Many Americans think that the only national emergency is Trump himself, writes former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish.
There is never a dull day in Trump’s America. The president’s decision to declare a national emergency to bypass Congress and build his wall had all his signature themes of delusion and confusion but also on display were the much deeper issues of authoritarianism, racism and nativism.
The wall will never be built. Trump knows that. Instead the wall will become a metaphor, a symbol, a unifying theme for his base. The idea, not the reality; the struggle, not the outcome, bears all the hallmarks of the Trump 2020 strategy. This gets to the heart of understanding Trump. He campaigns but doesn’t govern.
At a rally in El Paso, Texas, on the southern border, Trump talked about finishing the wall, not building the wall. All lies. Not an inch of the wall has been built. His supporters don’t care, Trump and the wall are forever one. The president told so many untruths in the Rose Garden of the White House, the fact checkers couldn’t keep up.
This was Trump playing the victim – of Washington elites, the political establishment, the ultra-liberal courts, and the fake news press corps. The presidential battle ground for 2020 was being set out and the rigged politics of Washington DC was his main focus.
The declaration of a national emergency on immigration, amidst claims of a security crisis, invasions and caravans makes a mockery of the truth. There is no case for a wall. But more to the point when does a self-inspired drama in the mind of a president become an emergency?
President Trump has been promising this for weeks. It could take months or years to resolve the legal and constitutional issues. He said to the press, “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it faster”. How can this be an emergency?
There is no crisis on the border. The evidence suggests this is a manufactured political crisis and not a security threat. Instead, the Trump administration has created a humanitarian crisis in the way it has handled the steady increase in migrants. These are mainly families and unaccompanied minors, most of them coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras: countries with high levels of poverty, gang violence and crime. Once a fraction of the overall flow, they now make up more than half of all Border Patrol detainees. But even with the increase in the numbers of families and children, the overall numbers detained are at their lowest for 40 years.
Unlike the past, there are fewer migrants coming from Mexico. Homeland Security confirms that far fewer people are attempting to enter the US than in the early 2000s.
There is another significant difference. In the past, undocumented migrants tried to enter the country illegally by evading border patrols. Now most of the families and children turn themselves over after crossing illegally and then request asylum. Last year, 157,248 border detainees were either parents arriving with children or unaccompanied minors.
Their plight is worsened by the conditions of the detention camps, the lack of court facilities, and properly trained staff. Migrants are constantly being described by the president as gang members, drug dealers, rapists and criminals. The recent experience of mothers being physically separated from their young children, some of them not yet reunited, is a stain on the US worthy of a UN investigation.
Trump also asserts that a wall would help stem the flow of drugs into the US. But most of the drugs come through legal ports of entry. So the president’s claim that a wall would help is just another piece of fiction; a view shared by a majority of Americans and the US Congress.
Lies, damned lies and dubious statistics fuel Trump’s assault on the truth and are doing untold damage to the reputation of a country that proudly projects the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom and which bears testament to the idea that most Americans are migrants. The Make America Great Again slogan, is a direct assault on this legacy.
A less than subtle attack on migration, race, colour, ethnicity and religion is combined with a more blatant illustration of populism and authoritarianism, to form the same political narrative being used in western democracies and whose ugly side – anti migrant sentiment and xenophobia – has helped shape Brexit. This ‘them and us’ political strategy, so characteristic of Trump and Brexit, is bitterly divisive.
The president, a life-long democrat, a reluctant republican, a street wise property tycoon and a reality TV star, sees politics through the prism of his own gigantic ego, his narcissism and a vitriolic hatred of the politics and bureaucracy that have so often frustrated his own business ambitions. A political outsider, he is deeply suspicious of anyone outside his family, and a small group of sycophants, most of whom are either on their way to the courts or prison.
But Trump did win the 2016 election. Remarkably, his most recent poll approval in February of 44 per cent, up from 37 per cent, is only 2.4 percentage points behind his winning total of 46.4 per cent in 2016. So, who has he been listening to and why is the president in awe of economic hard men and authoritarianism, which shows little regard for the constitution, rule of law or the courts of the US, except for the Supreme Court which he believes is firmly in his pocket?
Steve Bannon, former White House strategist, comes to mind. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington in February 2017, Steve Bannon said: “It’s not only not getting better. It’s going to get worse every day”. He was talking about coverage of the Trump administration policies by the press. A very prescient insight.
Bannon is the advocate of far-right nationalism and populism. His comments help explain what inspires the Trump administration, which has all too easily been forgotten. He described the essence of Trump’s agenda as “national security and sovereignty, economic nationalism and the destruction of the administrative state”. The president is striving for more authority, unrestricted executive power, ridding courts of judges who don’t toe the Trump line, sacking bureaucrats who dissent, and painting the media as either the enemy of the state or the opposition. This is the Trump strategy.
Trump’s national emergency is a challenge to Americans, but it also represents one of the most audacious examples, so far, of “the destruction of the administrative state” and the constitutional and democratic principles upon which they are based.
He sees his strengths as having contempt for politics and the rigged systems of political control and judicial oversight. For different reasons his base continues to stick with him – a white backlash where Trump acts as a lightning rod for their grudges, grievances, resentment and anger.
In contrast, many Americans think that the only national emergency is Trump himself.