A historian explains why President Trump is our only real national emergency

A historian explains why President Trump is our only real national emergency
Donald Trump (Image via Shutterstock)

No matter what Individual 1 says, people coming across our border with Mexico without authorization is not an emergency, or a crisis (although the Trump Administration has turned it into a humanitarian crisis). The graph on the right shows the number of people apprehended crossing the border illegally—a very reasonable proxy in terms of a trend over time for the number of people crossing in general.


Look at the numbers in fiscal year 2018 compared to 2000. Apprehensions are less than one-quarter of what they were. Trump calls that an emergency? It seems more like a success, but hey, I’ve never been a reality show host, so what do I know.

Trump has spent the last three years screaming about criminals and terrorists coming across the border. The terrorism claim is absolute bunk. Nicholas Rasmussen served from December 2014 to December 2017 as director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). His job was “to lead the government’s efforts to collect and analyze all available information about terrorist threats to the Homeland.” Here’s his take:

“There is no wave of terrorist operatives waiting to cross overland into the United States. It simply isn’t true. Anyone in authority using this argument to bolster support for building the wall or any other physical barrier along the southern border is most likely guilty of fear mongering and willfully misleading the American people.”

Regarding crime, without question, any violent crime is a tragedy, and every victim and their families deserve our sympathy and support. The fact remains, however, that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the native-born, and that states with higher levels of undocumented immigrants overall had lower crime rates than their counterparts with lower levels.

This means that the average American is less likely to be the victim of a violent crime because undocumented immigrants are here than they would be if no undocumented immigrants were here. For any math-challenged folks out there, this is true because even though the total number of crimes committed would be lower without undocumented immigrants living among us, our population—thus the number of potential victims—would drop even more on a proportional basis. Thus, each of us would be, on average, more likely to be the victim of a violent crime if no undocumented immigrants lived in our country. Trump is just lying on this issue.

Trump’s claim of a crisis that could justify him invoking emergency powers—and overriding Congress by building a wall it has thus far explicitly rejected—is no more real than his claims about electoral fraud, the size of his inauguration crowd, or so many of the other things about which the prevaricator-in-chief has spoken falsely.

We do have a law, the National Emergencies Act, that grants the president the authority to declare a national emergency and take certain actions. But the flow of people coming across our border now, as the facts demonstrate, is not an emergency. There is historical precedent that bears on this exact situation, and it does not go in Trump’s favor, namely the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1952 against President Truman. As Rep. Adam Schiff of California pointed out: "If Harry Truman couldn't nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn't have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border."

The National Emergencies Act was not designed to allow a president to authorize spending on a project without Congress’s approval. If such a thing were allowed, it would mean that Congress has lost its power over the national purse strings. It would mean a fundamental shift in our government’s system of checks and balances.

Donald Trump doesn’t care about any of those things. Those are principles, and Trump has none. He certainly has no commitment to democracy, either here at home or abroad, where he continues to cozy up to dictators and make clear that he prefers them over democratic countries that actually share our political values. What kind of commitment to democracy does a person have who would say that the autocratic government of China is "far more honorable” and “much easier to deal with” than his Democratic counterparts—people chosen by the voters to represent them?

The wall is a joke. Trump’s advisers created it as a memory aid, a simple thing they could use to get him to remember to talk about immigration on the campaign trail—something they knew would rile up their right-wing base. Even other so-called “immigration hard-liners” don’t think the wall is the answer (not that their approach is the right one, either). The shutdown is about the fixation of a mental 5-year-old who can’t take no for an answer.

The thing is that, in a democracy, sometimes even presidents don’t get what they want. That is not a bug, but a feature. Trump is president—despite losing the actual vote by 3 million—but he is not an autocrat. He spent last summer and fall screaming about undocumented immigrants, and so did most of the candidates running on the Trump brand. The American people rejected them. Overwhelmingly.

Democratic opposition to the wall is not only morally right, it puts them on the side of a strong majority of the American people, who oppose Trump not only on the wall but also the #Trumpshutdown. However, even if those things were not the case, ours remains a constitutional government.

As a historian, I don’t throw around Nazi comparisons too often. It is, however, the case that the democratic government the Nazis pushed aside—known as Weimar—was seriously, perhaps fatally, weakened by the repeated abuse of a constitutional provision, Article 48, that gave the president emergency powers. Starting in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power, the elected president and his conservative allies (i.e., the German equivalent of our very own, present-day dictatorship enabler Sen. Lindsey Graham) in the legislative branch—also themselves elected—used Article 48 multiple times to get around opposition in the legislature and essentially rule by decree.

My hope and expectation is that, if Trump follows through on his dangerous threat and declares a national emergency, that the courts will ultimately stop him, as they did President Truman. But who knows? Does Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts care enough about the Constitution to stand up to this president? I sincerely doubt Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch do. And Kavanaugh? Well, a six-pack from Trump should be enough to swing his vote.

Seriously, though, this is not how the government is supposed to operate in our country. We have three branches of government because our founders believed that investing too much power in any one branch could, and likely would, lead to tyranny. If Trump does as he has threatened and manages to get away with it, he will not have ended a crisis, he will instead have plunged us into one as dangerous as any which our democracy has faced.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).

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