The Emergency Order, Bad Arguments, and Logical Fallacies

Now that President Trump has issued the emergency declaration on the wall, I thought I would reiterate something I said multiple times during the Obama administration: there is no “The President thinks something is really really important but Congress won’t act so the President just gets to do whatever he wants” clause in the constitution. The Veruca Salt standard simply doesn’t exist. While I think the Democrat opposition to the wall is overwrought (and indeed now some have even indicated they want to remove the border barriers that doers exit), President Trump has had ample time to secure additional border wall funding. A changeover in Congressional leadership doesn’t constitute a national emergency.

I wanted to take the bulk of this post to address some of the responses I’ve seen, both in opposition and in defense of this action.

I’ll start with one argument made by opponents of the move that I deem to be overstated. They argue that this will set a precedent for future Democratic presidents to declare national emergencies over, say, climate change and healthcare*. There is a little bit of truth to this – as I said on twitter, each new precedent has a bit of snowball effect. But when looking at the cast of characters which constitutes the current Democratic presidential field, who doesn’t think that one of them will do this anyway? President Obama’s DACA order was arguably even less meritorious than President Trump’s actions here (where exactly was the crisis in not providing legal status to the children of illegal immigrants?), and it was President Obama who uttered his petulant “I’ve got a pen and a phone” threat when he grew frustrated with the constitution’s pesky limitations. If anything, Democrats have grown even more radical, and I don’t think President Trump increases the likelihood of future despotic actions.

* I’ve seen more than a few tweets in recent days about 28 million uninsured Americans being a graver national emergency. But I’m confused: wasn’t Obamacare supposed to solve this problem? I thought Obamacare was a “big fucking deal.” Well if there are still 28 million uninsured, maybe it was really nothing more than a “little useless clusterfuck.”

The flipside of the above is the argument from defenders of the administration is that we already have precedent, so Donald Trump’s actions are not unprecedented. Again, there’s an element of truth here, but that doesn’t make right-wing defenders of the president any less hypocritical. If you were (rightly) crying bloody murder every time President Obama used his pen and picked up his phone, you cannot now defend President Trump doing the same. If the “but daddy I want it” justification for emergency declarations is pathetic, even worse is the “but mommy he did it first” defense of the declaration. Speaking of setting precedents, you now have sent a clear message that the right-side of the political spectrum is cool with unilateral, unconstitutional, and unlawful presidential declarations so long as the end-result is fine by you. That seemingly less than about ten percent of the American public consistently even cares about constitutional law is indeed depressing.

As for the unlawful part of this, defenders say that “hey, Congress set us on this path, and the president is just doing what’s in his legal authority.” I’m not one to shy away from blasting Congress for cowering in fear to assert its rights as the superior  branch of the federal government, but I am not persuaded that the president is acting within the very generous parameters laid out by Congress. As David French explains in National Review, this is an abuse of the statutory authority given away by Congress.

Look at the list carefully. He’s listing criminal challenges. He’s listing humanitarian challenges. He’s listing the problems on the border that have existed for decades and that Congress has enacted comprehensive statutory schemes (including funding civilian wall construction and civilianimmigration authorities) to combat. Gang activity and drug-smuggling are grave problems, but they are crimes, not acts of war. The declaration doesn’t even try to argue that there is a precise, unique challenge that only the military can counter — such as a national disaster that would require the use of the military’s unrivaled heavy-lift capabilities or its immediate access to manpower.

Instead, the declaration cites the wasteful 2018 border deployment, but that is only evidence that the military has been used, not that it must be used. If the mere fact of a deployment were proof of the necessity of military intervention, then there would be no limiting principle on a president’s action. The message is clear — the military is “required” simply because he says it is required.

I was called a “neocon” on Twitter for having the temerity to argue that the president has no constitutional or statutory authority to justify issuing this emergency declaration. It is a sign of the lack of intellectual heft of much of the populist right that they believe defending constitutional norms is a sign of “new” conservative thinking.

I guess I could just sit back and laugh when President Harris issues a presidential emergency declaration shutting down the health insurance industry and forcing all Americans onto Medicare. It could be humorous to see the contortions of the overwhelming majority of Americans suddenly switching their opinions on such declarations. Instead I’ll just weep as our constitution becomes all but a dead letter.

Populism and Conspiracy Thinking

Last week Tucker Carlson blew up the right side of the internet when he delivered this 15 minute monologue on his nightly show. It was ostensibly a response to Senator Mitt Romney’s op-ed in the Washington Post, blasting President Trump for his rhetoric and character. But in reality it was so much more, and represents a sharp divide between “populist” and traditional conservative/libertarian economic thought. It has spurred a number of critical responses as well as defenses. David French had one here, and Ben Shapiro has now written a pair of pieces as well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, I find this debate a refreshing change of pace because the focus is on fundamental principles. Most of Carlson’s critics concede the truth of much of what he says, though they are critical both of his solutions (or lack thereof) and the level of blame he places on elites.

There is a lot here to discuss, and indeed it touches on some of the topics I had been hoping to cover. Here I am just going to focus on one very narrow issue, and it’s one David French touched upon. Listening to – or reading – Carlson’s talk, I heard a lot of familiar notes. Whenever I read through populist screeds in various social media settings, a common refrain is that some external force is the reason for all that ails either the individual or society as a whole. By external force I mean some force outside the person himself. Some kind of nefarious group – politicians, Democrats, Republicans, masons, etc. – is pulling the strings and are the cause of our woes.

Carlson’s monologue was full of these indictments. Here’s French quoting Carlson:

And he talks about wealthier Americans as if they’re indifferent to the plight of their fellow Americans. Here’s Carlson: “Those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.”

As French notes, this just isn’t true.

In 2017, Americans gave more than $410 billion in charity, and the idea that this charity flows principally overseas is ludicrous. Gifts to international charities represented only 6 percent of total giving, and foreign aid represents roughly 1.2 percent of the federal budget, an inconsequential sum compared with the immense sums we spend in the United States on economic development and social welfare. America is consistently one of the most charitable countries in the world, whether measured by volunteerism or money.

The more subjective aspect of this claim is that the rich just don’t care about the plight of poor people or the folks in Appalachia. While it’s easy to pin bad policy choices on a lack of concern, this is not necessarily accurate. Or as French puts it, it’s less about rich Americans not caring as them just making poor policy decisions.

What struck me about all this is that there’s a common subtext with conspiracy thinking. For conspiracy theorists, there’s always some cabal working behind the scenes to destroy everything. The World Trade Center didn’t get taken out by a pair of planes flown by Islamic terrorists – oh no, it was Bush and Cheney and a neocon plot to eventually invade the Middle East and take all their oil. No, those kids in Connecticut weren’t gun down by a madmen, it was a plot by the US government to force gun control upon us.

The thing about conspiracy theorizing is that in some ways it serves as a comfort to those who espouse these ideas. Here’s why. It is unfathomable to think that terrible events could be random. Or, better yet, it’s difficult to accept that these truly events could have happened in the United States without some sort of sign off by the deep state. Because if some random mad man can just shoot up a school, or if 19 well-funded terrorists could take out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and kill thousands, the world becomes a much less ordered place. I mean just look at the paranoid discussion centering around the new world order – and I don’t mean that one, brother. The key word there is “order.” Because if the world isn’t being run by such cabals, then there’s decidedly less order in the world.

In many ways I think this is what motivates populist thinking. If there is an opioid crisis in Appalachia, then the remote cause can’t be the choices those individual living there made. The crisis must have been precipitated by men of evil intent. Because the flip side of conspiracy and populist thinking is that if we get rid of the bad men and replace them with well-intentioned people, then there is a solution to the world’s ills.

The chaos and tragedy of the world is not just that – it’s not the natural state of a fallen world, but a predetermined outcome. It’s unthinkable that bad things could just happen in the United States or the citizens of the country. Ultimately, if we just adjust the gears, then things will be okay.

I recognize that this this is not an entirely fair comparison, and there’s a little bit more complexity to Carlson’s and others thinking. Yet I can’t help but see this underlying connection. It’s an outlook that is both fatalistic and yet naively optimistic, because the subtext is that a fix is just a flick of the light-switch away. It is a shared worldview that is uncomfortable with disorder. Ultimately both modes of thinking are dangerous in their own ways, but more on that to follow.

Understanding Differences in Never Trumpism

A common lament in leftist (and some right-wing) circles is that #NeverTrump conservatives mouth criticisms of Trump, but by their actions demonstrate they are no better than Trumpists. For instance, Senator Ben Sasse, a very vocal critic of Trump since day one, still votes “with” Trump over 90 percent of the time, thus showing himself to be a hypocrite.

The nub of the argument seems to be that conservatives ought to vote against their ideological interests to demonstrate their solidarity with the anti-Trump cause, otherwise they will be lumped in as enemies to the people. This attitude reflects a deep misunderstanding of Trump critics and the distinctions of flavors among his detractors on the right.

To understand better, we need to step back to the primaries. This piece does a pretty good job in explaining where Trump’s support came from. It also helps explain where it did not come from. The most consistent and vociferous opposition to Trump within the Republican party came from those who labelled themselves “strongly conservative.” These were principally Cruz voters, though some preferred Rubio and some of the other candidates. In exit polls, particularly in the early stages of the primary, they were the category showing the weakest support for Trump. Support for Trump increased through each step away from strong conservatives, to mild conservatives, to moderates, and then even Democrats. As the article shows, moderate is perhaps not the best descriptor of a typical Trump supporter, though these individuals were definitely not traditional conservatives – being far less concerned with issues related to government spending, economic freedom, or opposition to abortion.

For those who opposed Trump, opposition can be labeled in one of two categories: ideology and personality. Ideological opponents of Trump deemed him to be a RINO in the truest sense of the term. He was literally a Democrat who called himself a Republican, but who still clung to many of his “big government” principles. He may have mouthed certain conservative pieties, but in his heart he remained something of an authoritarian. Conservative opposition to Trump was built largely, though not solely, on these grounds.

More moderate voters also had some ideological grounds for disagreement, but their concerns were centered more around personality: Trump was an uncouth, half-witted blabbermouth who catered to the worst instincts of his supporters. To be sure most conservative critics of Trump also felt the same way, but the points of emphasis were different. These types of voters tended to cluster around Kasich and Rubio. They are also why some of us never referred to ourselves as NeverTrumpers, because those who were most fervent in that designation were #AndNotCruzEither.

If you understand this gap in reasoning, you can understand why certain parts of the right have been more comfortable in praising and supporting Trump on policy, or have become outright supporters. The more one’s suspicion of Trump was based on ideology, the easier it is to support him to one degree or another. I am not going to get into an in-depth analysis of whether or not Trump’s presidency is truly conservative, or whether he has delivered as many conservative policy victories as his supporters claim. But he has certainly not governed against conservative principles as much as his detractors feared. (Trump’s tariff policies have been the one area where has most governed against conservative ideology, but the results of those actions have not been as severe as feared, even if not as successful as pretended they are).

Conservatives who put a good deal of emphasis on the personality side (raises hand) are not as positive about Trump as those who don’t care as much about those concerns. But they are much more sanguine about him than those whose primary concerns were attitudinal. Not only has Trump affirmed their worst fears, he has governed relatively conservatively. Because here’s the rub: while moderate Republicans distrusted Trump due to personal considerations, the most hostile of this group have moved away for more ideological reasons. Maybe it’s better put this way: moderate NeverTrumpers were barely tethered to the Republican party to begin with. Trump has pushed them over the edge because now they feel completely alienated.

I’m going to use the most recent defection as an example. Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, and a very vocal critic of both Trump and the populist base of support (Nichols makes me look like a rabid man of the people democrat in comparison), announced he is finally leaving the Republican party. Frankly I didn’t know he was in it. Let’s go over some of the reasons he provides:

Small things sometimes matter, and Collins is among the smallest of things in the political world. And yet, she helped me finally to accept what I had been denying. Her speech on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh convinced me that the Republican Party now exists for one reason, and one reason only: for the exercise of raw political power, and not even for ends I would otherwise applaud or even support.

I have written on social media and elsewhere how I feel about Kavanaugh’s nomination. I initially viewed his nomination positively, as a standard GOP judicial appointment; then grew concerned about whether he should continue on as a nominee with the accusations against him; and finally, was appalled by his behavior in front of the Senate.

It was Collins, however, who made me realize that there would be no moderates to lead conservatives out of the rubble of the Trump era. Senator Jeff Flake is retiring and took a pass, and with all due respect to Senator Lisa Murkowski—who at least admitted that her “no” vote on cloture meant “no” rather than drag out the drama—she will not be the focus of a rejuvenated party.

When Collins spoke, she took the floor of the Senate to calm an anxious and divided nation by giving us all an extended soliloquy on… the severability of a clause.

The severability of a clause? Seriously?

It took almost half an hour before Collins got to the accusations against Kavanaugh, but the rest of what she said was irrelevant. She had clearly made up her mind weeks earlier, and she completely ignored Kavanaugh’s volcanic and bizarre performance in front of the Senate.

Nichols claims Susan Collins’s speech was the final straw for him. Let’s do to Nichols what is unable to do for Collins: take him at face value. He thinks he has been abandoned because one of the last true moderates has shown she is a true Trumpian, interested in only raw political power. Her speech, he says, was a sham because she had already made her mind up and was now just making an excuse to justify her vote.

I’ve discussed Collins’s speech, and had a much different takeaway. I can understand Nichols’s cynicism, but I don’t think he has made a convincing case in his favor. Nichols argues that Collins was biased in favor of Kavanaugh, but here he glosses over his own bias. Nichols had already expressed his opposition to Kavanaugh, and thus he dismisses Collins through his own biased prism. Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate was “volcanic and bizarre” only if you were already predisposed towards opposing him. For those unconvinced that Dr. Ford had adequately proven her allegations, and who thought the other allegations against him were outrageous fabrications, Kavanaugh’s performance was completely understandable. It’s okay to come to a different conclusion, but Nichols seems incapable of contemplating that Collins – and most other Kavanaugh defenders – are acting in good faith.

Nichols then says he cannot join the Democrats because of their execrable behavior, but says the Republicans were worse.

The Republicans, however, have now eclipsed the Democrats as a threat to the rule of law and to the constitutional norms of American society. They have become all about winning. Winning means not losing, and so instead of acting like a co-equal branch of government responsible for advice and consent, congressional Republicans now act like a parliamentary party facing the constant threat of a vote of no-confidence.

He’s not entirely wrong about the shift in Republican attitudes, but it is strange to make this argument in light of the Kavanaugh proceedings. The Democrats were the ones who threw every manner of hyperbolic, unreasonable argument against Kavanaugh, and that was before the Ford allegation. The Democrats never gave him a fair shot, and tried every maneuver to win by smearing him at every turn. Moreover, it’s difficult to claim Republicans were acting like authoritarians (as Nichols believes the GOP has become) when they were not the ones who seemed to abandon the concept of innocent until proven guilty during this process.

Nichols further claims Republicans have abandoned principle in pursuit of pure power politics.

Politics is about the exercise of power. But the new Trumpist GOP is not exercising power in the pursuit of anything resembling principle, and certainly not for conservative or Republican principles.

Free trade? Republicans are suddenly in love with tariffs, and now sound like bad imitations of early 1980s protectionist Democrats. A robust foreign policy? Not only have Republicans abandoned their claim to being the national-security party, they have managed to convince the party faithful that Russia—an avowed enemy that directly attacked our political institutions—is less of a threat than their neighbors who might be voting for Democrats. Respect for law enforcement? The GOP is backing Trump in attacks on the FBI and the entire intelligence community as Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the web of lies, financial arrangements, and Russian entanglements known collectively as the Trump campaign.

Again, he’s not totally wrong, but he’s also not completely right. I’ve already mentioned tariffs, where Nichols has a much stronger argument. But how much has the GOP gone wobbly on national security? I, too, weep when some Trumpists shrug their shoulders at Putin’s malevolence, and Trump’s verbal sucking up to dictators is sickening. But has this actually impacted policy? When it comes to real world actions, Trump has not been a shrinking violet with regards to Russia. As for the Mueller investigation – I’ll just say it’s not as simplistic as Nichols is making it out to be.

He continues:

And most important, on the rule of law, congressional Republicans have utterly collapsed. They have sold their souls, purely at Trump’s behest, living in fear of the dreaded primary challenges that would take them away from the Forbidden City and send them back home to the provinces. Yes, an anti-constitutional senator like Hirono is unnerving, but she’s a piker next to her Republican colleagues, who have completely reversed themselves on everything from the limits of executive power to the independence of the judiciary, all to serve their leader in a way that would make the most devoted cult follower of Kim Jong Un blush.

Have they? This is a nice rant, but is it actually true? Again, presumption of innocence is an aspect of demonstrating respect for the rule of law, and I think the Democrats have been woefully worse. Nichols may be right about individual Republican Congressmen being afraid to take on Trump, but where has it manifested in disrespect for the rule of law? I’m less than convinced by this particular argument.

Nichols says its other conservatives who have abandoned their principles, not he.

Maybe it’s me. I’m not a Republican anymore, but am I still a conservative? Limited government: check. Strong national defense: check. Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change: check. Belief that people spend their money more wisely than government? That America is an exceptional nation with a global mission? That we are, in fact, a shining city on a hill and an example to others? Check, check, check.

This will hopefully be the subject of future posts, but “limited government” is a meaningless bit of shorthand offered by people trying to prove their conservative bona fides, but which proves nothing. “Respect for tradition and deep distrust of sudden, dramatic change” is the only point of substance, and it is a very good one.

So Nichols is bit more credible as a somewhat conservative Trump critic than others who have publicly said they were leaving the Republican party. But then he continues:

But I can’t deny that I’ve strayed from the party. I believe abortion should remain legal. I am against the death penalty in all its forms outside of killing in war. I don’t think what’s good for massive corporations is always good for America. In foreign affairs, I am an institutionalist, a supporter of working through international bodies and agreements. I think our defense budget is too big, too centered on expensive toys, and that we are still too entranced by nuclear weapons.

 

Not every Republican who has left the party in the age of Trump is pro abortion (I left and am most definitely not pro abortion), but it does seem like every public figure who has made a public break is. Can someone who believes abortion should remain legal really call themselves a traditional conservative? Again, this could be the subject of an entirely different post or twenty, so I don’t want to dive too deeply on this. But no. The answer is no.

As for the rest of this, I actually am on the same page with Nichols with the possible exception of being an institutionalist, but I don’t think many conservatives would have a problem with any of these points, at least in the abstract. But how does one concretely reflect these principles in the real world? Aye, there’s the rub, and I suspect Nichols might be underplaying his differences.

I’ve run longer than I intended, and perhaps more dismissive of Nichols than I meant to be. As a registered Independent I am in no position to critique someone who no longer feels they can remain in the current GOP. But I do think Nichols is indicative of a larger break within right-wing circles. One begins to wonder if Trump is the real reason for moderates to leave the Republican party, or is he simply the excuse?