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Opinion Donald Trump’s ego wills a crisis into reality – and a potential shutdown victory

A construction crew works as new sections of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier are installed on Jan. 11, 2019 as seen from Tijuana, Mexico.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s border-crisis address to the nation – which contained no news – Senator Kamala Harris made an appearance at George Washington University. The Democratic primaries don’t begin for a year, but 1,500 filled the amphitheatre all the same.

The moment presented a splendid opportunity for the California senator, seen as a contender for the party crown, to score points against the President. Her party leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi certainly hadn’t; their responses following his squinty-eyed television address drew ridicule, looking as they did like they had been wheeled in from the nearby wax museum.

But Ms. Harris, the former California Attorney-General, wasn’t much better. She has a reputation for being tough and prosecutorial. Her voice has lacerating power. But weirdly, she told the students she now wanted to be a “joyful warrior.” And she turned the night, a promotional effort for her book, The Truths We Hold, into a lighthearted giggle fest.

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One good shot she landed was in likening Mr. Trump’s ruling temperament to that of her godson with his toy train set. A fine analogy it was, and it drew much laughter. But on the border crisis, the man-child running his trains via his tantrums is the one having more fun.

Mr. Trump appears to have found a way of dealing with the issue that could end the government-shutdown showdown in his favour. If a deal cannot be worked out with the Democrats, he is preparing to do an end-run around Congress. He’ll declare a national emergency and divert unused money intended for natural disaster relief to build the wall. That would likely allow government employees to go back to work, and allow Mr. Trump – or so he feels – to portray himself as having faced down his opponents. A man in command.

Such a move will set off a hailstorm of protests from Congress and the courts and the news media. But, reasons the White House: so what? So what if the move defies Constitutional norms? So what if Congress, not the executive branch, is supposed to decide how money is spent? So what if opponents in the caboose rant and rave and pull their hair out? So what if the courts eventually disallow it? What’s the big deal?

Just another week. Just another train wreck. Just more draining of U.S. democracy in the name of draining the swamp.

All that is worth it, though: Mr. Trump will be able to say he followed through on his wall promise. There’s not much choice here. He’s doubled down on the wall so much that he’s sounding like the first president Bush, who infamously declared: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” If Mr. Trump breaks such a cardinal vow, it would be electorally crippling.

Polls show a public quite evenly split on the need for a border wall. While the situation is serious at the border, it by no means constitutes a national emergency. It’s hardly, to use a Canadian example, the October Crisis of 1970, wherein Pierre Trudeau responded to kidnappings by Quebec separatists by invoking the War Measures Act to overwhelming public support.

This crisis is largely one of Mr. Trump’s own making. It is tailored by and for him. He is fuelled by crises like a vampire feeds off blood; without them, he doesn’t lead the news every day, which he must – or he isn’t Donald Trump. Psychologists have even debated whether he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.

Whatever the affliction is, Democrats and the media don’t really know how to deal with it. With his shock-around-the-clock governance, he sucks up all the oxygen, overwhelming his opponents with sheer overexposure.

That used to be considered a dangerous thing for leaders. For most, the goal is controversy avoidance. But in a social-media era where everyone has a voice, a leader’s can get lost in the tumult if he or she isn’t out there all the time. It’s one thing Mr. Trump – who survived a 1990s bankruptcy crisis because his brand was so strong that banks decided they had to keep him afloat – understands in his bones.

By dint of repetition, he’s turned a faux border crisis into a real one. Now he’s set to declare it’s not only a crisis, but a national emergency requiring diversion of natural disaster funds.

Anything that will allow him, the real natural disaster, to get his way.

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