From the moment he announced his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump has provoked concerns of an authoritarian turn in American politics. His declaration Friday of a national emergency so he can order construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would seem to confirm the suspicions of his most ardent critics that President Trump’s uniquely authoritarian brand of politics threatens the very fabric of constitutional governance.
Even as presidential power has grown exponentially in recent decades, the power of the purse has remained firmly in Congress’s hands. So if Trump can simply invent an “emergency” and thereby spend money unauthorized by Congress — indeed, spend money in the teeth of repeated congressional refusals to authorize funds for the precise thing Trump is declaring the emergency to accomplish — then we must be witnessing the death knell of American checks and balances, right?
Not quite. Trump’s unilateral gambit is more a sign of his political weakness than strength. To see why that is, we need to distinguish between Trump’s motivating impulses — which do seem authoritarian — and the actual effects of his behavior.
Trump does seem to wish he could govern as an authoritarian, and the emergency declaration is just the latest example of this inclination. From his boast upon accepting the nomination that “I alone can fix” the American political system, to his disdain for many of the norms that have long characterized U.S. politics, to his avowed admiration for autocrats the world over, he has never had much use for mechanisms of democratic governance that would prevent the immediate fulfillment of his desires.
While Trump has enjoyed some limited successes when acting unilaterally, on balance those mechanisms have clearly had the upper hand in this struggle. The emergency declaration illustrates his authoritarian instincts, but it also illustrates the ways in which those instincts are continually being thwarted.
For one thing, Trump is losing the war for the hearts and minds of the American public. His approval rating is low and has been underwater since the second week of his presidency. (Of the post-World War II presidents, only Ronald Reagan had a lower net approval rating at this point of his first term.) The border wall has long been unpopular, and declaring an emergency to build it without congressional approval is even less popular, with only about a third of Americans in favor. Trump’s position seems designed to ensure that his most die-hard supporters don’t desert him — a rear-guard action better calculated to stave off impeachment than to build the sort of coalition necessary for reelection.
Trump also faces considerable opposition in Congress from his party. Many Republican lawmakers, especially in the Senate, don’t have the luxury of signing on to policies embraced only by the most zealous partisans, at least not if they want to be reelected. This perhaps explains why, even though Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, they never made a serious attempt to fulfill Trump’s principal campaign pledge. The government shutdown over the wall began in December, when both houses were still under Republican control and yet were unwilling to appropriate funds for the project.
A number of Republicans have come out against the emergency declaration, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Marco Rubio (Fla.), John Cornyn (Tex.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.). The emergency declaration is subject to a resolution of disapproval that, by statute, must be brought to the floor in both chambers relatively quickly and cannot be filibustered in the Senate. This means Democrats can force Republicans in both chambers to take a vote on Trump’s highly unpopular emergency declaration. Republican senators with tough 2020 election battles — such as Collins, Cory Gardner (Colo.), Martha McSally (Ariz.), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — will not be happy about having to take this vote, no matter which way they decide to go.
The disapproval resolution will almost certainly pass the Democratic-controlled House. If four or more Senate Republicans join with the chamber’s Democrats on it, they can force a presidential veto. The resolution almost certainly won’t undo Trump’s emergency declaration. It seems unlikely that it would attract the necessary two-thirds support in each chamber to override a veto. But it would nonetheless constitute a stinging and public rebuke to the president. Some Republicans who vote against the resolution will be upset that they had to take this vote at all, while others who vote for it will have become further accustomed to breaking with the White House on important votes.
Last but certainly not least, the emergency declaration will face widespread challenges in the courts. Although federal courts are generally reluctant to challenge unilateral presidential actions — especially actions involving “emergencies” or “national security” — the courts (especially the lower courts) have proved remarkably hostile to the Trump administration on a wide range of issues. Something as brazen as the emergency declaration will certainly face deep skepticism. Even if Trump were to prevail, it would likely take a long time to finish litigating, making it difficult to even begin, much less complete, wall construction before the 2020 election.
All of these forms of weakness are mutually reinforcing: Trump’s low public standing makes it easier for Congress and the judiciary to oppose him; elite pushback from the other two branches of government signals to the public that something fishy might be going on and that there might be good reason to be skeptical of the administration’s moves. This constellation of forces makes it unlikely that Trump’s sweeping declaration ever actually leads to the construction of any wall, concrete, “Steel Slat” or otherwise. Even if Trump does prevail, it could come at a considerable political cost to himself and his party.
So Friday’s declaration is not the diktat of a despot. It’s simply the behavior of a president who holds authoritarian tendencies but has shown no indication that he has the power to be authoritative, much less authoritarian.