The 7 questions that matter on the border and Trump’s national emergency declaration

The 7 questions that matter on the border and Trump’s national emergency declaration
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mounted Horse Unit patrols the Texas border. Daily Signal video, YouTube

As so often, of late, America’s politically engaged contingent has spent the last three days shouting past each other as an issue lurks among us.

Notice I didn’t say we were shouting about the issue.  To actually shout about the issue, we’d have to agree among us on what the issue is.

Instead, we have had several days of vigorous expression that seems to boil down to how obtuse everyone else is.  On one side, if we were to encapsulate it crudely, the theme is “How can these cretins not see that Trump is a dangerous, morally illegitimate moron?”  On the other side, the theme is “How can these fools not see that we have an existential, politically fomented national security crisis at our border?”

Refining these themes, when there is no common ground for dialogue between them, isn’t likely to suddenly become helpful.  It hasn’t been up to now, that’s for sure.

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The “Trump is a dangerous moron” theme has no use for good-faith deliberations about border security.  It’s doing very well refining its premises and conclusions without the gratuitous bother.

The “national security crisis at the border” theme finds it pointless to waste time on moral or other personal (or politically structural) questions about Trump.  It too is focused on its own premises, facts, and logic, for which the questions about Trump have no relevance.  A border crisis isn’t about who Trump is, or what he did in 2016 or at any other time.

Without imagining that we can lasso any of this down and tame it, I would nevertheless like to propose seven questions that can help illuminate for us what’s going on.  The key, as we review those questions, is that the people with different emphases in the shouting match answer them differently.

The questions

  1. Is there a crisis question before the nation?
  2. If so, is the crisis border security? Is it Trump?  Is it something else?
  3. Is it an existential crisis for America?
  4. If so, why? Or, if not, why not?  (This is not about whether it’s real or important, but whether it’s an existential crisis.)
  5. Do the existing conditions, including the measures taken or favored by other branches of government, allow us to deal with the crisis (or issue) effectively within their constraints?
  6. What are the consequences of failing to deal effectively with the crisis (or issue)?
  7. Does the “rule of law” principle require us to accept whatever the consequences are, no matter what they portend for the future of the country?

Scope notes

I don’t intend to write the 8,000-word article it would take to fully discuss answers to these questions.  I want to briefly propose instead what partisans of the separate “crisis” themes conceive the crises to be.  The jumping-off point for the crisis assessment is the border-security/national emergency declaration, so I don’t intend to really discuss other potential views of where we may have an existential crisis.

I also want to note that there is a sub-contingent among the politically engaged that fundamentally doesn’t think we’re facing a crisis, or at least nor a prior-existing one.  That is a very important point, as it informs much of the thinking of Never-Trumpers on the right, as well as a less identifiable (and less vocal) group of old-school “moderates” on the left.  Their basic mindset is that we weren’t in a crisis in 2016, and we’re still not in a genuine crisis, although if things tip over into one, it will be because of something Trump does.

This group of thinkers seems to take one central condition for granted: that the status quo outline of our common expectations hasn’t changed.  We can still expect basic fairness, or at least traditional responses, from political opponents.  (I distinguish that expectation from what we assume about our fellow Americans in general.  For the most part, my assumptions in the latter regard haven’t changed.  About what to expect from political opponents, however, many of us, including me, underwent a significant change of mindset in the period from about 2004 to 2016.)

Not perceiving that there’s a crisis is decisive for one’s stance on the politics of 2019.  In a sense, it’s the mirror image of seeing a crisis, in Trump himself, for the very specific reason that his presidency seems to threaten the structure of party politics, money and influence, and regulatory power in Washington, D.C.  This latter perception of a crisis is not existential for America.  It’s existential for a vested political establishment.

The last point about self-interest lies behind virtually all the features of the anti-Trump campaign being waged through the means of government (intelligence, law enforcement, and now focused anti-Trump probes in the Democrat-held House).  And it informs at least some of the anti-Trump themage in the media.

If you don’t agree with that, you most probably are a Never-Trumper on the right who doesn’t perceive any significant national crisis in the conditions that preexisted Trump.  Those Never-Trumpers may not see an existential crisis before us, but they see Trump as badly in need of a scrutiny that will ultimately disqualify him and send him on his way.

I do see the anti-Trump campaign the way I just outlined – i.e., to reduce it crudely, the Mueller investigation is about a political establishment protecting its turf – and will be writing on that basis.

The main thing that means is that I do not believe anyone genuinely perceives the “Russia-Trump collusion” narrative to be the premise of an existential crisis for America.  Those who view “Trump the dangerous moron” as the existential crisis are looking at it through the lens of principle – misguided or not – whereas the “collusion” narrative campaign is looking at it in terms of self-interest.

Frankly, the proof that the Russia-Trump collusion narrative is not genuinely seen as an existential crisis is that no one ever proposes doing anything useful or constructive about it. All proposals associated with this narrative invariably boil down to (a) pinning anything possible on Trump – regardless of how little it has to do with Russian influence operations – in order to get rid of him; (b) centralizing control of voting systems in the United States; and (c) gaming the rules of information media to silence those who support Trump.

Bottom line: you won’t find me framing the “Trump the dangerous moron” crisis theme here in the terms of the Russia-Trump narrative.

With the border security crisis theme, there is no such conflation issue.

The answers

  1. Is there a crisis question before the nation?

Both sides involved in the shouting say yes.  Remember, the framework here is the border-security/national-emergency issue.  The “Trump the dangerous moron” contingent is made up of a couple of groups, which see Trump and his dangers as either already manifest, or as germinating future dangers to the Republic through Trump’s current actions.  In this case, their concern is that Trump is the crisis, because he is taking action that Congress, in its latest vote, is effectively trying to prevent him from taking.  He’s using an emergency declaration to do it.

Trump’s way of communication, his manner and affect, his personal history – all are part of the perception that he poses unusual danger in this regard.  I confess that I myself don’t see how others view him as being so extraordinarily dangerous.  But I do understand why many people react badly to him, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of at least some of the critics, whose dislike of his demeanor and self-expression seems morally decisive to them.

The “border security crisis” contingent argues that there is literally a national security crisis in the failures of our border enforcement.  Although these partisans usually list gang crime, drugs, and (potentially) terrorism first, what has sharpened the crisis today is actually the systematic political-activist organization of “caravans” to create pitched confrontations at our southern border.

The caravans represent a political attack on the validity of borders. They mirror what has been going on in Europe for the last five years, and are perceived by the “border security crisis” contingent to have much the same origin and intent.

This framework of pitched, deliberately shaped confrontations – and not just attrition over time – has focused the understanding of border security as an urgent and actionable political problem.  It is not just about demographic trends that no one can really do anything about.  It’s about policy choices being made today, and consequences that will be felt in a meaningfully near future.

  1. If so, is the crisis border security? Is it Trump?  Is it something else?

Both sides perceive the central issue of their crisis themes to be the key.  There may be a lot wrong (as well as right) with America, but in this case, the “border security crisis” theme is about a crisis defined by border security, and the “Trump the dangerous moron” theme is about a crisis defined by Trump.

There are assuredly other factors at work.  The character of Americans is questioned by some on both sides, although not necessarily for the same reasons.  There is as always a tendency to throw socially invidious premises around, and accuse the other side of making it “about” that.

One example is the “dangerous Trump” theme that Trump supporters are manufacturing a narrative about a border crisis because their real concern is prejudice against “people of color.” The “border security” themers might counter that they live and work side by side with far more “people of color” than the “dangerous Trump” contingent does, and nope, that’s not it.

Going the other direction, the “border security” contingent usually gives short shrift to concerns about arbitrariness and overreach in the use of enforcement powers.  “Dangerous Trumpers” may be special-pleading when they raise those concerns, but they legitimately may not.  The “border security” folks can tend to simply interpret these real, principled objections as special pleading on behalf of special interest groups – a source of irreconcilable frustration for some of the “dangerous Trumpers.”

The bottom line, however, is that the themes’ pivot points are, in fact, “border security” and “Trump.” These ways of expressing the problem are not dog whistles that mean anything else.

  1. Is it an existential crisis for America?

Both sides would say yes.  The crisis, as defined by both sides, represents a trend that will destroy what America is – what she is supposed to be, what we want her to be – if it is not countered with action.

  1. If so, why? Or, if not, why not?

Although the two sub-groups of the “Trump the dangerous moron” contingent have different time horizons, both say the crisis is existential.

Those who routinely argue that Trump is literally upending the rule of law, right now, today, have little to show for their alarms.  Those who warn that he is setting bad precedents that will haunt us in the future may have more merit on their side.  (Note that the same concerns had merit going back to at least Woodrow Wilson, or even earlier.  Trump is hardly unique, if he is overstepping perceived boundaries.)

Either way, the “existential crisis” aspect is that Trump, in their view, is taking presidential powers outside the boundaries we legitimately expect them to honor.  If such precedents stand, constitutional restraints and the rule of law are imperiled, to the long-term detriment of America’s fundamental nature.

This is by no means a foolish or unimportant point.  It was something America’s Founders thought about and discussed at length.  It may seem oddly particular to imagine Trump as an especially evil specimen in this regard, but the concern itself is hardly invalid.

As with the “Trump the dangerous moron” theme, the “border security” theme sees existential peril ahead – and for a reason that is ultimately the same.  If America cannot control her borders, the whole idea of common expectations about the rule of law and a constitutional environment for politics becomes unenforceable.  Americans can expect to lose the benefits of those conditions in the years ahead, and be condemned to live in a society more arbitrary and vengeful, and more full of hostility, defensiveness, and crime.

Notice that this is not about the race or origin of the people attempting to enter the United States at our southern border.  It’s about the effect on any people, of any composition, when the people lose the sense of security in their expectations of daily life.  Intrinsic to that sense of security is that everyone is held equally accountable, as much as it is that everyone has the same rights and opportunities.  These expectations are unenforceable when people wander in and out of communities without taking a stake in their future.  Skid Row in Los Angeles is what a community looks like when the latter is the ruling condition.

The premise of the “border security” contingent is not that no one must enter the United States.  It’s that a secure border is meant to ensure that only those who want to take out a stake and live according to the common expectations of Americans will enter for the purpose of residency.  To make other arrangements is to guarantee America’s destruction.

  1. Do the existing conditions, including the measures taken or favored by other branches of government, allow us to deal with the crisis (or issue) effectively within their constraints?

Both sides in this fracas would say no.  The “Trump the dangerous moron” group perceives that we have already gone too far down the path toward an “imperial presidency.”  Their concern about that isn’t always as principled as one would like – quite often it’s really more about a presidential personality, and how his critics react to him – but a number of commentators make strong cases that we have let the president become too powerful.

For them, it’s a significant problem that our governmental traditions and our body of precedent all but encourage a president to probe new boundaries when contentious public issues arise.  Congress lets the president set too much of the agenda, and leaves too much in the hands of both the Oval Office and the executive agencies, which administer regulations, commissions, and vast budgets.  The courts have tended to defer to the president too much on issues the Constitution explicitly defines as federal, as well as on issues the courts have interpreted into the “federal” realm over the years.

It’s important to articulate this point, as abstract as it may sound, because it is a very real one.  It’s not just about the “dangerous Trumpers” making excuses.  They have a valid case here.

On the other hand, so do the “border security” partisans.  In the case of their theme, the structural issue is not accreted tradition and precedent over the course of decades.  It is a very focused and deliberate effort, in the last few decades – and especially, starkly, in the last month – to so constrain the president that he literally cannot secure the U.S. border.

The Omnibus Spending Bill just signed on Friday contains breathtakingly blatant provisions in that regard.  Their purpose is clearly to prevent President Trump from making the border more secure.  If Trump abides by these provisions, he can’t improve security at the border.  In short order, that vulnerability will make the situation worse at all the current pressure points, like detention facilities, immigration courts, and “sanctuary cities.”

Moreover, the current courts have shown a thoroughly politicized bent for ruling at the lower levels against anything Trump wants to do, in some cases keeping his administration immobilized for so long that the outcome desired by open-borders partisans occurs by default.

Some states make it even more difficult for the president to secure the border, although others join forces with him.  For Trump, in the situation in which he finds himself, it is valid to say that he can’t simply execute the provisions of the latest spending bill and give the American people a secure border.  He is, quite literally, constrained not to do so.

  1. What are the consequences of failing to deal effectively with the crisis (or issue)?

Both sides would say the consequences are dire, and would pose grave harm to the future of the United States.  I think they have been hashed out thoroughly enough in the preceding material, but it is important when thinking this through to give the question itself focus, and to answer it in terms of the consequences for failing to act.

Discussing action is what matters.  All the rest is the province of theory and aspiration.

  1. Does the “rule of law” principle require us to accept whatever the consequences are, no matter what they portend for the future of the country?

Now that we have defined what people are shouting past each other about, this is the real crux of the matter.

Politics – the politics of the day – will to a great extent decide what our priority effectively is.  Are we more worried about what one more national emergency declaration will do to our sense of the presidency and the meaning of constitutionalism?  Or are we more worried about border security being real and having observable benefits?

But both of the crisis themes are actually bigger than that.  The “dangerous Trump” theme is about what a polity can tolerate in terms of executive ascendancy before it gets too dangerous, no matter who’s in office.  That is a very, very basic question.

The “border security” theme is about what the purpose of a nation is, and whether it’s good for us.  That too is as basic as it gets.

Notice that, because of the meanderings of politics over the last half century or so, we have reached a point at which these very basic questions seem to be at odds with each other, when framed in the terms of a vexing public issue.  It’s not clear that they really have to be at odds, but that’s certainly how it’s playing out for us.

Finally, however, we have question number 7.  It too is so basic as to be irreducible.  Must we be constrained, by a just-passed spending bill and the valid concerns of people leery of a “strong president” action by the executive, to let our borders be poorly enforced?  Is that the meaning of the “rule of law”?  If we accept that reading, can we even keep the rule of law, as time and a tide of migrants demonstrate that even in America, borders cannot be enforced?

Nothing from history would tell us the answer to that last question is “yes.”  The answer history gives is “no.”  The only way to have the rule of law is to enforce territorial borders.  The only way to have “America” is to enforce territorial borders.

What if the pat answers of status quo politics aren’t enough to settle our problem in this case?  We’ve been there before, in 1861, and 1776.  We may be there again.  In which case, we can’t afford to have light or transient reasons for what we commit our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.