Democracy doesn’t die in darkness; it dies in the bright sunshine of congressional complicity.
There is no better example of this phenomenon, which has played out to varying degrees throughout two years of President Trump’s disreputable presidency, than the congressional Republican mealy-mouthed response to his announcement of a national emergency to build a wall on America’s southern border.
According to Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders, the president’s unprecedented action is intended to “ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.”
There is no crisis at the southern border.
Illegal border crossings have been dropping for close to two decades and, in fact, 2017 saw the lowest number of arrests at the border in nearly 40 years.
The president likes to fear-monger about undocumented immigrants coming into America to commit crime or aid the flow of illegal drugs into America. In reality, immigrants tend to commit crime at a lower rate than native-born Americans, and most drugs coming into the United States do so at legal points of entry.
The real reason for Trump’s power grab is narrower: He wants to fulfill his campaign pledge to build the wall.
After failing to convince Mexico to pay for it (as he promised they would during the 2016 campaign), and after being unable to bend congressional Democrats to his will, he is instead going around them. Make no mistake: This an unprecedented power grab by the president on an issue that couldn’t be further from an emergency.
We know by now that Trump doesn’t care about the democratic norms he is trampling upon or dangerous precedents he is setting. Neither, it seems, do congressional Republicans.
Indeed, it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who made the announcement that Trump would use emergency powers to build the wall. McConnell took this step in order to ensure that Trump would sign a spending bill that would keep the government open and prevent another shutdown. But that step forward comes at an exceptionally high cost.
McConnell has ironically long portrayed himself as a defender of the Senate’s institutional prerogatives. Yet, on Thursday afternoon, he actively aided and abetted the president’s efforts to usurp Congress’s constitutionally mandated authority to control the federal government’s purse strings. Republican complicity in Trump’s anti-democratic actions is old hat by now. Been there, done that. But collaborating with the president as he literally takes power away from them is even for them a new low.
While a handful of Republicans have been critical of the president’s move, most are adopting the same approach they’ve used in the two years since Trump’s presidency began: Go along to get along.
A few, such as Rep. Mark Meadows (R-SC), the head of the GOP’s so-called Freedom Caucus, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, have offered unqualified support for Trump’s actions, but most Republicans are doing the usual, “tsk, tsk” and “furrowed brow” at the president’s action for fear of upsetting the his most committed supporters. It’s the congressional Republican equivalent of the meaningless “thoughts and prayers” that are offered after yet another mass shooting.
For some Republicans, the Trump’s move raises the fear that Democrats will use the precedent established by Trump and run with it, potentially declaring national emergencies on everything from guns to climate change if they take back the White House.
The far bigger — and small “d” democratic reason — to be afraid is that if Trump’s actions are upheld by the courts, future presidents, as well as the current one, could declare emergencies that violate civil liberties, utilize the military for domestic purposes, or abuse presidential power in ways we haven’t yet imagined. It was only a few years ago that Republicans were regularly apoplectic at President Obama’s alleged misuse of executive authority. Now they are helping Trump do even worse things than they warned about then.
Empowering the executive branch with seemingly limitless powers is bad enough; doing it for a president who neither understands nor appreciates the limits of the executive branch’s authority is a disaster.
American democracy finds itself today in truly uncharted territories. It’s not simply because we have an authoritarian-minded president who is deeply contemptuous of our Constitution and basic democratic norms, but rather we have an entire political party that doesn’t care.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.