Trump has conjured a crisis out of thin air. That should worry us all.


January 16, 2019

Trump has conjured a crisis out of thin air. That should worry us all.

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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Watching the struggle over funding for a border wall, I am struck by the way in which, in one sense, President Trump has already achieved success. He has been able to conjure up a crisis out of thin air, elevate this manufactured emergency to national attention, paralyze the government and perhaps even invoke warlike authority and bypass Congress. He may still fail, but it should worry us that a president — any president — can do what Trump has done.

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Let’s be clear: There is no crisis. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has been declining for a decade. The number of people caught trying to sneak across the southern border has been on a downward trend for almost 20 years and is lower than it was in 1973.

As has often been pointed out, far more people are coming to the U.S. legally and then overstaying their visas than are crossing the southern border illegally. But it’s important to put these numbers in context. More than 52 million foreigners entered the U.S. legally in fiscal year 2017. Of this cohort, 98.7 percent left on time and in accordance with their visas. A large portion of those remaining left after a brief overstay, and the best government estimate is that maybe 0.8 percent of those who entered the country in 2017 had stayed on by mid-2018.

As for terrorism, the Cato Institute has found that, from 1975 to 2017, “there have been zero people murdered or injured in terror attacks committed by illegal border crossers on U.S. soil.”

As for drugs, the greatest danger comes from fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances, which are at the heart of the opioid crisis. Most of this comes from China, either shipped directly to the United States or smuggled through Canada or Mexico. Trump has addressed the root of this problem by pressing the Chinese government to crack down on fentanyl exports, a far more effective strategy than building a physical barrier along the Mexican border.

Even the Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledged in a report last year that while the southern border is the conduit for most of the heroin entering the United States, the drug typically comes through legal points of entry, hidden in cars or mixed in with other goods in tractor-trailers. In other words, a wall would do little to stanch the flow.

And yet, the power of the presidency is such that Trump has been able to place this issue center-stage, shut down the government, force television networks to run an error-ridden, scaremongering Oval Office address, and now perhaps invoke emergency powers. This sounds like something that would be done by Presidents Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, not the head of the world’s leading constitutional republic.

When the U.S. government has created this sense of emergency and crisis in the past, it has almost always been to frighten people, expand presidential powers and muzzle opposition. From the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Red Scare to warnings about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal, the United States has experienced periods of paranoia and foolishness. We look back on them and recognize that the problems were not nearly as grave, the enemy was not nearly as strong and the United States was actually far more secure. The actions taken — suspending civil rights, interning U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent, taking the nation to war — were almost always terrible mistakes, often with disastrous long-term consequences.

And yet, presidential powers have kept expanding. Modern media culture has made it easier for presidents to set the agenda, because the White House is a central and perpetual point of focus and now receives far more attention than it ever had. Trump has managed to use this reality and turn good news into bad, turn security into danger and almost single-handedly fabricate a national crisis where there is none.

This whole episode highlights a problem that has become apparent in these past two years. The U.S. president has too many powers, formal and informal. This was not intended by the founders, who made Congress the dominant branch of government, and it is not how the country has been governed for much of its history. But over the past nine decades, the presidency has grown in formal and informal authority.

I have been an advocate of a strong executive for most of my life. I don’t much like how Congress operates. I now realize that my views were premised on the assumption that the president would operate within the bounds of laws, norms and ethics. I now believe that an urgent task for the next few years is for Congress to write laws that explicitly limit and check the powers of the president. I would take polarization over Putinism any day.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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5 thoughts on “Trump has conjured a crisis out of thin air. That should worry us all.

  1. It’s the far-right extremists and the religious fanatics who hijacked the GOP, not Trump, who are the real threat to American democracy. Trump is simply an authoritarian idiot whom these people are manipulating to use his office to destroy norms. Trump is not the heart attack of democracy, he is the gum disease of democracy. You can die from gum disease, but it festers for a long time before it finishes you off.

    Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the Harvard political scientists and authors of the book “How Democracies Die” have argued that Trump is not the disease at all: “The problems we face run deeper than the Trump presidency. While Mr. Trump’s autocratic impulses have fueled our political system’s mounting crisis, he is as much a symptom as he is a cause of this crisis.” The crisis is that “the norms that once protected our institutions are coming unmoored.”

    And Levitsky and Ziblatt argued further: “President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script …. He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized. … Little actual backsliding occurred ….”

    But I am optimistic because I am seeing a robust resistance to Trump within the government, the courts, the states and the public at large. This is proof that American democracy as a whole remains healthy. The disease is localized within the GOP. Which is why, if indeed American democracy is in a death loop, any solution must not focus just solely on ousting Trump, but also on punishing and reforming the GOP. It pains me to say this as a member of the Republican Party for 50 years.

    The big takeaway from Trump’s presidency thus far is that the country’s institutions largely have checked him. Trump’s assaults on democracy have, for the most part, been repulsed. America’s core institutions may not be in perfect health, but they seem to be functioning well enough to constrain a president who’s gone after essential parts of its democratic system.

    But one institution has sorely failed in its constitutional duty to restrain the president. Time and again, the Republican-controlled Congress has ignored, defended, or outright enabled Trump’s authoritarian excesses. These Republicans must go, along with Donald Trump. We will rebuild the GOP.

  2. Migrants of the world, please, do not kill the chicken that gives us the golden egg regularly and willingly. Too much water will kill the plant

  3. “Seek truth from facts” was a Maoist saying Dengists love to steal for their little dictator’s use. When applied to Trump’s record, we might see that he’s not exactly what his detractors say he is.

    Trump wanted to withdraw troops from South Korea. Democratic congressmen, however, introduced an act to prevent that withdrawal.

    Trump wanted to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The mass media and neocons within the GOP obstructed the move.

    We can surmise, I think, that the Deep State is behind the failure of both the S. Korean and Middle East withdrawal plans. Since the execution of JFK on the streets of Dallas, it is the Deep State plus the military industrial complex that run the US. The President, at most, has only a secondary role. Given the super-sized ego of Trump, it’s not surprising that he often lashes out at random: frustrated and constrained at every turn, he probably sees the whole political setup as a farce, and thus acts accordingly.

  4. a mirror of what happen in Malaysia under the past administration. there is no rule of law, no oversight. all arms of administration is corrupt everything can do!
    Public is in disbelieve that such blatant disregard for the truth and governance can happen. For democracy to work the admin, the enforcement and executive must be independent. And the judiciary the guidance of justice.

    To award contract to leaders of ruling party is the beginning of the fall of a democracy. Our executive has no will to deal with this. sad sad Sad

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