First things, there are situations that do rise to the level of a national emergency. Usually, they involve an act of war or a major natural disaster. Pearl Harbor, 9–11, and even the current freeze in the center of the country qualify as one. People are dying from the cold, in particular, the poor and the homeless who are not able to remain warm. This is the kind of situation that could use federal intervention. In fact, it could use an emergency declaration, and the mobilization of both state (they are happening) and federal assets.
Katrina, and the response to it, quickly became an international emergency involving members of multiple militaries, ranging from the United States, Belgium, and Mexico, among others. Life was at risk and while belatedly, President George W Bush accepted that help. However, what President Donald Trump wants to do at the border is not an emergency, it is a political act.
How can we tell? If this were a true national emergency, why keep dangling that he wants to do it and not act? Actual emergencies require you to move and do it fast. For example, Katrina needed swift mobilization at all levels of government. After 911 we saw the organization of swift emergency response as fast as it could muster. Some of those assets came from Canada and Mexico as well. And we also saw the declaration of NATO’s article five, with German planes coming to the United States to support security operations. This is the only time Article Five has ever been invoked.
This, on the other hand, is the slowest moving emergency ever. This has been slow-walked for two long years. The Republicans held all branches of government, yet, they refused to fund this wall. If the emergency was so dire, why did they refuse? Blaming a weak, supine, speaker of the House for not securing the funds is a feeble excuse. Paul Ryan may have been the worst Speaker of all time Yet, he did ask how high to jump when told to pass the legislation the president wanted.
Trump promised that the wall would be built and Mexico would pay for it. We all knew that Mexico was not going to pay for any wall, even a toy one. Ok, maybe some LEGO blocks would have been sent as a joke. But I digress.
The president made a political promise during his campaign and is discovering that at times promises will not happen. So he has decided to do exactly what a dictator or a king would do. He will go around the legislative body that will not obey him. I suspect that if the House was still controlled by Republicans, with let’s say, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, we would not see this urgency.
So what is going on? Partly it is a promise that the president made, and his worry that his hardcore base will abandon him if he does not build the wall. And from evidence from the base, he may have some reason to worry. Some of his hardcore base, with a media platform, are revolting now that he may not be able to fulfill that wall. Among them are Anne Coulter, who is starting to realize Trump conned her. What took her so long is a good question. The other is Rush Limbaugh, who has used his radio show to push for the wall. In effect, his base is the far right, that has elements of white supremacy. It was a promise to them, and one way to start the ethnic cleansing of the country. For many of them, Trump represents the last chance to prevent the browning of the country.
Trump has not expanded that base. If anything, arguably he has diminished it. This wall is a way for him to shore this base. However, it is also a direct attack on the enumerated rights of Congress, with the lower chamber currently controlled by Democrats. He needs this fight, he wants this fight. And he is attacking this institution because under regular order the House will never appropriate the funds. Never mind that he did not get it from the Republican House either.
This is also the action of a dictator and Trump has tendencies. If we did not have the institutional brakes, I suspect he would have dissolved Congress already, and declared himself president for life. We are facing a slow-moving Reichstag Fire, and we must be cognizant of this.
A declaration of a national emergency, to satisfy his base, will deepen the constitutional crisis we are already living through. Trump will do what he wants to do, and it will fall on the courts to stop him. However, that will also give him an out with his base. He will be able to say to them that he tried but those liberal judges stopped him once again.
It could also be a far more dangerous moment since the President is impulsive and does not understand… or accept the limits to presidential power. Nor does he accept that an old powerful woman can say no to him. The role of women is not in power, but far from it. We know this from his comments, that is not just insulting, but a misogynist.
The president is a right-wing populist, that in the best of days has fascist tendencies. In the worst of days, he is one. He has also strongly signaled that he intends to do this around the State of the Union address, perhaps during it.