OPINION

Trump's Oval Office Address Revealed The Nation's Real Emergency

As seen from a window outside the Oval Office, President Donald Trump gives a prime-time address about border security Tuesda
As seen from a window outside the Oval Office, President Donald Trump gives a prime-time address about border security Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Donald Trump delivered his emergency address to the nation. Turns out, there wasn’t an emergency after all. At least, not the one we feared he’d declare.

In his 9-minute rendering, some modern-day version of the Mongol horde has crashed America’s southern border and not only ripped away jobs from African-Americans and Hispanics, but left a blood-soaked trail of rape and murder stretching from sea to shining sea. He insisted that he needed a nearly $6 billion down payment on a wall to make it all go away.

This ode to American carnage is not new. It is a rehash of his campaign claim that Mexicans are “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.” And his MS-13 speech in Ohio where he regaled his followers with a tale of how gang members “slice and dice” innocent young girls. And his 2018 midterm Chicken Little impersonation about the caravan of “stone cold criminals” and terrorists. All of it is divorced from the verifiable facts of immigration and tied to the brutal reality of xenophobic fear and hatred in his base.

The real emergency is not on the southern border, but in the White House. Since Day 1, Trump has violated the basic norms of governing and key articles of the Constitution. With each test of American democracy’s tensile strength, he encountered little to no resistance from a Republican-controlled Congress and became more and more emboldened. Now that a newly sworn-in Democratic House majority is promising accountability, he senses a threat to his unchecked power and has become even more dangerous.

Now that a newly sworn-in Democratic House majority is promising accountability, Trump senses a threat to his unchecked power and has become even more dangerous.

The overwhelming fear was that in his first Oval Office speech he would, therefore, go for America’s jugular, declare a state of emergency, suspending portions of the Constitution that he found burdensome. Thankfully, he didn’t. Still, it’s not that the fear was unfounded; he just hasn’t attempted that yet. But all of the tendencies are there.

And as congressional inquiries backed by subpoena power begin in the House and as the work of the Mueller investigation continues to uncover a swamp of corruption ― including the latest disclosure that Paul Manafort allegedly gave internal campaign polling data to an associate with ties to Russian intelligence ― Trump has already dismantled or begun to corrode many of the internal barriers that might check his abuse of power.

Two stand out. The first is the weakening of senior leadership. The massive turnover in high-ranking and cabinet-level positions is unprecedented, as is Trump’s reluctance to nominate replacements to undergo Senate confirmation hearings for those positions. Instead, he is now surrounded with a slew of “acting” chiefs of and secretaries of essential government entities. Equally worryingly, Trump has made clear that he likes it that way. He told reporters that he was “in no hurry” to nominate replacements because having an administration full of high-level temps gave him “more flexibility.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Mike Pence, acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Labor Secretary
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Mike Pence, acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and other members of President Donald Trump's cabinet meet at the White House January 02, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

The second has been his willful misunderstanding of the role of the armed forces, which pledges to defend the Constitution, not the president. On Veteran’s Day, he wanted an $82 million full-scale military parade, as if he were Nikita Khrushchev watching the Red Army go by. During the midterms, in a $200 million political stunt, he ordered troops to the nation’s southern border to bolster his claim of an invasion from a group of bedraggled asylum-seekers, many of them women and children. He turned his one and only visit to troops in a war zone into a campaign rally, replete with MAGA hats and excoriations of Democrats for not funding his wall.

As John Kirby, a former Pentagon spokesman, noted, “One big danger is ...[w]hen Trump behaves this way, it conveys a message to the American people that the military is not there for them, it’s there for him.” It’s little surprise, then, that the president has also threatened, despite the full illegality of it, that he will use the military to build the wall if the Democrats won’t capitulate to his demands for funding.

There is an ongoing national emergency, but as we saw last night, the phone call is coming from inside the house.

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.

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