Americans should fear Trump apathy

The declining fervour of the opposition to Trump’s state of emergency declaration is dangerous.

Donald Trump
President Trump walks out to speak at an event in the Rose Garden at the White House to declare a national emergency on February 15 [Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]

Figuring out what is and is not an emergency in Donald Trump‘s America is far from straightforward.

On February 15, in order to get funds to build a wall along the southern border of the United States, Trump declared a “national emergency”. And he did this even though the situation at the border is in no meaningful sense getting worse, let alone deteriorating rapidly enough to constitute an “emergency”. In fact, border crossings are actually declining, and as commentators across the ideological spectrum noted, Trump’s own words make clear that there is no “national emergency”.

The efforts to prevent Trump from using this “national emergency” to build his border wall came quickly. Sixteen states sued in opposition. A majority of the House of Representatives is prepared to begin a process to reverse the declaration. Several Senate Republicans either oppose, or have expressed “concern” over Trump’s declaration, which is actually more intra-party opposition than normal under Trump. Progressive civil society organisations such as MoveOn assembled 277 events in 48 states with at least 50,000 attendees three days after the announcement.

And a strong majority of the population – including Independents – oppose the declaration and deny there is an emergency, even as that opposition is not dramatic enough to faze an already deeply unpopular President Trump.

From those indicators, one might think that there is neither an emergency at the border nor in American politics – a president is pursuing an unwarranted power grab and his efforts are being met with considerable resistance.

And yet the sunny picture of effective opposition masks some clear warning signs for those who worry about Trump’s emergency declaration specifically and his assault on American democracy more generally.

To start, while Congressional Democrats and presidential candidates have taken clear and definite stands against the announcement, the very normalcy of their reactions presents a marked contrast from the reaction to, for example, Trump’s “Muslim ban” in January of 2017. At that time, large crowds and elected Democrats protested at airports and at rallies that drew enormous crowds despite cold temperatures and little to no time for organising.

Fervour across civil society was real – Trump was transgressing the rule of law, and the reaction was raw and passionate. The effect? While America’s deeply partisan and conservative majority on the Supreme Court ultimately upheld Trump’s third Muslim ban, earlier versions were struck down by lower court judges across the ideological spectrum, and the ban the Supreme Court upheld was somewhat weaker than its first iteration. It is likely that the passion of the populace helped steel the spine of judges pondering pushing back on the newly installed president.

The reaction to the current “false emergency” declaration has included stern language – but not so stern as to cut through the clutter of a typically crowded week of news during the Trump era. Newer outrages – such as a judge finding that Trump’s Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta had broken the law in facilitating a lenient sentence for a notorious sex offender, Trump’s former political consigliere being subjected to a “gag order” by a federal judge for threatening her life, and speculation about the course of the Robert Mueller investigation – kept the focus away from Trump’s unpopular declaration.

The stagecraft of Democratic reaction is, in other words, pitched far lower than one would expect when a president of an ostensibly leading democracy asserts the right to spend taxpayer funds Congress had just refused to spend. The US Constitution definitively hands the “power of the purse” to Congress, and yet Congress’s reaction to this news is little different from its reactions to any number of Trump outrages. They are moving forward with a legislative response, but without the flourishes, one might expect in the case of a president with authoritarian tendencies making a clearly undemocratic power grab.

In other words, if Trump is seizing power from Congress in the manner of an authoritarian, it is not a time to be polite. It is a time to “panic” – just as civil society panicked, constructively, in the face of the Muslim ban.

This temperate reaction to the “national emergency” declaration suggests a broader problem: Trump fatigue. The American people seem, in a word, tired. The Trump presidency has in many senses rejuvenated American politics – more people probably attended rallies in the first two years of his presidency than in the two decades prior.

Midterm election turnout, typically terrible, was much higher than normal. Civic engagement was up considerably across a broad swath of the country. From podcasts about politics to late night television programmes forced to turn to political content or lose their audience, interest in politics was up dramatically.

But the reaction to the “national emergency” declaration suggests that Americans may not be able to sustain this level of engagement. In a prescient article written in February of 2017, Huffington Post editor Sam Stein raised the question whether Democrats could maintain the stamina necessary to react to a president who “thrives on drama and chaos”.

As Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien noted, “It is not about physical stamina. It is about psychological scar tissue… He really is like the Energizer bunny of the political landscape, and people have to recognize that about him because he is formidable in that way.”

The decline in fervour in the face of Trump’s bigoted actions raises the question whether the president, despite his age and notoriously short attention span, is in some meaningful sense winning a battle of attrition with his opponents.

In 2018, Stein returned to the theme of Trump and fatigue, noting that the president’s thick “scar tissue” enables his “modus operandi” – to “claw, scrape, and nag the opposition until they finally acquiesce”. That scar tissue is likely why Trump is comfortable as a deeply unpopular president with a consistently low 40 percent approval – there is enormous freedom in the office of never trying to be broadly liked.

An “ordinary” president like Barack Obama aged so visibly in office because he desperately sought to be president of all the people, regardless of the racial animus and conspiracy theories being aimed at him. Trump, on the other hand, seems energised by any attention, positive or negative.

To be sure, some of the public’s recent complacency may come from the sense that the “resistance” is winning. Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats control the House of Representatives, and the Democratic presidential field is burgeoning in numbers and energy.

Those feelings may be natural, but they’re also dangerous. In the short run, they “normalise” Trump’s aberrant and abhorrent actions. In the medium run, they threaten the energy needed to produce an electoral turnout in 2020 as spectacular as in 2018. And more importantly, fatigue is dangerous because we do not know what President Trump can accomplish without an energised and zealous opposition.

In sum, there’s no “national emergency” at the southern border. But if the American people and their leaders fail to fight back against Trump’s declaration with everything that they have, that would be a real national emergency.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.