Tonight, Trump Pretends to Be Tough

That's what the television address is about.

Odds are the president is going to appear on national television tonight, for about eight minutes or so, to announce that he’s going to agree to reopen the federal government after 17 days of closure while simultaneously invoking national emergency powers allowing him to bypass Congress to start building a wall on the border.

If this happens, and it’s still an if, you’re going to hear plenty of people react in ways that range from concern to alarm to fear to outright panic. Some will accuse Donald Trump of trying to be an American dictator. Others will argue, I think correctly, that the president is abusing the constitutional powers of his office, reinforcing the claim that he’s unfit to rule and sending him one further step toward removal.

We should remember that tonight’s address, whatever Trump says, is political theater. The president has one television audience, and it’s not you or me or anyone who cares about truth, justice and the American way. It’s supporters in the Republican Party who care about symbols and gestures, more than demonstrable action. It’s for people who care about spiking the ball in triumph more than scoring touchdowns.

Trump is in a pickle. He can’t keep the government closed without losing support among Senate Republicans already sweating. He can’t cave either. If he reopens the government without a border wall, he will confirm suspicions in the right-wing media that he’s a fraud. He said he was strong. But he’s weak. Actually being dominant is debatable in right-wing circles. Indisputable is the requisite to appear so.

Here’s where I think it’s important to bear in mind the difference between reality and perception. The reality is that Trump has been impotent for most of his tenure. But until the midterm elections, he was able to pretend, for the benefit of his following, that he’s the most alpha-male commander-in-chief there ever was.

Then came the midterms. The Democrats wounded Trump and his party. Last month, top figures in right-wing media, people like Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge, said that if Trump doesn’t get a wall in this latest round of government funding, he never will.

In not getting a wall, Trump would symbolize the GOP’s history of betraying its base of power. The president said he was strong, but he looks ready to appease “liberal fascism” just as George W. Bush did in 2007 when he dared compromise on “illegals.”

So tonight’s address is meant to shore up support among wavering Republicans, especially influential figures in right-wing media. He’s most likely—though I can’t see into the future, obviously—to announce that he’s reopening the government while avoiding the appearance of weakness by invoking emergency powers, an expression that’s entirely symbolic but completely necessary to escaping a self-made crisis.

Is there an emergency? Of course not.

NBC News reported yesterday a mere handful of would-be terrorists have been apprehended at the border. Most of the “4,000” cited by the White House have been intercepted at airports. (Airports are among the first casualties of the shutdown. The shutdown itself could create the conditions of a real national emergency.)  

Will Trump get a wall? Maybe, but I’m guessing no.

The Democrats and other political actors will file suit immediately to stop him from putting emergency powers into action. House Democrats are likely to swamp the administration in process, forcing it to prove a “national emergency,” to identify statutes being invoked, and to provide documentation for every step, thus creating numerous opportunities for the Democrats to question Trump’s decision-making.

The result will be one step forward and two steps back.

Even as the president pretends to be tough for the benefit of a shrinking number of Republicans who still support him, he will demonstrate to everyone else—i.e., the people who voted against him in the midterms—that he’s unfit. Per usual, Trump escapes crisis by creating a new crisis, thus hurling himself into another. By invoking emergency powers, he’s going to deepen what many already believe to be true about him, which is that he can’t govern or negotiate, and shouldn’t be president.

Does that mean tonight’s address will be harmless? No. Trump is weak, but he’s still the president, and as I have said before, a weak president is a dangerous president. Moreover, this gambit could pay off politically, at least in the short term.

If he can get the right-wing media to accept gestures of dominance instead of actual dominance, he will have gone a long way toward discouraging an internal challenge to his incumbency even if he never gets a border wall. His job approval rating won’t improve but it won’t crater either, and that’s probably all he wants for now.

—John Stoehr

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