In a Rose Garden speech on Saturday, Donald Trump informed the nation that he will declare a national emergency to get his wall built. The money will be appropriated from that authorized for the military and drug law enforcement.
A president’s ability to make such a declaration is broad — too broad, to my way of thinking — with no clear definition of what an emergency is and is not and requiring a veto-proof majority in both chambers of Congress to bring to an end if the president does not agree. States of emergency expire after one year, but the president has the discretionary power to renew them indefinitely. The law at present does give Congress the authority to suspend constitutional rights such as habeas corpus and to use the military within U.S. borders, but the legislative branch would have to be willing to stop the president from getting away with unacceptable acts, and congressional Republicans have allowed the current model to get away with his criminal enterprise for two years now.
The bit of good news is that spending bills originate in the House of Representatives, giving Democrats the potential to stop this foolishness — if they will become enamored of the spine they discovered during the most recent shutdown. But with the Senate in Republican control, we could end up in a genuine emergency in which a partial closure becomes total if the two chambers cannot agree on spending that they can pass with or without Trump’s approval.
What all of this suggests is that the Trump administration is itself a national emergency. His crimes, attacks on the judiciary and the media, and behaviors that are indicative of dangerous mental instability are orders of magnitude beyond what we have experienced before. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus came as a result of the civil war. Franklin Roosevelt violated the rights of Americans of Japanese descent, and George W. Bush instituted invasions of privacy and indefinite detention of people declared to be enemy combatants, but both were in response to acts of war. The Grant and Harding administrations were riddled with corruption. But Trump has brought together a unique collusion of criminality, greed, and fascism.
The number of people who come to this nation illegally has declined in recent years, implying that if there ever were an emergency, Trump has realized it several years too late. And why he was unable to discover this emergency during the two year period of one party rule is perhaps best left to Republicans to answer. Trump admitted in the announcement that he does not need to act in a hurry, once again showing that words have no stable meaning for him in any case.
This administration has been one long demonstration that Godwin’s Law, the observation that comparisons between one’s opponent and Hitler become increasingly likely the longer a discussion goes on, no longer has any sting. We have an authoritarian leader who admires dictators who are not constrained by pesky constitutions, and his attempt at an end run around Congress has been predictable since he informed the nation that he would seek a ban on Muslims coming to visit on the first day of his campaign.
But again and again, I find myself wondering if we have reached the Reichstag fire moment, the use of some ginned up emergency to cancel out civil rights and the rule of law. The new version of Godwin’s Law must be the statement that the longer we pretend that fascism is a viable ideology for America, the more likely we are to have a candidate who combines those political doctrines with the intelligence to put them into action.
All of this has happened before. Sebastian Haffner’s book, Defying Hitler, provides an analysis of how a culture that was one of the world’s leaders in education and technological development could over a period of not quite thirty years go through moral collapse and immolation, first by war, then by evaporation of economic stability, and finally by a surrender of any sense that one’s fellow human beings have any inherent value separate from their utility to the state.
Are we a perfect parallel to Germany in the years from 1914 to 1945? No, but we are developing too many alignments to ignore where things are going. We have been blessed with a legal and political system that has more than two hundred years of inertia and structural protections to restrain the worst impulses of Trump and his party. Germany only toyed with representative government between the wars and lacked any experience in how to make that work. But one long-term damage that Trump is inflicting on us is a new plateau of chaos and corruption that feels normal. His continual lies and brazen insanity, whether planned or simply the result of demonic genius, works by overwhelming rational minds. A con artist gives his marks no time to think through each claim, and a street preacher keeps the flow of verses coming. We are exhausted by this absurd stream, until like elevated blood pressure, a persistent low-grade fever, or the diminishing returns of a given quantity of cocaine, a new state of affairs feels like time without beginning or end.
If our republic is to end, it will end not with fire, but with a long series of tolerations of wrongdoing. Trump is one step along that path, a journey that began in the 80s with Reagan’s assault on our social compact. If we accept rule by decree, as this state of emergency in the absence of an emergency and in contradiction to the delegated powers of Congress is, the Capitol will not have to burn. What is done inside it and the separation of powers that it is meant to embody will have no significance.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on PMP Blog! | The author writes in a personal capacity.)