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Defeating Trumpism Politically, Part 1

Trump's 'national emergency' over a border wall

I started writing my Blue Monday column a little over a year ago. I’ve been so gratified by the many regular readers the column has attracted, and the comments, and criticisms, the column has elicited.

The column began as an effort to weave together my passions for politics and music. Over time the musical dimension of the column has receded, and for a simple reason: the political situation has become more and more serious, and my interest and concern has become all-consuming. But in a broader sense, the motivating spirit of the column has remained constant, as summed up in the quote from Duke Ellington that long introduced the column: “I merely took the energy it takes the pout, and I wrote some blues.”

I’ve written a lot of “blues” over the past year, much of it collected in my recently-published book #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One. I’ve written consistently about the authoritarian danger presented by Trump and by Trumpism. I’ve also written consistently about promising modes of resistance to Trumpism, urging friends and colleagues on the broad democratic left to argue and to fight but also to have thick skins and to keep their eyes on “the prize”: the political defeat of Trumpism. For as long as Trumpism prevails, a politics of social and economic justice and democratic empowerment is impossible — except as forms of resistance to Trumpism. I have thus advocated, and will continue to advocate, a political ethic of agonistic respect on the democratic left and even more broadly.

I have covered many topics in this column, and will continue to cover many topics. But I’ve decided that the main topic in the coming weeks and months will be defeating Trump politically. And so, with this column, I am inaugurating a new series under that heading. It will be impossible to avoid commenting on and criticizing Trump and the things his government, and the Republican Party under his sway, will do. But my focus will be constructive: how to defeat him, what kinds of arguments, initiatives, coalitions, and policies can help us move forward, or not, and what ways we on the democratic left can better understand each other, learn from each other, and work together synergistically.

As I write, Trump has just announced that he will declare a “national emergency” and in effect impound $6 billion, without Congressional authorization, for the purpose of “building the wall.” This is a very ominous development. One reason is because this announcement represents a fundamental challenge to important features of the U.S. Constitution; and while the National Emergency Act of 1976 has been invoked dozens of times before, it has never been invoked in the current manner, to support a very large expropriation of funds from purposes explicitly authorized by Congress to purposes Congress has refused to authorize, and in response to a completely artificial emergency — for as Trump’s words and conduct themselves conceded, this “wall” he promises to build has no urgency at all. Trump’s action might have precedents, and might be enabled by the long-standing 1976 law. And it might not represent a suspension of the rule of law. But it is deeply troubling. And, as the Brennan Center reports, it represents the first time a National Emergency has been declared on military grounds since 9-11 — a manifestly different situation.

And this leads me to the second reason it is ominous: because the announcement represents an upping of the ante on two of the more authoritarian aspects of Trump’s presidency — the claim that “we” are under veritable attack from rapists, drug lords, human traffickers, and terrorists assaulting our Southern border; and the claim that this assault requires the mobilization of military forces, and military funds, on the border — in other words, in our domestic politics.

As Trump declared in his almost hour-long rant:

So we’re going to be signing today, and registering, national emergency and it’s a great thing to do. Because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people and it’s unacceptable . . . . And what we really want to do is simple. It’s not like it is complicated. It’s very simple. We want to stop drugs from coming into our country. We want to stop criminals and gangs from coming into our country. Nobody has done the job that we have ever done. I mean nobody has done the job that we’ve done on the border. We want to have a safe country. I ran on a very simple slogan: Make America great again. If you are going to have drugs pouring across the border, if you are going to have human traffickers pouring across the border in areas where we have no protection, in areas where we don’t have a barrier, then — very hard to make America great again. But we have done a fantastic job, but we haven’t been given the equipment. We haven’t been given the walls . . . . The probably easiest one to win is on declaring a national emergency, because we are declaring it for virtual invasion purposes — drugs, traffickers, and gangs. And one of the things, just to finish, we have removed thousands of MS-13 gang monsters, thousands. They are out of this country. We take them out by the thousands. And they are monsters. Okay. Do you have any questions?

Trump also made clear that as far as he is concerned, this expropriation of funds to build his “wall” is the only alternative to the deployment of even more troops at the border. As he stated: “One of the things we saved a tremendous, just a tremendous amount on would be sending the military. Well — we don’t need the military. ’Cause we would have a wall.” The implication was clear: one way or the other, Trump will double down on the militarization of the border, claiming that he is doing so to “protect us,” and that everyone who doubts this is in some sense an “enemy of the people.”

Trump’s “emergency” is entirely fabricated, for the purposes of pursuing some of his most xenophobic campaign promises, and of continuing his permanent campaign to demonize his opponents and mobilize his base in the hope of winning in 2020.

I thus agree with Yascha Mounk, “National Emergencies are for Autocrats”:

This is about as clear an attack on the constitutional order as political scientists could have dreamed up for some in-class exercise on the rise of dictatorship. If Republican senators like Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse are not willing to stand up to Trump’s cheap power grab now, they never will. And if the president’s many opponents cannot take to the streets to oppose his autocratic tendencies at this juncture, it is clear that they won’t do so until it’s far too late.

To be sure, none of this means that Trump is likely to follow in the footsteps of Ferdinand Marcos, or even Viktor Orbán. If there’s one thing that the past two years have demonstrated, it is that Trump lacks the vision or the discipline of most of the authoritarian populists who have successfully bent their countries’ institutions to their will. If there was a populist Olympics, Donald Trump would not make medal rank.

But Trump’s incompetence should make us all the more concerned about the long-term threat to American democracy. An evidently erratic and highly unpopular American president is about to declare a national emergency on grounds that everyone knows to be spurious. And yet, it is likely that he will experience only the mildest blowback from his political allies. What does that tell us about the damage that a shrewd and popular president with the capacity to follow the increasingly sophisticated playbook of authoritarian populism could inflict — especially if he could consolidate his powers under the cover of an actual emergency?

To identify the authoritarian danger is not to maintain that it has been, or is even likely to be, fully realized. As Mounk notes, Trump is no Orbán, who rose to power in a political system with much weaker constitutional institutions; who has held power for a long time, and has been able to re-engineer electoral rules to cement a substantial parliamentary supermajority; and who has thus been able to succeed in instituting some seriously anti-liberal measures and policies.

At the same time, there are many ways in which the Trump administration has made headway along these lines, through the use of the Justice Department to limit voting rights and civil rights enforcement; the cementing of a powerful alliance between the Trumpist regime and media institutions, from Fox News to Sinclair Broadcast Group to the radio shows of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingraham, which reach many millions of listeners each week; executive action seeking to limit public demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and to dramatically weaken federal labor law; and the encouragement of a wave of state-level Republican bills designed to limit public protesting.

In some ways Trump has succeeded. In other ways he has been constrained, by the courts, by the Justice Department, by the revelations of the independent media, by public protest, and by electoral contestation in the 2018 elections.

But the danger remains very real. And the danger extends beyond Trump himself, and his administration more generally, to the Republican Party that Trump has transformed, and to the many millions of people that Trump has mobilized. While Trump’s approval ratings seem unable to exceed 40%, and his base may be insufficient to ensure victory in 2020, this base is very substantial, and it might be more cohesive than the Democrats’ larger base. Furthermore, many things can happen between now and November 2020, things that weaken Trump, but also manufactured crises that might strengthen him. Further, assessments of strength are always relative, and a lot depends on how the Democratic primary contest unfolds, and how the opposition conducts itself.

In other words, the politics of resistance and opposition matters. And until it succeeds, “politics as usual” is impossible.

On the broad democratic left a debate has unfolded for around two years now about how seriously we ought to take Trump. Some have argued that Trumpism represents a clear and present danger to liberal democracy, an exceptional danger that in some sense exceeds conventional left/right divisions, and makes it imperative to defeat Trump. Others have argued that while Trump may well be vile, the rhetoric of “danger” has been exaggerated, because Trump represents the culmination of more “normality” than we might like to think and, because not really that exceptional, Trump is also much weaker than many liberals fear, and has actually done much less than he has promised to do.

This debate, like all such debates, might produce some sharpening of understanding. But it is also foolish and overstated. Trump is not a demiurge of evil or a form of Russian malware; he is obviously a 100% American product of a fifty-year political history of much liberal fecklessness and an increasingly resentful and powerful Republican right. Opposing him means reckoning with all of this and cannot simply be a matter of replacing him with someone else. At the same time, Trump is a particularly monstrous and lethal mutation of our politics, and through his actions, including his policies but also his rhetoric — and rhetoric is political action — he is poisoning the public culture and threatening important features of liberal democracy. The new state of emergency he declared makes this clear, whether or not he is ultimately successful in his expropriation of funds for the “wall.”

Trump is not all-powerful, and the resilience of institutions, and the resistance of citizens, has demonstrated this. But this does not mean he is not dangerous. To the contrary, it means that he must continue to be resisted and opposed and, in 2020, defeated at the ballot box, along with the party that has become his sycophantic enabler.

The fact that he is inept, or has faced obstacles, is not a reason to relax the pressure. In politics as in the grappling arts, the only time to release the pressure is when the opponent has been defeated. Trump has not been defeated.

It is thus important to remain vigilant; to support and defend independent institutions; and to do the work necessary to build an electoral coalition capable of ending Republican control of the Senate and the presidency in 2020.

In her dissent from the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which severely weakened federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously declared: “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Her comment was a brilliant critique of the idea that it was no longer important to defend voting rights. And her logic applies more generally to our current moment. Trumpism has confronted limits. But it would make no more sense to relax the resistance because it has worked, than it would to throw away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

In my new series on Defeating Trump Politically, I will focus on the importance of strengthening and expanding the umbrella, so that it can cover, and encompass, a broad and robust opposition capable of forging agreements, and sometimes strenuously disagreeing, and working together to move the country beyond Trump and beyond Trumpism.

I do not believe there is any formula for political success in this. The contestation underway within the Democratic party will be decisive for the future of liberal democracy in the U.S. This contest is an opportunity for genuine debate. It is an occasion for different contestants to flex their political muscles, claiming ground, seeking support, and defining themselves in opposition to Trump but also in opposition to each other. This is good. It is also important that this be treated as both a competition and a test of the ideas, and candidacies, that can gain support, and gain power. What hangs in the balance is surely much more than the defeat of Trump. But such defeat cannot be taken for granted. And a Trump victory in 2020 would be a disaster, for liberal democracy and for the American democratic left. And so while this defeat is not a sufficient purpose, it is a necessary one. And it will be crucial, in the weeks and months before November 2020, that our eyes remain focused on this prize.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.

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