Regardless of one’s thoughts or feelings on the subject of Donald Trump and his border wall, there is one element of the current controversy that should terrify and outrage his supporters as well as opponents. On January 4th, on the heels of a new Democratic majority taking its place in the House of Representative, Donald Trump threatened to declare a state of emergency as an end-run around rational discussion on immigration policy and border security. The idea, if we can call it that, is that by invoking these emergency measures he will be free to shift money from legitimate emergency coffers to fund his misguided monument to reactionary politics. Caught in the center of this struggle between the executive branch and half of the legislature are thousands of federal employees whose livelihoods have been sacrificed by an administration so focused upon its own obsessions that no amount of chaos or disruption is too great a cost to defend.
This would be troubling enough under most circumstances, but there is a greater concern here that seems to have been overlooked. It’s not so much the White House holding the federal workforce hostage until its absurd demands are met (there have been shutdowns before including two Trump himself has presided over since his inauguration) but rather that this instance animates a specter hitherto only associated with military juntas and dictators seeking to crush opposition and dissent . The idea that an American president would so casually suggest using these kinds of powers as a solution to what is, at the end of the day, a political impasse should infuriate every reasonable American regardless of party affiliation or position on the wall itself. Using military resources and personnel to bypass Congress and do what cannot be done through democratic processes is a classic maneuver of autocrats the world over. Proclaiming a state of emergency simply because the legislature is performing its sworn duty (i.e. acting as a check against executive power and abuse) is an unmistakable first-step towards despotism and constitutional collapse. We need only look to Egypt, Turkey and Venezuela to see what can happen when an overly ambitious or sufficiently dictatorial leader takes it upon himself to throw aside due process, press freedom and civilian rule in favor of autocratic demagoguery, martial law and rule by presidential fiat . This must be the moment our Constitution prevails and the mechanisms of democracy work to counteract this malicious attack on our nation’s institutions. Our Congress and our courts must prepare to meet this challenge and ensure that Donald Trump is not able to use his border wall as his own Reichstag fire.