Let’s get straight to it: There is no crisis on the southern border.
Donald Trump knows there’s no crisis on the southern border. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and the other Senate Republicans know there’s no crisis on the southern border. The Fox News pundits and the radio talk-show hosts and the rest of the conservative disinformation machine know there’s no crisis on the southern border. The network execs who gave the president their airwaves for ten minutes Tuesday night to dissemble and fear-monger about the crisis on the southern border know there’s no crisis on the southern border.
There is no crisis on the southern border.
If there was a crisis on the southern border—a bona fide crisis that demanded urgent action—Trump would have acted when his party controlled Congress. If he believed a border wall was essential to stopping the killers and rapists and drug runners he raged about from the start of his campaign, he would have accepted the deal Democrats offered last year to trade the wall for protections for DACA recipients. Instead, his administration demanded draconian restrictions on legal immigration as well, and the deal blew up.
No wall. But no crisis.
The crisis only arose when Trump needed something to rally his demoralized base ahead of the midterms. He seized on a slow-moving group of a few thousand migrants—many of them women and children—walking thousands of miles from Central America toward the border in hopes of seeking asylum and escaping poverty and violence. They moved as a group because the journey is notoriously dangerous and there is safety in numbers.
To listen to the administration and its acolytes, however, these weren’t bedraggled migrants desperate for a better life. They were a hoard of very dangerous invaders, who probably included terrorists and gangbangers, coming to rape and pillage, bent on murder and mayhem. Two weeks before the election, with the migrants still hundreds of miles away, Trump dispatched five thousand troops to the border, while the conservative media pretended this very dangerous caravan was the most important story on earth.
It didn’t work. Democrats retook the House in November in the largest midterm popular-vote thumping since 1974, an unambiguous repudiation of Trump. The troops at the border were recalled soon after—not because they’d been sent there as a political stunt, mind you, but because, well, mission accomplished or something. The lame-duck Republican-controlled Senate unanimously passed a bill to continue funding the government through February, sans wall, apparently with Trump’s blessing; the House looked poised to follow suit.
Then Trump’s conservative-media pals got mad at him. “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything,” Rush Limbaugh complained. “Trump will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people,” snapped Ann Coulter.
And just like that, we had an honest-to-god emergency on our hands.
Suddenly, the crisis on the southern border was so acute, and the need for the wall so urgent, that Trump declared that he would shut the government down if he didn’t get what he wanted.
So here we are. Day 21 of the shutdown, as the president continues to demand a pointless solution to a crisis of his own invention and ransoms eight hundred thousand federal workers’ livelihoods to get it. Today, those workers missed their first paycheck. Tomorrow, this will become the longest shutdown in American history.
The president has a problem: The Democrats have no reason to back down. The wall has never been particularly popular. Shutting down the government to pay for an unpopular wall is not very popular either. But the wall—and the idiotic notion that Mexico would cut a check for it, which Trump is now (falsely, of course) claiming he never said—was a core campaign promise.
His base wants the wall, and Trump needs his base.
Trump knows it: “Right now,” he told reporters Wednesday, “if I did something that was foolish, like gave up on border security, the first ones that would hit me are my senators. They’d be angry at me. The second ones would be the House. And the third ones would be, frankly, my base and a lot of Republicans out there.”
In short, he’s boxed himself into a corner, and his allies are scrambling for an exit ramp. They’ve floated two possibilities. One is some version of the DACA-for-wall agreement the White House spiked last year. The second appears more likely: Trump declares the border crisis a national emergency and proclaims that he can build the wall without congressional approval, perhaps by diverting funds designated for disaster relief in the forest-fire-devastated California and the hurricane-ravaged Florida and Puerto Rico. The government reopens. When a court inevitably blocks his border-wall-by-authoritarian-power-grab, as his advisers assume, Trump can blame judges for his inability to deliver.
Which is to say: This is all a charade.
Some pertinent facts: Illegal border crossings are lower than they were during Barack Obama’s presidency and significantly lower than they were two decades ago; most undocumented immigrants overstay their visas rather than enter the country illegally; most of the heroin that comes to the U.S. through Mexico does so through legal ports of entry; research shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives; ICE hasn’t detained thousands of potential terrorists at the border this year, but six people who are on the watch list, and some of them might be on that list by mistake; and, by the way, immigration improves rather than hurts the economy.
To the extent there is a crisis on the border, it’s humanitarian—and self-inflicted. Throughout history, American immigration policy has been problematic and often explicitly racist. But what distinguishes the Trump administration is the pleasure it (and its supporters) derive from its own cruelty: targeting Muslims, curtailing asylum, separating kids from parents, jailing migrant children, revoking temporary protected status (a decision put on hold after a federal judge found it rooted in white supremacy), speeding up deportations, trying to limit legal immigration and end birthright citizenship.
In the last month, two migrant children have died in American custody, and the Department of Homeland Security basically shrugged. The images we’ve seen this year—as asylum-seekers have been arrested, separated from their families, and thrown into cages—have been heart-rending: kids crying and being permanently traumatized, families being tear-gassed, migrants being abused by border officials or told to come back later. Thousands languished in shelters in Tijuana, waiting weeks or longer for their chance to apply for asylum.
During his Oval Office address Tuesday, Trump—calling it a “crisis of the heart and crisis of the soul”—offered the same answer to this toxic admixture of menace and incompetence that he’s offered to every immigration problem: a wall and faster deportations.
It’s the only tune he knows how to sing.
For now, Trump’s fellow Republicans are singing along. Not because they believe in the wall—at least not the smart ones. Just a few years ago, a conservative South Carolina congressman named Mick Mulvaney called the border wall “absurd and almost childish.” Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose district runs along the border in Texas, has called it “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.” In 2015, then-presidential candidate Jeb Bush dismissed the wall as “unrealistic,” and senator and fellow presidential wannabe Lindsey Graham said it showed Trump “makes no sense.”
Most of them don’t say that anymore, not out loud. Mulvaney, of course, became the president’s chief of staff just in time for the shutdown. The comically invertebrate Graham, meanwhile, has become a first-rate Trump lackey, begging the president to circumvent Congress and build the wall by fiat.
It’s not that there’s really a crisis that warrants such drastic and unprecedented measures. It’s that, as Graham recently admitted to Fox News, “If we undercut the president, that’s the end of his presidency and the end of our party.”
So we’re stuck. The president is about to declare a national emergency, not because there’s an actual national emergency, but because he has a political emergency. And he thinks his supporters are dumb enough to fall for it.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
Perhaps the best way to think of the government shutdown, then, is as a national IQ test—an opportunity to see just how gullible the president’s base is and how far the Republican Party will go to prop up its increasingly addled leader.