WASHINGTON, February 5, 2019 — When President Donald Trump arrives in the chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday, the bipartisan-minded speech he is expected to deliver will be a dramatic departure from the apocalyptic rhetoric he frequently uses to describe his political enemies.
In a briefing with reporters last week, White House aides attempted to cast his annual message to Congress as an olive branch. In one excerpt of the speech, which is entitled“Choosing Greatness,” Trump is expected to call on Congress to “break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary process of America’s future.”
Trump’s turn to bipartisanship may only be a momentary break in character. Since the midterm elections, the president has consistently described those opposed to him interms both vague and extreme.
Midterm election rhetoric laced with concerns about the ‘radical left’
During the run-up tothe 2018 midterm elections, applause lines warning of “radical Democrats” who“want to tear down our laws, tear down our institutions in pursuit of power,demolish our prosperity in the name of socialism and probably worse” were a stapleof the president’s campaign stump speech. At least one tweet warned of “radical leftists” supporting Democratic candidates.
During the 35-daypartial government shutdown he instigated over his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexicoborder, Trump used a Pentagon event on missile defense to complain to anaudience of military officers that the “radical Democrats” in the House majority had come from the “radical left.”
He also spoke of a“radical left” opposed to border security during his first prime-time Oval Office address, telling Americans: “The radical left can never control ourborders.”
The president’s preferred phrase for his perceived enemies has filtered down to Congressional Republicans and conservative media, both of which are replete with examples of the use of terms like “left-wing,” “leftist,” “radical left,” and “radical Democrats.”
These can refer to anyone ranging from moderate Democrats opposed to the president’s border wall to so-called “Never Trump” conservatives who’ve remained stalwart in their opposition to a president they say is not one of them.
Trump’s epithets show the hallmarks of an ‘authoritarian statist,’ says consultant Rick Wilson
According toconservative strategist Rick Wilson, the use of such vague epithets by both thepresident and his supporters marks Trump as an “authoritarian statist” and canbe traced back to two inflection points involving Fox News architect Roger Ailes.
“One of the greattricks of authoritarians and statists is the amorphous other. There’s always athreat — the evolving threat of the other,” said Wilson, a veteran GOP ad makerand the author of “Everything Trump Touches Dies.”
Ailes, Wilson said, understood there was a mass of Democratic voters who were “not of the Ted Kennedy type,” meaning that they were not progressive on social issues.
Speaking of Republican strategy generally, he said, “We went after them on cultural issues and on describing an effete elite possessed of amazing power and pure evil trying to destroy our way of life.”
Wilson explained thatthat way of thinking became even preeminent in GOP politics in 2010 during the rise of the Tea Party, in part because the internet had lowered the cost of communicating to a targeted audience.
“If you poke theaverage guy in a focus group who’d easily use the term ‘cultural Marxism’ andask ‘what does that mean, exactly?’ the dumbfounded stare is always the same,”he said. “They don’t know what it means, they just know that they hate it.”
Wilson, a prominent anti-Trump Republican, noted that he often is confronted by people who accuse him of being a “socialist, liberal, blah blah blah,” based solely on his opposition to President Trump.
“It always comes downto one thing — you don’t like Trump, therefore your politics are of the left.”
“That’s how they look at everything, though this one prism of ‘are you a socialist liberal or are youa Trump supporter?’” “The only thing they can ever say is ‘you don’t like Trump, therefore you’re a leftist. It’s kind of shocking and frightening at thesame time.”
Wilson said that none of the characteristics or beliefs shared by him or other anti-Trump Republicans could by any means be considered to be “of the left” – until now.
‘Stabbed in the back’ by moderate Republicans and mainstream conservatives
“[Trump is] great atplaying the statist politics of these guys, who Republicans on paper believeare oppressive to human freedom,” Wilson continued. These are the same kinds of “games that Saddam [Hussein] played, and Kim [Jong-un] plays, and [Vladimir] Putinplays.”
Wilson theorizes that Trump’s praise of Putin as an exemplar of “strong leadership” stems from apolitical impulse akin to the “stabbed-in-the-back” myth popularized in WeimarGermany. In the current iteration, Wilson says, mainstream conservatives and moderates Republican stand in for German Jews.
Charlie Sykes, editor of “The Bulwark” and author of “How The Right Lost Its Mind,” echoed many of Wilson’s sentiments about the zero-sum thinking common with Trump and his supporters. The constant demonization of a hard-to-define enemy is good politics for thepresident.
“In a lot of ways, this is not surprising for Trump because he’s much more effective running against someone and running against something tha running for something,” said Sykes, who hosted a conservative talk radio program until 2016.
“[Trump] needs a foil, so casting the Democrats as dangerous and radical is going to be the formulafor his 2020 campaign — to convince his base and swing voters that no matter what his feelings will be, the Democrats are much scarier, that they are comingto catch you, that they hate you.”
Virtue signaling to the right on religious freedom
Sykes said much of Trump’s appeal is predicated on his supporters’ belief that the other sidewants to destroy the things they care about most, particularly regarding religious freedom.
“That’s been a verybright, powerful message to groups like evangelical Christians who have been convinced that religious liberty is on the line because Democrats will rollover their rights,” he said.
Trump and his political allies are purposefully creating an exaggerated, cartoonish image of a political enemy who hate both him and America itself, said Sykes. That way, he doesn’t have to run against a specific policy or a specific idea.
“Trump is trying to make it not about him, so that it’s not being pro-Trump or anti-Trump, it’s being pro-American, pro-values, pro-Christian religious liberty,” Sykes said. He referred to Pennsylvania state representative Rick Saccone, who lost a specialelection to Conner Lamb, a Democrat who now represents the state’s 18thCongressional district. Saccone said that Democrats “hate Trump, hate America and hate God.”
Trump’s rhetoric parallels recent history in strongman states like Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines
While Sykes maintained that casting his political opposition as vague yet terrifying was in Trump’s own political self-interest, Michigan State Political Science Professor Dr. Erica Frantz warned that the use of such rhetoric parallels recent history in places like Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines — countries that have seemingly retreated from the practice of western-style democracy in favor of amore populist authoritarianism.
“What Trump has done isnot unique to the United States,” she said. “It’s happened in other parts of Europe and in the developing world as well.” She believes that the American political climate is entering a situation in which anytime anybody speaks out against the president, he and his allies immediately label them as unpatrioticor not loyal to the United States.
“You have very vague rhetoric,” she said. “The virtue of vagueness is that it doesn’t have topinpoint you to any specific thing.”
“Any category that isvague, loose, and encompasses anybody they don’t like is useful. In thisinstance, the ‘enemy’ is ‘the left.’”
Is Trump’s political rhetoric paving the way for anti-democratic behaviors?
Frantz noted that such behaviors are effective because pointing to political opposition as an enemy can easily paves the way for anti-democratic behaviors.
“Because those who support the incumbent are fighting against an enemy, they’re going to be more likely to accept such activity,” she said, calling Trump’s talk of declaring anational emergency at the border “very troubling in these contexts.”
“Historically speaking, we’ve seen emergencies being used as opportunities for theseindividuals to clamp down,” she said, citing Turkey’s ongoing national emergency used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as justification for the continued imprisonment of thousands of journalist, academics, and civil society activists.
Because the one thing that can hinder such authoritarian takeovers of an established democracy is resistance from the would-be authoritarian’s own party, elected Republicans’ failure to stand up to Trump could have lasting consequences, Franz said – particularly if he is able to declare a national emergency on the border without much meaningful pushback or consequences.
Trump’s power within the Republican Party has been bolstered by his outsider status, she said. It’s “not usually not a good thing in established democracies when we see these outsiders suddenly swoop in and win office.”
Trump Declares National Emergency After He Doesn’t Get His Way With Border Wall Funding
WASHINGTON, February 15, 2019 — President Donald Trump on Friday reacted to Congress’ refusal to fully fund his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by invoking emergency powers which purportedly allow him to “reprogram” federal funds without the consent of Congress.
“Today I am announcing several critical actions that my administration is taking.”
“We’re going to confront the [national security] crisis on our souther border,” Trump said, adding: “Everyone knows that walls work,” Trump said, citing Israel’s security barrier along the West Bank in the Middle East.
Trump called the idea that most illicit drugs come into the U.S. through ports of entry a “lie” despite statistics from his own Department of Homeland Security which show that most illicit drugs are seized at ports of entry.
“You can’t take big loads through ports of entry,” Trump said. He also suggested that human trafficking was not possible through ports of entry because border agents would see women who are “tied up in the trunk.”
“It’s all a big lie, it’s a big con game. You don’t have to be smart to know you put up a barrier… and people can’t come in until they go right or left and there’s no barrier.”
Trump said that his declaration was not a significant departure from precedent because other presidents had used the National Emergencies Act many times since 1976, when it was signed into law by then-President Gerald Ford.
“It’s been signed many times before. They sign it, nobody cares, I guess they weren’t very exciting.”
“We’re talking about an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs,” he said, citing the existence of “Angel Moms,” a designation for mothers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. The designation was created by anti-immigrant group the Remembrance Project.
“So we’re going to be signing a national emergency,” Trump said, calling it “a great thing to do” because of the “invasion” from our country.
He also suggested that China’s drug policy was superior to the United States’ because China executes drug dealers.
Friday’s announcement, the likes of which Trump has openly considered for months, will undoubtedly set up a confrontation between the executive branch and both the legislative and judicial branches as Congress seeks to retain its own constitutional authority over the public purse.
While Congress has seen fit to appropriate only $1.375 billion for border barrier construction, White House Acting Chief of Staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said that the declaration will allow Trump to redirect three “pots of money.”
These include 600 million from the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from the Pentagon’s anti-drug efforts, and $3.6 billion from the Pentagon’s construction budget, regardless of Congress’ express intentions.
A senior administration official said the total of $8 billion will allow Trump to order construction of approximately 234 miles of “bollard wall” barrier.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted the president’s decision in a statement Thursday.
“Declaring a national emergency would be a lawless act, a gross abuse of the power of the presidency and a desperate attempt to distract from the fact that President Trump broke his core promise to have Mexico pay for his wall,” they wrote
“It is yet another demonstration of President Trump’s naked contempt for the rule of law. This is not an emergency, and the president’s fear-mongering doesn’t make it one. He couldn’t convince Mexico, the American people or their elected representatives to pay for his ineffective and expensive wall, so now he’s trying an end-run around Congress in a desperate attempt to put taxpayers on the hook for it. The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities.”
Even some Republicans criticized the decision and suggested it exceeded the president’s constitutional authority.
“We have a crisis at our southern border, but no crisis justifies violating the Constitution,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement Thursday.
Maine Senator Susan Collins noted in a statement that the National Emergencies Act, the 1976 law the White House is making use of, was intended for natural disasters or terror attacks.
“It is also of dubious constitutionality, and it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts,” she added.
Collins’ and Rubio’s convictions may be put to the test if Pelosi and House Democrats pass a so-called “resolution of disapproval” to terminate the emergency, which would force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a vote on the resolution.
McConnell had previously spoken out against the idea of Trump declaring a national emergency on the border, but changed his tune Thursday after the president told him that he’d be signing the appropriations bill needed to stave off another government shutdown.
While Democrats warned that Trump’s invocation of the National Emergencies Act could create a precedent for future Democratic president to follow to take action on gun control or climate change, a senior administration official said Trump’s declaration “creates zero precedent.”
“The president is not waving a magic wand,” the official said, adding that the authority to declare a national emergency has been on the books since 1976.
When asked whether the president was claiming he had authority to ignore specific prohibitions against use of appropriated funds for wall construction, the official claimed that the use of reprogrammed funds in violation of Congress’ prohibition is permissible because those prohibitions do not apply to the previously-appropriated funds the president will be reprogramming.
“This is common authority,” he said.
McConnell Says Trump to Sign Funding Bill, Declare National Emergency at Border
WASHINGTON, February 14, 2019 — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday said that President Donald Trump will sign legislation to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year, but will declare a national emergency to attempt to repurpose already-appropriated funds for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that the president will both sign legislation to fund the government and “take other executive action – including a national emergency – to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.”
“The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country,” she added.
The decision to declare a national emergency will set up a confrontation with members of Congress, some of whom are protective of the legislative branch’s power to appropriate funds.
Under the National Emergencies Act, if either the House or Senate passes a so-called resolution of disapproval, the other chamber must hold a vote on the same resolution.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she “may” challenge the president’s forthcoming declaration in court.
“I’m going to review our options” she said, calling Trump’s decision “an end-run on Congress.”
Pelosi added that the current situation at the border “is not an emergency,” and cautioned that Trump could be setting a dangerous precedent.
“The precedent that the president is setting here is something that should be greeted with great unease and dismay by the Republicans and we’ll respond accordingly,” she said.
Sanders later told reporters that the White House is “very prepared” for a legal challenge, but said there shouldn’t be any.
“The president is doing his job, Congress should do theirs, she said.”
Sanders Won’t Rule Out Another Shutdown, Leaves Open Possibility of Compromise Bill Veto
WASHINGTON, February 13, 2019 — President Donald Trump has not yet ruled out shutting down the government if he is unhappy with the compromise bill Congress plans to send him, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday.
“We want to see what the final piece of legislation looks like,” Sanders said when asked about several media reports which indicated that the president would sign the bill, which has been assembled over the past few weeks by a House-Senate conference committee.
“It’s hard to say definitively whether or not the president is going to sign it until we know everything that’s in it.”
Sanders admitted there were “some positive pieces” in the proposed appropriations bill, which provides just over a billion dollars for improvements to existing fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, but rejected the idea that funding levels in the bill are similar to the deal the president blew up in December after being criticized by right-wing talk radio hosts.
She also stressed that a shutdown is “not what [Trump] wants,” but attempted to preemptively blame Democrats for any shutdown the president might cause by refusing to sign the bipartisan legislation.
“If [a shutdown] happens again, that will be because the Democrats completely failed to do their job and work with the president to secure our border.”
A decision by the president to veto the compromise legislation could lead the Congress to attempt to override that veto.
But the president has indicated that rather than veto the funding, he may take the constitutionally-questionable route of using executive authority to “reprogram” money appropriated for other purposes to build his wall, which was a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign but is overwhelmingly opposed by a majority of Americans.
Still, Sanders dismissed the suggestion that by attempting to reprogram already-appropriated funds — a decision which would almost certainly be challenged in the courts — the president was planning to “go it alone.”
“Most people across the country know that we need border security and the biggest responsibility the president has is to protect the people of this country,” she said. “I think he’s got the support of Americans all over this country and I’d hardly say that’s going alone.”