Fears of immigrants, foreign workers, terrorists, big corporations—Donald Trump has adroitly exploited them all to fuel his presidential campaign.
But last night’s debate in New Hampshire, held just three two days before the second contest of the primary season, revealed one bogeyman he embraces: Government seizure of private property for the public good.
Asked if the Northern Pass, a controversial plan to run power transmission lines from Canada down through northern New Hampshire, should use eminent domain to obtain the needed land, Trump launched into a defense of the tool—like any professional developer would.
“Eminent domain is an absolute necessity for a country, for our country,” he said. ”Without it, you wouldn’t have roads, you wouldn’t have hospitals, you wouldn’t have anything. You wouldn’t have schools, you wouldn’t have bridges.”
This is actually true—having some way for the government to take private land with fair compensation is necessary to creating public infrastructure.
But there’s no question that the power has has been abused when private interests influence the government, whether Robert Moses’ freeways rolling through New York’s poorest neighborhoods or Trump himself convincing New Jersey officials to seize an old lady’s house in Atlantic City for a limousine parking lot before the effort failed in court.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose campaign is on the line in New Hampshire, didn’t waste time attacking Trump for abusing eminent domain. Trump attempted his usual bluster, saying Bush was trying to be a “tough guy,” but Bush doubled down: ”How tough it is to take away property from an elderly woman?”
It was at this point that Trump lost the crowd, receiving a chorus of boos and then claiming that everyone in the audience was a big political donor and special interest. (Reportedly, fewer than 75 donors were present in an audience of 1,000.)
Such abuses, emphasized by a 2005 Supreme Court case that held a city could seize homes to clear the way for private development, have a been a point of simmering discontent for conservative activists, especially on the libertarian side.
Ironically—or perhaps appropriately for a campaign that runs on irrational fear—eminent domain doesn’t appear to be on the table for Northern Pass. Residents opposed to seeing a power line crawl across northern New Hampshire’s relatively untouched landscape convinced state legislators to pass a law to restrict eminent domain from being used to build the line.
Still, it appears the issue remains a hot-button among Republican voters in New Hampshire, and a proposed Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline in southern New Hampshire has raised similar fears. Trump likely didn’t ease them by saying this about the proposed Keystone oil pipeline: ”Without eminent domain, it wouldn’t go 10 feet, OK?”