by Sarah Roark
In Part 1 of this series, we did some initial exploring of the dangerously deluded “Trump’s losing/Democrats are winning” narrative via an article titled “Stop Freaking Out About Trump’s State Of Emergency Threats” by Zachary Karabell, claiming to make that case. We took apart some of the unjustified assumptions hidden within the first section, and also looked at how one of its key paragraphs mimics the sequence of a logical argument without actually delivering the content of one. So in other words, we’ve determined that there is definitely some shaky thinking operating here. Now, with that understanding in place, let’s look at what Karabell goes on to say:
“The usual panoply of Hitler analogies has been trotted out, with particular reference to the way the Nazi Party used the Reichstag fire of 1933 to seize sweeping powers. A widely read article in the Atlantic by a noted legal scholar charts the extensive range of emergency powers a president can use, and which Trump could therefore abuse. “The moment the president declares a ‘national emergency’ a decision that is entirely within his discretion—he is able to set aside many of the legal limits on his authority,” the author wrote. For those concerned, and with good reason, about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, the specter of a president conjuring a crisis and then using that to expand executive authority is the shoe that has been waiting to drop.”
Again, as in Part 1, Karabell is ostensibly acknowledging the merits of the opposing argument. And again, this is standard procedure in making a logical argument. There’s nothing wrong with proactively mentioning the counterpoints you already know you’re going to get, so as to signal that you’re taking them into account. In fact, it’s usually a good thing.
What you’re supposed to do after that is marshal the evidence of why those counterarguments shouldn’t decide things in your opposition’s favor. You can do this by showing that the facts given in the counterargument aren’t true, or are only partly true in some way that materially changes the question. You can do it by showing new, so far unmentioned facts that have a bearing on the question. And you can do it by showing a flaw or fallacy in the opponent’s logical process – some quicksand pit of non sequitur somewhere between facts, premise, and conclusion.
In other words, up to here we’re doing okay: he’s referencing a source we can look up (this article from the Atlantic), and isn’t questioning the facts it gave. So he’s explained his basis, and even seemingly conceded that we have reason to worry about Trump’s “authoritarian tendencies.” But now let’s see about the other part – how he does following the logical chain forward.
“Except it really isn’t. Stealing a candy bar and invading a house are both crimes of theft; they are not, however, equivalent. The declaration of national emergency in order to attempt to use funds otherwise allocated in order to build 100-plus miles of fencing along the Mexico-U.S. border is of a different order than other uses of executive authority in ways that would manifestly infringe on the rights and liberties of American citizens.”
Well. I’d personally question analogizing what Trump’s doing to “stealing a candy bar.” But let’s leave aside word choice for now and look at the substance. I see three unjustified assumptions here that he’s not explaining. They are:
- Bad assumption #1: If Trump makes an emergency declaration to build some fencing, the only thing he’ll use the money for is to build some fencing. There’s no reason to suspect even accidental mission creep – forget outright deliberately pushing the order beyond its stated purpose.
If Trump were a man who’s shown honesty or good faith on pretty much anything in his entire life, you might have a valid assumption here. But we’re talking Trump. If you need his current lie count, feel free to visit the Toronto Star’s Trump lie tracker. I’ll keep the kettle on.
- Bad assumption #2: A fence doesn’t hurt anybody, it just stands there, being a fence.
This is true if you’re speaking very narrowly and literally – but false in many other senses, especially in this wall’s case.
Firstly, people already die by the thousands in the desert each year while trying to seek asylum in the US. Part of why they have to do that is because we’ve thrown so many clearly effective obstacles in their way already. (If they weren’t effective, people would probably choose a route that didn’t carry a significant risk of broiling to death?) That fact alone should make us question the humanity of even more obstacles.
Secondly, fences don’t conjure out of thin air. They have to be bought (using money that could be spent on other things like healthcare or humanitarian aid); constructed (on land that will in part be seized from its private owners via eminent domain); and then – if they’re a border fence – maintained, monitored and guarded. So. What kind of guards? With what kind of privileges and restraints, and what kind of accountability imposed on them? What kind of monitoring? Will it open the door to additional surveillance, which could accidentally or purposely be misused? How much does it all cost? Where else could that money have gone?
Finally, and this point may be a bit more abstruse, but I believe it still very much matters: you don’t build a wall specifically for “security purposes,” unless you perceive a danger worth building that wall for. The Trumpists point to MS-13 and other drug cartels, to so-far fictional terrorists, when they’re using their reasonable indoor voices – but what have they actually been railing about anytime they’re not being interviewed on CNN? What’s the drum they’re constantly beating, the word they’re trying to teach us to panic at the mere mention of?
“THE CARAVANS.” (AND AS WE SPEAK, ANOTHER CARAVAN IS COMING! RED ALERT!)
The caravans of who?
Impoverished, desperate refugee families, mostly. Again, Trumpists will deny this when you point it out, because of course they do. If you insist on pressing them (as our media fails to do so sadly often), they’re eventually reduced to patent absurdities like ‘a 4-year-old can be a terrorist in the making’ or ‘ISIS is joining the caravans to infiltrate the US through Mexico.’ Because naturally any sensible terrorist would sneak in through the most stiffly-guarded land border, disguised as a member of the most scrutinized, criminalized and subject-to-detention group of entrants? I guess?
But for the sake of argument, let’s say somehow we had caught some prehomicidal preschoolers or suicide bombers at the southern border. If that truly were the real concern, then the words repeatedly coming out of Trumpists’ mouths would still be “terrorists” or “cartels,” not “caravans.” Wouldn’t they?
We all accept a certain level of inspection at security checks, because none of us wants to wander around, say, a theme park or a concert hall bristling with guns. But we would distrust a security force that was theoretically there to catch bad elements but kept ranting darkly on about “caravans of tourists” or “hordes of ticketholders.” Wouldn’t we?
Because let’s try to remember, despite the floods of propaganda: people coming to the border are the very clientele that border security is supposed to be serving. Regardless of whether they’re visitors or refugees or (gasp) migrants. Officers are there to let people in as much as to keep people out. It’s their job to do humane intake on asylum claims (which are legal even outside a port of entry). It’s their job to admit work visa holders. It’s their job to appropriately serve whoever comes to the border, be they coming in or going home. And surely that’s what you yourself would expect from both US and Mexican border authorities, if you went on a vacation from San Diego to Monterey and back? To be treated as a valid ‘customer,’ until and if you gave them some reason to suspect otherwise? Even if you were one of a really big crowd that day? Sorry, I mean a “caravan”?
Long story short – when a leader calls out the freaking army to deal with a non-existent threat from incredibly vulnerable people…and when that leader, if questioned, tries to terrify you with pictures of tired families trudging down a road…it’s time to consider that, again, you are dealing with a bad-faith argument. And if you’re dealing with bad faith, then you need to ask yourself what the real agenda is, and who those weapons are going to be used on. Because whatever it is, it’s being done in your name.
- Bad assumption #3: It would be different if we were doing all this to citizens.
Non-citizens may not have exactly the same rights and liberties under US law that citizens do, but they do still have rights and liberties, period. Under both US and international law. (Which we’re presently breaking, in more than one way). And under a thing called “common decency.”
Again, when we come to the borders of another nation, even if we’re not citizens of that nation, we expect to be treated as guests, not intruders. We expect a certain baseline of human dignity to be respected. So the question here is, is this wall going to meet that standard? Well, again, that depends. It depends on what else is involved beyond whatever obstacles the physical wall itself imposes. It depends on how the wall, and the border, and the people who come to it are handled. Is Karabell’s mental picture of what all that entails the same as mine? I have no idea. And I’m not sure how I’m supposed to intelligently agree or disagree without one. And just in general – if I don’t have enough information to know what you’re making a distinction for, why are you making it in the first place?
I’m not going to assume it’s because the author thinks people who aren’t US citizens belong in some lower category of humanity that we can be much more careless of. But I would like to know just what he is thinking there. And until I do know, that possibility sadly has to stay on the table.
Okay, moving on!
“It’s not as if American history is a panoply of virtue on this score, and Trump’s possible misuse of his national emergency authority would not rank high in the history of presidential overreaches. Think of Franklin Roosevelt’s use of emergency powers to authorize the internment of 125,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Harry Truman’s unsuccessful invocation of emergency authority to break the strike of steelworkers in Youngstown in 1952, during the Korean War. Those examples have, of course, been circulating for some time, and the internment in particular was invoked as a troubling precedent during the debates over the travel ban. Note, however, that both of those actions were taken in times of war, and Truman’s claim was deemed an overreach by the Supreme Court. FDR’s internment decision is one of the black marks on American democracy, but it’s striking that we still do not view that as a constitutional crisis or fundamental crack, perhaps because it occurred during the war and perhaps because we have an easier time reconciling our contradictions and manifest failings in retrospect than we do in the present.”
Erm, if your point of comparison is sending Japanese-American babies and children to sicken and die in concentration camps, we’re already in murky territory, don’t you think?
I mean, is that really where your line is? Anything less is okay? Or if that’s not where your line is, then where should we draw it?
Also, we do in fact have children in concentration camps right now. And if I recall correctly, that wasn’t done because we passed a “Let’s Throw Kids in Cages Act of 2017,” so it seems even more apropos to ask.
That was the easiest flaw to interrogate. Let’s dive in further:
“Note, however, that both of those actions were taken in times of war, and Truman’s claim was deemed an overreach by the Supreme Court.”
- Bad assumption #1: It’s different if it’s in wartime.
I’m not saying I would never, ever accept that argument, but? You’re going to have to make it, and you’re going to have to make it good.
Because it’s the 21st century and for some decades now, the President has been able to start a war close to any time he wants, whether it’s for a good reason or not. And that’s been with non-fascist presidents who had some respect for rule of law, at least in theory.
This is – as previously noted – Trump.
If your leader can make war at the drop of a hat, then saying “it’s different in wartime” becomes a content-free assertion, because you are always potentially in wartime.
It’s called the “permanent emergency,” and it’s a known tactic that nobody who wants to lecture on who is or isn’t a dictator has any business being ignorant of. The Nazi legalist Carl Schmitt advocated it specifically as a means of assuming absolute power. Here’s a quote from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny about it:
“The most intelligent of the Nazis, the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, explained in clear language the essence of fascist governance. The way to destroy all rules, he explained, was to focus on the idea of the exception. A Nazi leader outmaneuvers his opponents by manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.”
Thank goodness we’re only on an “echo of a path to tyranny,” otherwise it’d be chilling to read that, no?
Make no mistake, this is a latitude other presidents could have and sometimes did abuse, so we know it can be done and gotten away with. The question I have for Karabell is what on earth makes him think Trump wouldn’t take it even further.
For God’s sake, even when FDR was sending babies to prison camps, he thought he was doing it for a good cause.And Trump is not FDR. He’s not even Nixon.So why would he hesitate to do as much or more, if it suited his needs? He already knows he can get away with shattering even decades-old taboos. (“It’s a norm, not a law!”) And we know – because he’s repeatedly proved it – that he will break rules as he likes, until and if someone stops him. If I thought we were seriously getting ready to stop him, through the nonviolent mass direct action that I consider the only remotely realistic strategy at this point, I might share some of the author’s confidence.
But until we reach the willingness to do that, it will not be done. Reality is a bitch that way.
Meanwhile, here is the concept neatly summarized by Schmitt himself:
“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”
Remember those words.
- Bad assumption #2: We can rely on the Supreme Court to sort it out if it turns out to actually bad.
Well. Perhaps you can when the Supreme Court has its compass pointed in anything like the right direction. Is that the current Supreme Court?
I’d also point out that while we’re bringing up precedents, there is a precedent for a President blithely and successfully ignoring the SCOTUS. The US had signed a treaty with the Cherokee Nation; settlers were itching to break it because, well, now they actually wanted Cherokee land; the case went to SCOTUS; and Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that yes, sorry, when the US signs a valid treaty it must honor it, because…it’s a treaty…and the treaty with the Cherokees was valid.
President Jackson, whom Trump and many other Trumpists greatly admire by the way, famously responded: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
What happened next has been preserved in our history books as The Trail of Tears.
The Cherokees did have their white defenders…but they didn’t have enough of them, and they weren’t numerous and armed enough to fight the troops back on their own. So when it came down to it, the federal government was not held to account by the bodies that actually had the power to do so – the Congress, and more importantly the American people, especially those with voting rights.
The simple American truth that the Cherokees, and the Japanese-Americans, and the people in the hieleras, and so many other fellow human beings have lived out is: it doesn’t matter what rights you have in theory or in a court of law, if not enough people are willing to go to the mat to defend them against violators. Jackson knew this. Trump certainly does as well. Indeed, if there is a meaning to his life so far, that’s the meaning.
That only changes when enough of us decide it does. Absent that, it’s the height of folly to assume that what happened to the Cherokee Nation could never happen to the refugees at our borders…or to us…simply because a court might say it can’t.
Again, I know I’m doing a pretty unsparing dissection here (and I’m not even done yet). But please understand, this is not about Zachary Karabell as an individual. He’s not even close to the only one spouting these lazy absurdities. There are many other targets, and much more deserving targets. I choose this article only because it packs so many of the going absurdities into a single space.
And because this kind of analysis is, to my mind, just so important right now. After all, Smart-Sounding Bullshit™ wouldn’t work if it didn’t sound so darn Smart. People on the left do tend to consider themselves champions of rationality, which – I might be biased – is one the things I really like about us.
But unfortunately there really isn’t much difference, in terms of results, between being persuaded to let fascism consolidate by faux-logical reassurances from respectable commentators, and being persuaded to do it by emotional sorcery from demagogues. The fascists will happily take the win either way. Rash though they be, in some matters, they’re supremely practical.
We’ll continue stripping off the veneer of the “nothing to see here” argument in Part 3. In the meantime, you can step over to sign the Refuse Fascism pledge, to educate yourself on the Trump/Pence regime’s atrocities, to support RF activists who’ve put their own freedom on the line for those suffering the worst of it…and above all, to let yourself be counted as one of those who will not be sung to sleep or diverted into irrelevancy – who will stand in solidarity with all other people of goodwill until this new American fascism is put down forever, as it deserves to be.
Sarah Roark is a contributing editor to RefuseFascism.org