David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. His first book Too Dumb for Democracy? will be published in March.
The United States of America exists in a constant state of emergency. Literally.
As of 2019, there were 31 active states of emergency on the books stretching back to 1979 when Jimmy Carter invoked the National Emergencies Act against Iran. In 2018, a similar blocking order was issued by President Donald Trump, aimed at Nicaragua. Indeed, most of these emergencies are related to blocking the property or transactions of individuals or organizations who are up to no good – violating human rights, funding terrorism, participating in cyber-attacks or undermining governments and institutions at home and abroad. All but seven of them have been declared since 2001.
Mr. Trump’s latest proposal, citing an emergency to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border – a monument, it should be noted, to xenophobia, paranoia, fear, and the cult of securitization – is different. U.S. presidents have been formally invoking emergencies for a century, extending or consolidating executive authority. But as David Shribman wrote in these pages, emergency powers have never been used before to “skirt congressional spending powers,” and Mr. Trump’s flirtation with using them “would take political warfare to a new, dangerous level.” Indeed, as Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky write in How Democracies Die, democracy only works if leaders exercise restraint and respect the “soft guardrails” that protect its institutions. More specifically, they argue that politicians must embrace mutual toleration – accepting opponents as legitimate – and forbearance, or the use of institutional power carefully.
The mere threat of using the National Emergencies Act to fund and build a divisive wall is a serious violation of the forbearance rule – making Mr. Trump’s plan a very different breed of Act invocation. The move to circumvent Congress, where the Democrats control the House, also undermines norms of mutual toleration – not surprising, given the way Mr. Trump talks about his political opponents as threats to the nation. So Mr. Trump’s “wall emergency” looks a lot less like Mr. Carter’s Iran situation or Bill Clinton’s narco-trafficker problem in the 1990s or George W. Bush’s post-9/11 terror-related emergencies, and a lot more like those used by dictators and gangster regimes around the world to undermine opposition, oppress human rights, crush democracy and consolidate rule.
That may seem shocking to say about a pillar of democracy as sturdy-seeming as the United States, but it shouldn’t. For years, observers have noted that U.S. democracy was America’s most dangerous export. Critics have long wondered how a political system designed by 18th-century revolutionaries seemed to work in the self-proclaimed shining city upon a hill, but nowhere else. But a closer look at America’s history, and certainly its present, reveals that it might not work there, either – which should not just be cause for alarm, but a call to action to double down on protecting essential democratic norms. Of course, when it comes to the United States and repairing its democratic infrastructure, don’t hold your breath: American democracy has been in decline for decades, a downward slope upon which Mr. Trump entered in the first place. But since his arrival, the crumbling has only accelerated, which makes the threat of this wall “emergency” especially dangerous.
“What would you say,” political scientist Brendan Nyhan often asks when he sees a political act that undermines America’s democratic norms, “if you saw it in another country?” What if we apply that question to Mr. Trump and his wall? Emergency powers should be inherently subject to scrutiny and suspicion in the hands of any leader, but when held by Mr. Trump, they simply should not be trusted at all. The President doesn’t have a good reputation for respecting democratic norms or institutions – or, at times, the rule of law. So the extraordinary use of an extraordinary power – even the threat of its use – is cause for extraordinary alarm.
A political system works, right up until it doesn’t. History is littered with the bones of empires, city-states, countries, and other polities that lasted for a time and then collapsed. Perhaps those who lived in and those who ran these places thought they’d be around for good. Maybe they even believed that they had reached the end of history – that theirs was the best system, the alpha and omega. But no arrangement can be taken for granted. Abuses of power, even in the name of security and preservation – but especially in the hands of a leader with difficult temperament and an untrustworthy record – will only hasten a state’s demise.
U.S. hegemony has long made many Americans believe that their democracy is indestructible. But self-government is fragile; citizens and politicians must recommit to its principles and norms and institutions anew each generation. The threat, and certainly the act, of invoking emergency powers to build a boondoggle of a wall is yet another reminder of democracy’s fragility – and of the potential collapse of America’s version.