ve gone this far down the road, everything Republicans have been doing to disenfranchise Democrats—aggressive gerrymandering, strict voter ID laws, purging “inactive” voters from the rolls, trying to hack the next census—is going to seem justified as a matter of national self-protection, and won’t run afoul of your civics class scruples.     

The idea that it’s not only okay but necessary to clamp down on legal “chain migration” simply because immigrant citizens and their citizen kids are more likely than not to eventually vote for Democrats is a closely related manifestation of the idea Trump is trying and succeeding to get across in his assault on sanctuary cities: Democrats are fake Americans, like the “Amazon Washington Post” is fake news, which means that their claim to the rights of citizenship, like the Post’s claim to its rights under the First Amendment, are fake.

This is Populism 101. Populism is an illiberal, anti-pluralist, divide-and-conquer strategy that exploits romantic democratic ideals to gut democracy from the inside out. To a would-be tyrant, the idea that political authority is legitimate only if it reflects the “will of the people” immediately suggests a route to unchallengeable authority: set yourself up as a tribune of “the people” and then define the political opposition out of it. That’s what Trump’s trying to do, and the Big Lie about “sanctuary cities” has become his favorite tool for doing it.

And let’s not labor under any illusions. It is a Big Lie. It’s tempting to rush in and immediately begin swatting down the falsehoods, one by one, whenever Trump discharges a swarm of divisive lies. But a stream of clucking actuallys mainly spurs the president’s headstrong admirers to see the truth in the lie, helping to establish the mass hallucination Trump wants to bank on. The only honest way to talk about Trump is to note at the outset that he’s a world-historical genius of lying. The man had the wherewithal to lie his way onto the Forbes list and parlay a fraudulent reputation as a business genius all the way to the Oval Office. It’s utterly breathtaking.

But we can’t afford toxic anti-democratic propaganda to spread uncontested, either. Patriots unwilling to sell out their fellow citizens and foreign neighbors to win elections and hold onto power have a duty to set the record straight—whether or not the message gets through to president’s most committed admirers, whether or not it gets you embroiled in an unwinnable contest of relative credibility against people who fight dirty. So let’s speak the truth.

What We’re Really Talking about When We Talk about Sanctuary Cities

“Sanctuary city” doesn’t mean anything definite. It is not a legal designation. There are an array of municipal “sanctuary” policies ranging from rules discouraging local police from inquiring about residents’ citizenship or federal immigration status to various levels of official local non-cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities.

In his first week in office, Trump issued an executive order that was, in effect, a declaration of war on an elastic, ill-defined set municipalities which have adopted some policy limiting the local government’s role in the  enforcement of federal immigration law. Trump’s order made the constitutionally dubious argument that it’s the job of local police departments to enforce federal law, and threatened, with dubious constitutional authority, to withhold federal funds to cities that refuse to detain undocumented immigrants at the behest of the feds on the empirically dubious grounds that “[t]hese jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.

But sanctuary cities have inflicted  “immeasurable harm” on the American republic only in the sense that you can’t measure any. Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. Adopting sanctuary cities policies has no statistically discernible effect on crime rates. And police chiefs and sheriffs in sanctuary jurisdictions support policies limiting cooperation with ICE because they think those policies help them to protect and serve the denizens of their cities. “We need to build trust with the immigrant community,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans has said. “The last thing we want is for people to be afraid of us … They won’t report crimes, or help us in their communities if they [are] afraid of us.”

The trouble with this sort of dispassionate rebuttal of Trump’s sanctuary cities calumnies is that it treats them as if they represent one side of a valid debate worthy of respectful engagement. But there’s no valid debate, because Trump is just lying. Noting that the entire discussion is based on flagrant dishonesty meant to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition party, the public’s commitment to democracy, and the protection of half the population’s basic political liberties is orders of magnitude more important than objectively countering the bad-faith claims behind a fabricated moral panic.  

There is no public safety issue and there’s no serious constitutional question. The administration has lost case after case in court. The federal government cannot constitutionally use the power of the purse to compel state and local governments to do a federal job. Insofar as there’s any legal issue, it isn’t about whether states and municipalities are within their rights to establish and enact policies that limit cooperation with ICE. They just are. Trump’s constant refrain that sanctuary policies are “illegal and unconstitutional” is, again, indifferent to, and at odds with, the truth. Some Republican majority states have banned non-cooperation with ICE pre-empting the authority of their Democratic cities to adopt policies the residents of those cities want. Otherwise, sanctuary policies are entirely consistent with the federalism of the Constitution in both letter and spirit.    

Nor does the open legal issue have to do with Trump’s oft-repeated lie that sanctuary cities “put the safety and security of our entire nation at risk,” because they don’t. The unresolved legal dispute concerns whether a particular federal statute (8 U.S.C. § 1373) that attempts to skirt the constitution’s ban on the “commandeering” of non-federal government resources and personnel into the enforcement of federal immigration law is nevertheless a form of unconstitutional commandeering. It probably is. But the question hadn’t come up before, and has yet to be definitively settled.

Once you get this deep into the legal weeds, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the assault on sanctuary cities has nothing whatsoever to do with principled conservative jurisprudence. Indeed, the administration’s probably unconstitutional attempt to bigfoot all over state and municipal prerogatives is a whiplash reversal of the right’s traditional federalist commitment to states rights and subsidiarity—the idea that government is best when it is closest to the people.  

Trump Republicans Shamelessly Exploit the Legal Meaninginglessness of “Sanctuary City”

The legal niceties can also distract you from the fact that “sanctuary city” isn’t being bandied about as a term of abuse to refer only to the small number of jurisdictions, like the state of California, which have adopted relatively stringent official policies of non-cooperation with the feds.

Consider Rep. Rokita’s tweeted suggestion above that officials from Marion County, Indiana (that’s the county containing most of the Indianapolis metro area) ought to be imprisoned and fined for ignoring an ICE detainer request. However, even the nativist Center for Immigration Studies acknowledges that there are no sanctuary cities in Indiana. The Hoosier State passed a state law in 2011 forbidding towns and cities from hampering federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Nevertheless, Rep. Rokita is insinuating that, among others, Marion County’s Democratic Sheriff, John Layton, who had previously argued in court against the ACLU that his county can legally hold undocumented immigrants at the request of ICE, ought to be in prison. But the ACLU won its case against Sheriff Layton, so he is now complying with the ruling of the federal judge who said that Marion County can’t constitutionally honor ICE detainer requests without a warrant or a statement of probable cause.

Like many metro sheriffs, Layton seems to believe that holding immigrants at the behest of ICE interferes with his duty to protect public safety in his jurisdiction, but he did it anyway, because Indiana law said he had to. And now he’s complying with the order of a federal judge, who says he can’t. That’s a far cry from “bypassing” and “ignoring federal law,” as Rep. Rokita alleges. The real beef with the sheriff, one suspects, is that he’s an urban Democrat glad to serve his constituents by according constitutional rights to undocumented immigrants.

Like Trump, Todd Rokita doesn’t care about the definition of  “sanctuary city.” He apparently doesn’t care that the state of Indiana already pre-empted local home-rule authority on the question of cooperation with ICE, and he doesn’t seem to care that federal judges think honoring detainers without probable cause violates the Constitution. What he seems to care about is promoting the idea that the opposition party has forfeited its claim to legitimate political authority. Consider what he has to say about Gary, Indiana:

Why pick on Gary? What’s distinctive about the birthplace of Michael Jackson, as far as Indiana goes?

Following Trump, Republicans have exploited the protean flexibility and legal emptiness of the term, coming to use “sanctuary city” as shorthand for “a place where Democrats live and run things”—a big city.  You can’t just randomly denigrate cities, which contain more than half the American population, and casually suggest that city folk have written themselves out of “the people” by having elected Democrats. But if you can successfully re-brand “big city” as “Democrat-run haven for lawless brown chaos that puts Americans in danger,” you’re on your way.  

Why Do Democrats Support Sanctuary Cities? Why Do Republicans Demonize them?

At his White House roundtable, Trump said, “House and Senate Democrats voted nearly unanimously in favor of sanctuary cities. Explain that.” Trump’s explanation was that Democrats love foreign criminals and hate Americans.

Here’s a better explanation. America’s two parties have split along lines of diversity and population density. The Democratic Party represents the interests of America’s multicultural urban population, while the Republican Party represents the interests of America’s lower-density white population. Big cities are diverse, heavily Democratic, and contain most of the country’s immigrants. Sanctuary policies prevail in almost every large, multiethnic urban community, with the support of police chiefs and sheriffs, because they help law enforcement protect public safety, and they promote social trust, cooperation, and stability. Congressional Democrats support sanctuary policies for the same reason Democratic mayors and city councils do: they think they work and their constituents want them. That’s the answer. That’s the explanation. That’s it.

Donald Trump lies like crazy about sanctuary cities. How do you explain that. Well, the Democratic Party represents the interests of America’s multicultural urban population, while the Republican Party represents the interests of America’s lower-density white population. Exurban, rural, and small-town whites make up less than half of the national population, but it has been able to hold onto political power through the GOP because America’s electoral institutions are systematically rigged to under-represent urban populations. But that built-in advantage is slipping. The United States will be a majority-minority nation in about twenty-five years, which has the motivated core of the Republican Party … concerned.

A propaganda blitz about the mortal danger of Democratic jurisdictions implementing policies that Democratic voters want is the country party’s way of slyly suggesting that city people, many of whom are not white, are too dangerous and disloyal to be granted any political representation—even where they live. “Sanctuary city” has become a right-wing metonym for what it is the populist GOP wants to prevent: an equitable distribution of democratic representation that protects the rights and interests of the multicultural urban majority.

Hillary Clinton garnered 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump while prevailing in a mere 20 percent of America’s counties. That’s amazing, but it’s simply astounding that those 462 Clinton counties accounted for 64 percent of GDP–nearly twice the combined economic output of the 2,548 counties that favored Trump. City-dwellers constitute a decisive majority of the electorate and create a huge and rising share of the wealth that pays the government’s bills.

But that doesn’t mean the city party gets an equal voice in government. What it means is that American democracy is on thin ice. The white, low-density, low-productivity minority sees itself as the embodiment of the authentic American nation and, as such, sees itself entitled to its outsized anti-majoritarian power, which is threatened by immigration-led demographic change. So propagating a Big Lie to defend and deepen the disenfranchisement of the diverse, high-density, high-productivity majority isn’t just partisan electoral hardball. It’s a populist bid to weaken democracy and consolidate power under a strongman to keep America under “American” control.

It may seem crazy that this is what we’ve come to, but we’d better believe it. It’s no lie.

Will Wilkinson is the Niskanen Center’s Vice President for Research