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“National Security Crisis” or “Power Grab”?

On February 14, 2019, Congress allotted Donald Trump some 1.4 billion dollars for 55 miles of wall between Mexico and the United States. Trump was flabbergasted—a poor Valentine’s gift indeed!—as he had demanded 5.7 billion dollars for the wall. Consequently, Trump, on the next day, declared a state of national emergency in order to access money, earmarked for defense spending, toward his wall. Trump said defiantly and with rodomontade: “We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border and we’re going to do it one way or the other. It’s an invasion. We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country.” Trump’s declaration, signed later that day, will enable him to use 3.6 billion additional dollars, earmarked for military projects, for his beloved wall, so long as there are no impediments. He has plans to allocate 2.5 additional billion dollars for the wall, for a total of some 7.5 billion dollars.

Why such precipitancy? What is the national crisis?

An emergency is defined as an unexpected and urgent state of affairs that requires immediate action—here, a crisis of national significance. The invasion of drugs and criminals of which Trump spoke, it seems, had taken on the status of an immediate threat to national security. Yet Trump added in his Rose Garden speech: “I didn’t need to do this, but I’d rather do it faster. I want to get it done faster, that’s all.” Those words undermined the notion that his actions were precipitated by a national emergency. They were not. The border problem has been longstanding. There was, however, a large and looming crisis: Trump did not get what he wanted.

As anticipated, Democrats, headed by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, argued that Trump’s maneuver was not on account of a national emergency. “This is plainly a power grab by a disappointed president, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process.” They vowed to do what they could, with the help of sympathetic Republicans, to block the power-hungry president.

The prickly issue is one of Congressional authority, and thus, the constitutionality of Trump's gambit. Congress failed to allot Trump the money he wanted, so he decided to ignore Congress and to do whatever he could to get the needed money for his wall. Yet the problem is this: Does the president have the constitutional authority to sidestep Congress? If there is a real state of emergency, then the answer is yes, but as we have seen, the real crisis is that a man who is used to getting his way, usually through bullying, did not get his way. It is a matter of presidential pouting, and that is a dangerous precedent.

Still one could argue that the border wall was a campaign pledge of Trump and he has steadfastly stuck to keeping that promise, and that seems laudable, does it not? Promises ought not to be lightly made and once made, they ought to be kept. 

Yet there is a larger, more fundamental nodus. According to a Gallup poll, conducted in January, 2019, and polling randomly 1,022 American adults all over the United States (95% confidence range and +/- .03 margin of error), 60 percent of American oppose construction of the wall (39 percent, strongly opposing), while 40 percent favor construction of the wall (26 percent, strongly in favor). With the margin of error, there is no question that the majority of Americans disfavor the wall. The question redounds: Ought Trump to build a wall if the American citizenry does not want a wall?

After the Revolutionary War, American politicians and visionaries, in keeping with Jefferson’s sentiments in his Declaration of Independence, sought to do politically something that had never been done before: build a nation beholden to the will of the majority of the people over, paceAthens, a large expanse of land. For Jefferson, vox populi (the voice of the people) was the axial principle of a representative democracy, and he was fond of using the metaphor of machine to describe governmental efficiency in keeping with vox populi in two distinct senses.

A fine illustration of the first occurs in a letter to Comte de Tracy (I26 Jan. 1811), in which Jefferson writes fondly of Washington’s cabinet. “Had that cabinet been a directory, like positive and negative quantities in algebra, the opposing wills would have balanced each other and produced a state of absolute inaction. But the President heard with calmness the opinions and reasons of each, decided the course to be pursued, and kept the government steadily in it, unaffected by the agitation. The public knew well the dissensions of the cabinet, but never had an uneasy thought on their account, because they knew also they had provided a regulating power which would keep the machine in steady movement” (see also, TJ to Joel Barlow, 11 Apr. 1811, and TJ to Jedediah Morse, 6 Mar. 1822). Machine-like efficiency meant, thus, that the various, often disparate, parts of government would strive to work together with a common aim. That common aim was to give expression politically to vox populi, which Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, called a “sacred principle”—“The will of the majority is in all cases to prevail,” though he added that that will “to be rightful must be reasonable.”

Given government united by the aim of actualizing vox populi, Jefferson was also fond of describing the function of an elected official to be, in some sense, machine-like—as it were, perfunctory. In Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Jefferson enjoined King George III: “This his Majesty will think we have reason to expect when he reflects that he is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendance.” The sentiment is that a governor is a superintendent of the great machine of government—a steward, not a lord. To Benjamin Rush (13 June 1805), Jefferson said, “I am but a machine erected by the constitution for the performance of certain acts according to laws of action laid down for me.” The notion here is that, once elected, a president’s will is no longer his own, but that of the people.

With today’s amaranthine political bickering, the metaphor of government as a machine, whose parts work toward the efficient functionality of the machine, is laughable. What is more ludicrous is the notion of elected representatives functioning as machines in working for the will of their constituency, and the president being beholden to the will of the general American citizenry. The aim of the Revolutionary War, if we follow Jefferson in his Summary View and Declaration, was resistance to tyranny. He was adamant in his Declaration that no revolution ought to be begun for “light & transient causes,” but only on account of “a long train of abuses & usurpations pursuing invariably the same object.”The greatest tyranny is government indifferent to the will of the people.

That is where we are with Trump’s wall and the national security crisis, birthed by Congress’ failure to acquiesce to the will of The One. We are in a state of national emergency because of presidential pouting. In all of the partisan bickering, vox populi is too infrequently mentioned. 

Jefferson also wrote in his Declaration that “mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” We are today flooded with governmental evils, and we suffer them, not because they are sufferable, but because we have become apathetic to injustice and the ideals for which our forebears fought. As Jefferson prophesied in Query VII of his Notes on the State of Virginia, when the Revolutionary War is long forgotten and Americans fix themselves on “the sole faculty of making money,” they will become mindless of their rights. Our shackles “will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.” If we follow the general trend of indifference, expiration of rights through convulsion, if it has not already occurred, seems the most likely path.