President Donald Trump, who hates being constrained by pesky things like laws, the separation of powers, or the Constitution, seems poised to invoke a national emergency to get his taxpayer-funded wall built along the southern border.
To save face after triggering a government shutdown over this issue, it is believed that Trump would use this move to seize land along the border and reallocate funds designated for real emergencies to deal with this made-up crisis.
Alarmed conservatives and excited progressives have noted that, once this precedent is created, a future Democratic president could declare national emergencies on things like climate change, gun deaths, or lack of access to health care — to shut down the fossil fuel industry, ban guns, or put in place Medicare for all.
The first problem with that line of thinking is that these people are getting ahead of themselves. Once Trump, who has made it quite clear that he would love to have the sweeping powers of dictators or monarchs, takes this new authority for a spin, he is going to keep using it.
Maybe the president will declare vaccines a “national emergency” and curb their use because he believes they are linked to an increase in autism. Or, sticking to his completely unsubstantiated assertion that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in 2016, he will institute national election laws that disenfranchise eligible voters. Or he can claim that the Mueller investigation is destabilizing the country and shut it down in the name of national security. Would that make a lot of sense? No. But neither does pulling this wall stunt only to keep his base and Fox News commentators happy.
But there is a much simpler and more important reason that Trump shouldn’t invoke a phony emergency to build a wall, or that no Democratic president should declare an emergency to ban guns even if there were a mass shooting every day: because that’s not how things work in the US.
Americans elect presidents, not kings.
There is a set of rules in place that govern how this country is run. And these laws, judicial precedents and long-accepted procedures, which are sadly under constant assault, are more important than any individual policy. So even if Trump were right about the threat that the absence of a wall poses, he still wouldn’t get to build it unless Congress were to give him the money and the authority to do so. According to our system of laws, it would be up to him to convince Congress that the emergency warrants the spending.
The same would be true for the gun example. Even if there were a mass school shooting every single day, with every perpetrator using the same type of weapon, a future Democratic president couldn’t just go ahead and seize all those guns.
There is much more at stake here than a wannabe dictator trying to have a 2,000-mile monument to his bigotry erected along the southern border. Money set aside for emergencies should not be treated like a slush fund for vanity projects.
This isn’t about Trump. We know who he is and what he wants to be.
Even if he does this, his successors have to try to put the genie back in the bottle and resist the temptation to take advantage of every anti-democratic precedent he sets. Otherwise, the price will be much higher than a few billion bucks for a wall.
So progressives should not be giddy about this and envision what one of theirs would do with such power. Instead, they should assure voters that they, unlike the current occupant of the White House, would follow the rule of law and act like presidents and not kings.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Donald Trump (US Embassy).
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