A clearly incompetent and highly unpopular American president has declared 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. There’s good reason to believe that such a move is only meant to waste taxpayer money and bamboozle his followers however. The declaration will likely be tied up in court until Trump is out of office and a new president acknowledges there was never any emergency at all.
It is hard to recall a juncture in American history in which the president’s congressional supporters have been so willing to do his bidding. Mitch McConnell is an especially striking study in the dereliction of duty. Over the past weeks, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ racist uncle has made it clear that declaring a state of national emergency over the southern border would constitute an abuse of power. When, on Thursday, Trump announced his intention to declare a national emergency over…wait for it…the southern border, McConnell immediately got in line and vowed his support.
A powerful trick in the authoritarian’s toolkit is the ability to engage in “salami tactics.” When they set out to expand their power, authoritarians typically do it one small slice at a time, issuing false pretexts for executive action and fake reasons for the “reform” of independent institutions. As a result, no single action by the executive seems like an existential threat to the rule of law. Without any clear moment of juncture, the system of checks and balances slowly decays.
What is striking about Trump’s declaration of a state of emergency for such transparently fraudulent reasons is that he isn’t even bothering to engage in salami tactics. This is about as clear of an abuse of presidential power as political scientists could have dreamed up for some in-class exercise on the rise of dictatorship.
If Republican senators like Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, 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.