As the weeks-long federal government shutdown continues with no end in sight, the President Donald Trump has backed himself into a corner.
Trump insists on funding for a Mexican border wall as the necessary condition for ending the partial shutdown. On Wednesday hestormed out of a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders, reportedly telling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “we have nothing to discuss” after she refused to agree to his wall.
The problem for Trump is that it’s not obvious how he extricates himself from this self-imposed trap. Many voters blame the president for the shutdown. That’s not surprising — Trump publicly declared that he’d be proud to take responsibility for it. With Democrats now in control of the House, they have been passing legislation to re-open the government without providing funding for the wall — and even some Republican members are voting with them. In the Senate, there are also signs that some Republicans are ready to support legislation re-opening the government. Although Trump insists the party is united behind him, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) suggested that “we’re [Senate Republicans] getting pretty close to a breaking point.”
The shutdown fight isn’t really about Democrats v. Republicans; its about Trump against the reality that neither Republicansnor Democrats support his wall. There simply aren’t enough votes in Congress for Trump to secure a win. In a constitutional democracy, that would likely mean Trump is out of luck. But Trump has the instincts of an authoritarian. He does not believe ordinary rules apply to him.
So, as it has become clear that he can’t get Congress to give him what he wants on his wall, Trump says he’s thinking about taking matters into his own hands by declaring a national emergency — something Trump says he has the “absolute right to do.”
Presidents in constitutional democracy don’t have “absolute” powers: in the American system, they operate within a system of checks and balances. But some observers say it’s an exaggeration to see Trump’s threat to declare a phony national emergency as a dangerous power grab. In Politico, the headline for an opinion article written by Zachary Karabell urges people to “stop freaking out about Trump’s state of emergency threats.” Karabell acknowledges that “[d]eclaring a national emergency to solve an invented crisis might be misguided…[but] it [would not be] an existential threat.” Karabell notes that other presidents have taken broader or more dangerous actions during past emergencies — Franklin Roosevelt during World War II; Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War — and American democracy survived. On Lawfare, the headline for a piece written by Quinta Jurecic urges “everyone [to] calm down” about the prospect of Trump declaring a contrived emergency. Jurecic agrees that it “would be stupid” for Trump to do this, but asserts that “it would not, in itself, be a step toward authoritarianism.”
Karabell and Jurecic are right that, if Trump does use an invented emergency as the basis for gaining access to funds used for some construction of a wall, the United States would not immediately be plunged into dictatorship (especially if Trump claimed statutory authority, rather than inherent and unbounded constitutional authority, as a basis for action).
But that’s the wrong way to think about this. As Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt observe in How Democracies Die, the drift away from democracy can be gradual. There often isn’t a single dramatic moment when jack-booted troops march in the streets: “democracies [can] erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” Claims that Trump is another Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin are of course wild exaggerations. The danger to the U.S. is something more like Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban or Turkey under President Recep Erdogan — countries that “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” Even actions that are not illegal can undermine constitutional democracy: Levitsky and Ziblatt observe that the system depends in part on unwritten norms that set limits on power.
American democracy depends on the principle that everyone is accountable to the rule of law, that there are limits even on what a president can do. But Trump has shown he does not accept the idea of limits on power, that he favors unilateral action over the interactive give and take of a constitutional democracy. When something or someone gets in his way — whether it’s Robert Mueller, James Comey, Jeff Sessions, or Congress itself — his impulse is to bully his way through or around the obstacle. He doesn’t let unwritten rules stop him from doing what he wants — whether it’s profiting from his office, refusing to disclose his tax returns, or giving top jobs to unqualified family members.
All of these actions have chipped away at the foundations of our constitutional democracy. If Trump does declare a national emergency in order to gain access to funds used for some construction of the wall he craves, his action should be understood in this broader context. This is a president with clear authoritarian tendencies, who believes he can do as he likes. He is constantly testing the limits. Baselessly declaring a national emergency in order to get his way would be just the latest example. If Congress — which hasthe authority to stop the president if it chooses to do so — failed to act and allowed Trump to, once again, get what he wants, the message to Trump would be loud, clear, and dangerous.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His book, “ Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security ,” was published in 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.