The US pres­i­dent has al­most sin­gle­hand­edly man­aged to turn good news into bad, se­cu­rity into dan­ger

New Straits Times - - OPINION - Com­[email protected]­reedza­

WATCH­ING the strug­gle over fund­ing for a bor­der wall, I am struck by the way in which, in one sense, Don­ald Trump has al­ready achieved suc­cess. He has been able to con­jure up a cri­sis out of thin air, el­e­vate this man­u­fac­tured emer­gency to na­tional at­ten­tion, paral­yse the gov­ern­ment and per­haps even in­voke war-like au­thor­ity and by­pass Con­gress. He may still fail, but it should worry us that a pres­i­dent — any pres­i­dent — can do what Trump has done.

Let’s be clear: there is no cri­sis. The num­ber of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants in the United States has been de­clin­ing for a decade. The num­ber of peo­ple caught try­ing to sneak across the south­ern bor­der has been on a down­ward trend for al­most 20 years and is lower than it was in 1973.

As has of­ten been pointed out, far more peo­ple are com­ing to the United States le­gally and then over­stay­ing their visas than are cross­ing the south­ern bor­der il­le­gally. But it’s im­por­tant to put these num­bers in con­text.

Over 52 mil­lion for­eign­ers en­tered the US le­gally in 2017. Of this co­hort, 98.7 per cent left on time and in ac­cor­dance with their visas. A large por­tion of those re­main­ing left after a brief over­stay, and the best gov­ern­ment es­ti­mate is that maybe 0.8 per cent of those who en­tered the coun­try in 2017 had stayed on by mid-2018.

As for ter­ror­ism, the Cato In­sti­tute has found that, from 1975 to 2017, “there has been zero peo­ple mur­dered or in­jured in ter­ror at­tacks com­mit­ted by il­le­gal bor­der crossers on US soil”.

As for drugs, the great­est dan­ger comes from fen­tanyl and fen­tanyl-like sub­stances, which are at the heart of the opi­oid cri­sis. Most of this comes from China, ei­ther di­rectly shipped to the US or smug­gled through Canada or Mex­ico. Trump has ad­dressed the root of this prob­lem by press­ing the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment to crack down on fen­tanyl ex­ports, a far more ef­fec­tive strat­egy than build­ing a phys­i­cal bar­rier along the Mex­i­can bor­der.

Even the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­knowl­edged in a re­port last year that while the south­ern bor­der is the con­duit for most of the heroin en­ter­ing the US, the drug typ­i­cally comes through le­gal points of en­try, hid­den in cars or mixed in with other goods in trac­tor-trail­ers. In other words, a wall would do lit­tle to stanch the flow.

And yet, the power of the pres­i­dency is such that Trump has been able to place this is­sue cen­tre-stage, shut down the gov­ern­ment, force tele­vi­sion net­works to run an er­ror-rid­den, scare­mon­ger­ing Oval Of­fice ad­dress, and now per­haps in­voke emer­gency pow­ers.

When the US gov­ern­ment has cre­ated this sense of emer­gency and cri­sis in the past, it has al­most al­ways been to frighten peo­ple, ex­pand pres­i­den­tial pow­ers, and muz­zle op­po­si­tion.

From the Alien and Sedi­tion Acts to the Red Scare to warn­ings about Sad­dam Hus­sein’s arse­nal, Amer­ica has ex­pe­ri­enced pe­ri­ods of para­noia and fool­ish­ness. We look back on them and recog­nise that the prob­lems were not nearly as grave, the en­emy was not nearly as strong and the US was ac­tu­ally far more se­cure.

The ac­tions taken — sus­pend­ing civil rights, in­tern­ing Ja­pa­nese-Amer­i­cans, tak­ing the na­tion to war — were al­most al­ways ter­ri­ble mis­takes, of­ten with dis­as­trous long-term con­se­quences.

And yet, pres­i­den­tial pow­ers have kept ex­pand­ing. Mod­ern me­dia cul­ture has made it eas­ier for pres­i­dents to set the agenda, since the White House is a cen­tral and per­pet­ual point of fo­cus and now re­ceives far more at­ten­tion than it ever did. Trump has man­aged to use this re­al­ity and turn good news into bad, se­cu­rity into dan­ger and al­most sin­gle-hand­edly fab­ri­cate a na­tional cri­sis where there is none.

This whole episode high­lights a prob­lem that has be­come ap­par­ent in these last two years. The Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has too many pow­ers, for­mal and in­for­mal. This was not in­tended by the founders, who made Con­gress the dom­i­nant branch of gov­ern­ment, and it is not how the coun­try has been gov­erned for much of its his­tory. But over the last nine decades, the pres­i­dency has grown in for­mal and in­for­mal au­thor­ity.

I have been an ad­vo­cate of a strong ex­ec­u­tive for most of my life. I don’t much like how Con­gress op­er­ates. I now re­alise that my views were premised on the as­sump­tion that the pres­i­dent would op­er­ate within the bounds of laws, norms and ethics. I now be­lieve that an ur­gent task for the next few years is for Con­gress to write laws that ex­plic­itly limit and check the pow­ers of the pres­i­dent. I would take po­lar­i­sa­tion over Pu­tin­ism any day.

The writer is an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and au­thor. He is the host of CNN's ‘Fa­reed Zakaria GPS’ and writes a weekly col­umn for ‘The Wash­ing­ton Post’

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