Sarah Kendzior is the author of The View From Flyover Country and the co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation.
On December 22, 2018, the second-longest shutdown of the federal government in United States history began. On December 23, the body of Jakelin Caal Maquin was returned to Guatemala; she was a seven-year-old who died in a Texas border camp. On December 24, another child from Guatemala, eight-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, died after seven days in U.S. border patrol custody. That day, the President tweeted, “I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to make a deal on desperately needed border security. At some point the Democrats not wanting to make a deal will cost our Country more money than the Border Wall we are all talking about. Crazy!”
Poor me, he says, as the deaths mount and the country collapses. Poor me, Mr. Trump similarly implored in his address to the nation Tuesday night: it was an eight-minute teleprompter speech filled with lies about the danger of Central American migrants and threats to let a national security crisis he created continue unless Democrats bow to his ever-changing will.
The speech was akin to a hostage video, and American viewers were his captive audience. We watched because the stakes felt too high to turn away. We watched because Mr. Trump has taunted us with talk of declaring a “national emergency” – an act which gives him the power to do things like kill the internet, freeze bank accounts, and turn military troops into a domestic police force. We watched because Mr. Trump has long applauded death through his praise of dictators and criminals. We watched because the path to American autocracy was laid out upon his election, and we wanted to know which victims were next.
That is the sick and slick vendetta of America’s reality-TV President.
We are two years into the presidency of a man who launched his campaign by smearing Mexicans as rapists and murderers and then proclaimed he would make Mexico pay for a wall to keep the alleged perpetrators out. But Mr. Trump’s obsession with the wall had as little to do with ensuring public safety as his prior obsession with President Obama’s birth certificate had to do with legislative legitimacy. Both were rhetorical moves designed to shift the parameters of debate into rancid, racist territory.
In reshaping discourse, Mr. Trump proved his power. Americans discussed “birtherism” and “the wall” not because they were actual emergencies, but because the public was ceaselessly goaded by both Mr. Trump and American media to inhabit this noxious fantasy world. Whether or not we were repulsed by his words – and many of us were – he still dominated by defining the terms of the debate.
Back then, we could choose to deny him attention; now it’s different. We have no choice but to listen: he is the President, and his words have life-altering consequences. Since the shutdown began, workers have gone without pay, citizens have gone without adequate federal security, and national parks have been damaged because of Mr. Trump’s insistence that Congress acquiesce to his ever-changing demands. These demands have have switched from “Mexico will build the wall” to “U.S. taxpayers will fund nebulous and expensive border security”. The unsaid words of every Donald Trump demand are the most important, for they never change: “Or else.”
His address to the nation was an attempt to pad a power-grab as a policy proposal by inserting misleading statistics, grisly depictions of violence, and most grotesquely, a fatuous humanitarian framework into the narrative. He radically overstated the threat of Central American migrants, noting the death of an American citizen at one migrant’s hands while ignoring the multiple migrant deaths and family separations carried out by his administration – one of the cruelest legacies of his rule.
There is no life more valuable than another, no victim unworthy of grief – but Mr. Trump’s zero-sum, xenophobic rhetoric tries to convince you there is. This calculated cruelty is also used as a rhetorical bludgeon against his actual enemy, the Democrats, whose attempts at accountability impede Mr. Trump’s apparent attempts at autocratic consolidation.
Their dispute is not about national security: the only security Mr. Trump is concerned with is his own. With the government shut down, he can capitalize on chaos and operate with greater impunity. His speech was not a public address: it was a shakedown proclamation built on venom and vengeance. It will not be his last.