The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The real national emergency is the triviality of our politics

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks outside the White House on Jan. 9.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks outside the White House on Jan. 9. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) learned that President Trump would declare a national emergency to shift around money to finance his border wall, her denunciation was predictable. But her way of expressing outrage was not. The issue she used to make her point was important on many levels.

Observing the “unease,” even among many Republicans, over Trump’s abuse of his power, she noted that “if the president can declare an emergency on something that he has created as an emergency — an illusion that he wants to convey — just think of what a president with different values can present to the American people.”

And then she recalled the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, when 14 students and three staff members were gunned down. “You want to talk about a national emergency?” Pelosi asked. “Let’s talk about today, the one-year anniversary of another manifestation of the epidemic of gun violence in America. That’s a national emergency. Why don’t you declare that emergency, Mr. President? I wish you would.”

President Trump declared a national emergency to build a border wall on Feb. 15. Here's what you missed. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

Our nation’s deadly permissiveness toward firearms was very much on Pelosi’s mind — even before Friday’s shooting at an Aurora, Ill., warehouse that killed five people — because on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee had voted 21 to 14 to send a bill requiring background checks for all gun sales to the House floor.

It was the first serious vote on a gun-reform measure since 2013, when the Senate fell six votes short of the 60 needed to advance a background-checks bill proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.). It was also the most significant gun-sanity measure to move through the House Judiciary Committee since 1993.

Follow E.J. Dionne Jr.'s opinionsFollow

Yet, as important as this step was, it received scant media notice. The drowning out of news that mattered tells us a great deal about our political moment. It also underscores the challenge confronting those speaking for the vast majority of Americans who want action in the face of what Pelosi was right to call a national emergency on gun violence.

The House Judiciary Committee passed gun control legislation on Feb. 13, on the eve of the anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. (Video: Reuters)

In counting the many costs of the Trump era, we focus too rarely on the president’s success in pushing divisive trivialities and self-interested contrivances to the center of national concern. He manufactures crises and then uses his manufactured crises to create new ones.

There is no crisis at our nation’s border. To the extent that there are border problems, his wall would do little or nothing to set things right. And Congress’s decision not to finance Trump’s monstrous waste of money in no way justifies his seizing of national emergency powers. His vast overreach really does create a crisis, which dominates the news and shoves aside all other concerns. But it is all part of the Triviality Feedback Loop that is the Trump presidency.

In the meantime, problems that should engage our energy are forced to the back of the queue of public attention. The normal constitutional approaches to governing — bills passed through committees, compromises reached in conferences involving both parties and both houses of Congress — are no longer respected.

And no matter how much journalists investigate and expose Trump’s misconduct (we should be grateful for this), his I’m-The-Only-One-Who-Matters approach to politics fits well with the needs of modern media, both social and traditional. Clicks, page views and ratings encourage everyone to dwell on individuals more than issues.

This aggravates a profound preexisting cynicism about the possibilities of political action. And defeatism is especially damaging when it comes to guns.

For decades, as one massacre cascaded into another, the gun lobby beat back even the most modest efforts to control access to firearms. The sense of doom about any progress is so deep that it obscures overwhelming evidence that the politics of guns have changed. Even the most moderate Democrats made opposition to the gun lobby a key component of their campaigns in 2018 — and in district after district, they prevailed.

These victories led directly to last week’s Judiciary Committee vote. Organizing worked. Elections mattered. Public sentiment prevailed. Democracy made a difference.

This is why what happened in the House last week on guns deserved far more coverage than it got, and why Pelosi was right to use Trump’s phony emergency to highlight a real one. The only cure for political cynicism is to show that the steady and painstaking work of grass-roots action can bear fruit. And the only alternative to a politics of spectacle is for elected officials and the media to lift up problems that actually need solving.

Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Fox News is finally getting its national emergency

Jennifer Rubin: There’s an emergency — and it’s Trump’s power grab

E.J. Dionne: Trump’s fixation on a wall looks juvenile. Democrats should learn from his mistakes.

Max Boot: Trump’s ‘emergency’ is his latest assault on the norms of American democracy

Greg Sargent: Trump just plunged the country into dangerous new territory. Here’s what’s really at stake.