clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The real crisis is that Trump has no idea what he’s doing

A flailing president whines and dissembles from the Oval Office.

President Trump Addresses The Nation On Border Security From The Oval Office Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump campaigned on the absurd lie that the United States could construct a large concrete wall across the entire US-Mexico border and coerce the Mexican government into paying for its construction. The government is currently shut down because Trump refuses to admit that his absurd lie was, in fact, an absurd lie.

Since he won’t own up to it, lie has begun to pile upon lie like a sitcom farce, to the point where Trump on Tuesday night delivered an address on the subject of an entirely fake “crisis” at the southern border. The crisis, supposedly, is the reason that we not only need a wall but need it so badly that it’s worth shutting down the government to get one.

It’s an absurd situation only heightened by the larger absurdity that the fundamentals of Trump-era America are good. Unemployment is low and the economy is growing. Unauthorized immigration is low. Funds are flowing to further enhance border security, and a halfway competent president would be able to secure more without much muss or fuss. But Donald Trump doesn’t do anything without muss or fuss. So he’s now mired in a historically low approval rating, and we as a country are mired in the overlapping fake security crisis at the border and the very real crisis of a shutdown of much of the federal government.

And the realest crisis of all is the fact that in Donald Trump, we have a president who has no idea what he’s doing.

Trump’s wall of nonsense

Whether or not it’s a good idea, at the end of the day, a president who wanted to get Congress to appropriate some extra money to build some extra steel fencing would be able to get that done.

Not everyone in Congress would agree that it’s a good idea, but the federal budget is full of line items that not everyone likes. But if something is important to the White House, they find a way to get it done by making concessions on other fronts.

There are, however, two huge problems for Trump with that approach.

One is that immigration hawks themselves do not believe that the marginal value of additional fence-building is high, largely because the United States already has a lot of border fences, which means the most valuable fencing is already in place. Consequently, immigration restrictionists in Congress and in the White House have been unwilling to strike a deal that offers Democrats anything of value — hence the need to try to extort the money from Democrats with the shutdown.

The other is that the key premise of Trump’s campaign was that all the wonky kvetching about the impossibility of his absurd border wall was just excuse-making by feckless politicians. That was the central political premise of his campaign — that he, Trump, would get tough in a unique way. To admit that actually, his critics were right all along and the smartest thing to do is simply to continue what the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations were already doing would be politically devastating.

So Trump is asking Democrats to help him out of a political jam that he created by lying, and in exchange, he’s offering them nothing. Not surprisingly, they are not taking the deal.

Addicted to dishonesty

In advance of the speech, the White House reportedly decided to for once worry about what media fact-checkers would say and consequently tried harder than usual to keep Trump on script and limited to factually accurate assertions.

This no doubt accounts for the prominent role that drug abuse ended up playing in the speech, since America is living through a very real spike in drug overdoses, and it is true that a lot of illicit drugs originate in Mexico. Back in the real world, however, this is a total non sequitur. No serious analyst believes you can fundamentally halt drug addictions purely by trying to intervene on the supply side. We need treatment for people with addiction, and we need initiatives to give new cohorts of people better alternatives to opioid abuse.

Illicit drug trafficking, meanwhile, is an unfortunate side of effect of legitimate commerce.

The drugs are smuggled through the normal ports of entry, and solutions involve more intensive screening, with trade-offs including not just money but, perhaps more importantly, the fact that very intense screening could undermine normal trade.

Most of all, this whole question of inspections at legal ports of entry simply isn’t a hot-button partisan issue or any kind of crisis. Most of the specifics of what Trump said about drugs is true, but the idea that drugs — rather than Trump’s irresponsible campaign promises — are at the center of the crisis is the biggest lie of all.

Catastrophe keeps us together

What we witnessed Tuesday night was not a president addressing the nation about a crisis, but a president flailing.

Simply put, he can’t even begin to put together a coherent argument for why this funding dispute about fence construction justifies a government shutdown. At the end of the day, there is literally nothing more banal in American political history than the president having a proposal he can’t get the opposition party to agree to. If every policy standoff ended in a government shutdown, we couldn’t have a country at all.

If Trump wants his wall, he needs to give Democrats something to make it worth their while to give it to him. Alternatively, if he’s prepared to admit the whole thing is actually ridiculous, then he can walk away. Either way, there is no earthly reason that negotiations can’t simply continue with the government open. National parks are filling with trash while vital law enforcement personnel are working without pay for no reason at all — it’s ridiculous and maddening.

So ridiculous that it once again raises the frightening question of how a president who can’t successfully manage peace and prosperity would manage to deal with an actual national crisis. On Monday, congressional Democrats announced a new push for an investigation into Hurricane Maria — the hardest test Trump has thus far faced. What we saw then was that when challenged by a genuinely difficult situation, Trump simply allowed millions of Americans to languish in darkness for months while nearly 3,000 people died. And judging by Tuesday’s speech, his ability to handle even problems with a low degree of difficulty is getting worse, as his team is increasingly denuded of people with a modicum of honesty or competence.

Repudiation at the polls clearly hasn’t caused Trump to rethink anything about this disastrous approach, so we’re now all just left to hope for the best over the next two years. With luck, at some point, we’ll have a functioning government again.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.