Let there be no sugarcoating of this past week’s events: In declaring an utterly manufactured “national emergency” to raid $8 billion from the public coffers for a pet political project, Trump has moved America one giant step closer to dictatorship. He’s doing so with the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
While there have been many emergencies declared by presidents in the past, not a single one has been declared simply because the executive branch couldn’t convince the legislative branch to pony up cash for an unpopular policy proposal. Until now.
Even in 1939 and 1940, when Britain stood alone against fascism and Winston Churchill begged for arms from America, Roosevelt didn’t simply seize money Congress hadn’t authorized. True, he got creative with the Lend-Lease program; but he did so while still respecting Congress’s control over the purse-strings. And 1939-40, by any measure, was a genuine emergency.
What’s happening on the southern border today, by contrast, is simply a political crisis manufactured by a hate peddler.
Trump’s end run around Congress won’t go unchallenged. There will be lawsuits and Congressional votes of disapproval. There will be demonstrations. It’s even possible that some Republicans, with a vague memory of their once-proud posture as guarantors of the Constitution, will finally break with the president and refuse to support his re-election.
That, I suppose, should not be a surprise. At every step of the way over the past two years of Trump’s authoritarian and sadistic governance, when the GOP has had the chance to stand up to him and do the right thing, it has chosen instead to roll over. It has done exactly the wrong thing – choosing to placate its increasingly fanatical base, no matter the long-term damage to the country’s democratic infrastructure and global reputation.
If this stands, it represents the corrosion of the most fundamental constitutional principles that any president, of either party, has attempted. It is, quite simply, a form of coup d’état, a wrecking ball aimed at the most important tenet of American government.
The Democrats should not threaten but rather promise a proportional response when they next control the presidency. Since McConnell decided to go along with the national emergency simply to avoid political humiliation, the Democrats ought to promise the American public that any wall built by the raiding of tax dollars not ear-marked for it will be torn down on principle by the next administration.
And Democrats should promise that if Republicans do not overwhelmingly vote against Trump’s action, then when the Democrats next control the White House they will implement a national emergency to immediately fund one of their key projects, too. This could mean programs to address climate change, solve homelessness, expand mental health services or resettle refugees.
They should make it clear that this will be a one-off political reprisal, unless Trump uses national emergency powers to implement other politically contentious projects, too – in which case they will promise another tit-for-tat response. There is, so far as I can see, no other way to rein in a Trump-McConnell axis now willing to take aim at the most vital of democratic checks and balances.
I also keep thinking of the Poll Tax Revolt in England, which took place when I was a teenager. In that instance, a head tax that was perceived as grossly unfair and undemocratic by most of the population was imposed by the Conservative government. In response, a huge grassroots revolt was launched, resulting in so many people simply refusing to pay the tax that it became unworkable.
It’s a fundamental tenet of American democracy that you pay taxes into a system in which legislators vote on how to use that money. You might not support individual expenditures, or like the legislative majority, but at least you know in advance that your tax dollars will be spent in an accountable manner. If legislators vote against using money a certain way and a tyrant usurps all those powers and steals the money, then the bond of accountability between taxpayer and government has been shattered.
What is the moral reason to pay taxes to the federal government in Trump’s America, when that money can simply be stolen on a whim by a wannabe dictator?
Finally, any self-respecting member of Congress ought to be staying up late this week drafting articles of impeachment. Trump has, in his actions, shown himself utterly incapable of upholding constitutional governance. In myriad ways, he’s breaching of the public trust “in extremis” at this point. It’s far past time for Congress to apply the appropriate remedy to end this monstrous, crooked and dictatorial presidency.
Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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