President Trump appears to be moving closer to declaring a national emergency to build the wall he craves on the southern border. Whether or not he does this, the idea that we face such an emergency is his central public case for the wall, and so his commitment to this notion is a key reason we’re embroiled in a government shutdown, with all the damage it is doing.

But if you read between the lines of all the coverage, it is overwhelmingly clear that the real national emergency that Trump and his allies have discerned is an emergency that threatens him.

The content of this emergency is obvious, and the wall is central to it, but not in the way Trump claims. Trump’s wall is his most important unfulfilled campaign promise, but it’s also a talisman for everything that Trumpism embodies and a chief source of his bond with his base, which he will need as his legal and political travails mount.

But Trump’s public case for the wall has collapsed entirely, and much of the rest of the political system has rejected it, boxing him into a political corner with no escape. That’s the emergency. The formal declaration of a national emergency, allowing him a shot at building it unilaterally, might end up being the only way of bailing out the wall — and with it, bailing out himself.

We know all of this to be the case, because the basic facts are all out there confirming it, but it’s all so saturated in madness and bad faith that we grope for ways to convey it faithfully. The big story, which is everywhere for all to see, is that Trump and his advisers cannot justify the wall as Trump envisions it in any remotely credible way; that this is becoming harder to mask with lies; and that for Trump Nation, this really is an emergency.

Are there any internal studies justifying the wall?

On Jan, 25, 2017, Trump signed an executive order about immigration and the border that directed the Department of Homeland Security to “produce a comprehensive study of the security of the southern border, to be completed within 180 days.” This study must explain how to “achieve complete operational control over the border.”

Where is this study? Does it justify the wall? Does it assess how effective a wall might be to achieve that aim? Does it explain where precisely it must be built, and how, in order to do so?

I asked a DHS official about the whereabouts and content of this study. The official told me that the study has been completed, but that it hasn’t been publicly released because it’s “law enforcement sensitive.”

If this is so, then this should give us another good way to assess the administration’s case for the wall. House Democrats can use their oversight authority to review this study, and while they may be constrained from revealing its precise details, they can characterize whether it comes anywhere near making a credible case for the wall. If not, that will make the shutdown look even more like a figment of Trump’s political imperatives and megalomania than it already does.

The White House’s latest spending request demands something very precise: 234 miles of wall. Does any internal administration study make a credible case for 234 miles of wall? Democrats have requested documentation justifying the wall, so they will eventually be able to speak to this point as well.

The flimsy case for the wall

The backdrop for all this is the sheer flimsiness of the administration’s public arguments:

  • NBC’s Julia Ainsley just reported that administration data shows that authorities only encountered six people on a government terrorist watch list at ports of entry in the first half of fiscal year 2018, seemingly contradicting the White House’s recent claim that this numbers in the thousands.
  • Ainsley’s report also notes that DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claims the exact number of those suspect border-crossers is classified, but that she hopes to make it public. Thus, the administration is making claims while secure in the knowledge that classification provides an excuse not to back up those claims with real data. The same is likely true of the “law enforcement sensitive” report noted above. 
  • Underscoring that point, a former senior counterterrorism official writes on the Just Security website that if the administration had internal info portraying a terrorism crisis at the border, it would very likely have declassified some of it already. This hasn’t happened.
  • The White House recently released the briefing on the border that officials gave to Congress. It was full of falsehoods and absurdities, such as the claims that the wall is needed to stop drug smuggling (which misdiagnoses the problem) and that 17,000 people with criminal records have been arrested at the border (a dramatically mangled and misleading figure).
  • A recent Post report included this: “White House aides acknowledge privately that a wall will not adequately address the record surge of immigrant families at the border — most of whom surrender to authorities in hopes of winning asylum protections.” Trump has lied and lied about asylum seekers to justify the wall, but it won’t address that crisis, which is a humanitarian one.
  • Incredibly, The Post reports that according to officials, Trump may declare a national emergency to build the wall in part because of “the wall’s symbolic power for his core voters.” 

Trump’s national emergency and the ‘Calamity Thesis’

The wall’s “symbolic power” to Trump’s “core voters” is key to why Trump keeps insisting on it. But the corollary to this is that the collapsing case for it — and the possibility that it might not get built — is itself an emergency of sorts. You can’t watch Fox News without grasping the force of this looming threat:

In this sense, you can draw a direct line from a popular explanation for Trump’s victory — the “Calamity Thesis” — right through to the present moment. The “Calamity Thesis,” as Adam Serwer describes it, is the idea that Trump’s election was produced by “some great, unacknowledged social catastrophe” inflicted on working-class whites that has been “ignored by cloistered elites in their coastal bubbles,” be it demographic, cultural or economic. Only he could fix it.

Whether this is why Trump won is beside the point. Trump did campaign endlessly on the invocation of existential threats of all kinds. For untold numbers in Trump’s base, particularly white evangelical Christians, the need for a wall has become a symbol of a kind of rolling cultural and demographic extinction event and of Trump’s ability to defend them from it. However many people do or do not believe this, Trump plainly thinks there are a lot of them out there.

If Trump declares a national emergency to build the wall, it might or might not work. But the key point here is that, because there isn’t any real national security emergency at the border and the rest of the political system won’t play along, Trump must invent one, because both the existence of such a crisis and Trump’s ability to “solve” it (which he may be able to act out only through executive overreach) are foundational to Trumpism. The collapse of these foundational myths is the real looming emergency.

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