Government By Temper Tantrum

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office last month (Pelosi was still House Minority Leader at the time)

It is difficult to imagine a way out of the current impasse caused by the temper tantrum thrown by our inept, unimaginative, and ill-informed president who is giving the terrible twos a bad name. Since President Donald Trump lacks any empathy for the suffering of others and because he has no interest in being president of all Americans, he is prepared to keep the government shut for a very long time or take extraordinary measures.

Trump threatens to end the shutdown by declaring a national emergency on the southern border and ordering the military to build his promised wall, or at least part of it, which may be concrete, or steel, or a barrier of some kind, for which he promised Mexico would pay. Some have suggested that a declaration of a national emergency might be the way out of the crisis, since such a declaration would be challenged immediately in the courts, which, so the logic seems to dictate, would rule against the president. This strategy is dangerous for three reasons.

President Harry Truman

First, there is no guarantee the Supreme Court would rule against Trump. The precedent of President Harry Truman and the steel strike is apt, but not a certainty. Truman tried to seize the steel industry in 1952 to prevent a strike in a vital industry during the Korean War, only to have the Supreme Court rule against him. If Truman lost when there was an emergency, it is hard to see how the courts would empower Trump to declare a national emergency when there is none. Such a seizure of power smacks of monarchism, and if there is one thing the Framers of the Constitution wanted to guard against, it was the emergence of an American king. A simple reading of the U.S. Constitution should lead the court to rule against such a severe expansion of executive power at the expense of the legislative branch. This should apply especially to those conservative justices who claim to be originalists.  

While our Constitution seems a clear guide, it is not a straitjacket. Nothing in that document justifies the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, Bush v. Gore, the Heller ruling on gun control, or Citizens United on campaign finance, but a majority of Supreme Court justices found reasons to buttress their decisions in these cases. I would bet that Chief Justice John Roberts, at the least, would side with the four liberal justices and rule against the president, but who knows for sure?

Second, the declaration of a national emergency to resolve a manufactured crisis — because the only crisis on the border is of the president’s own making — would be a dangerous precedent for future presidents. Could a Democratic president declare a national emergency to combat climate change — a real crisis — and impose a carbon tax through executive fiat if Congress refused to do so? Moreover, if a president issues such a declaration in a fit of pique, who would believe him or her when the crisis is real?

The Reichstag fire, Berlin, February 27, 1933

Third, there is the Nazi example. Remember, Hitler was elected the leader of Germany. Within a month, the Nazis used the pretext of the Reichstag fire to seize absolute power by executive decree, banning other political parties and imposing a dictatorship on Germany. Trump is not Hitler. He lacks the discipline and single-mindedness of the German monster to ever lead America into such a dark night. But, the consolidation of power through executive action is the surest road to autocracy. The oldest play in the dictator’s playbook is to concoct a crisis, then claim the need for extraordinary powers to confront the crisis.

Some have argued that the way out of the current shutdown is to allow Trump to declare a victory, even if he gets nothing. But, that assumes Trump wants to win this fight. I suspect the fight is what is important for Trump, and winning would be counter-productive since it would end the fight. Trump reminds me of the Palestinian leadership in that neither can take yes for an answer. The Palestinians could have had a decent-sized nation if the Arabs had said yes to the United Nations in 1947. They could have had a nation multiple times since then, but they always said no, and every time they said no, the offer got worse.

Dreamers protesting

The same goes for Trump. He turned down a deal a year ago that would have included $20 billion for the wall in exchange for protection for about 700,000 Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to America as young children by their parents. I suspect if the Democrats magically were to agree to $5.7 billion now for the wall, he would turn around and ask for $10 billion. But, every time he says no, the deal gets worse.

Why? Like the Palestinian leadership, Trump cannot afford to say yes. For the Palestinians, any agreement with the Israeli government is a potential death warrant, an invitation for the assassination of a dealmaker by hardline Palestinians who want all of the land west of the Jordan. For Trump, the fear is simple: Anything short of a wall from the Gulf or Mexico to the Pacific Ocean invites the wrath of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Trump agreed in December to congressionally approved funding measures, only to change his mind when these rightwing zealots accused him of selling out. So, we now have immigration policy in the hands of two despicable provocateurs, who are poised to pounce on the president at any sign of his caving to liberals. Who voted for Coulter and Limbaugh?

A resolution to the shutdown is difficult because Trump is an untrustworthy negotiator, as his buckling to the right last month indicates. “Democrats keep saying, ‘We don’t trust it until Trump will sign it,’ ” Republican Senator Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, a Trump supporter, said. “That’s not an unreasonable request…. We won’t know until we put something in front of him.” Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, pointed to the unhappy experience last year, when Trump turned down the exchange of money for the wall for protection for Dreamers, as a “frustrating” example. “A year ago, we went through this on immigration reform. It did not end well,” he added. 

And, so the government remains partially shut, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers not working and not getting paid while hundreds of thousands work without pay. The pain for the rest of us will get worse as essential services disappear. All because the president threw a temper tantrum.

Oh, and by the way, ever notice how talk about the wall and the government shutdown drowns out the bad news — for Trump — of his legal problems?

Posted January 11, 2019

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