Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 | 2 a.m.
“Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough. ... We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.”
Frederick Douglass said that in 1866, as Andrew Johnson — until now, clearly the worst president in U.S. history — tried his best to undo the verdict of the Civil War, encouraging white supremacists to reimpose brutal oppression of blacks in the former Confederate states. An irate Congress responded by passing the nation’s first federal civil rights legislation, over Johnson’s veto, and approving the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law. How will Congress respond now?
Once again, with President Donald Trump in the White House, our government is “in the hands of a bad man.” Once again, Congress has a duty to act — not rashly but responsibly, dealing with concrete issues in concrete ways.
Which brings us to the ongoing government shutdown over Trump’s “big beautiful wall” or “steel barrier” or whatever he decides to call it next. If the real-world impacts were not so dire — the possibility, for example, that food assistance will lapse — the whole thing would be a joke. Indeed, watching Trump and his minions try to come up with justifications for a border wall does provide much-needed comic relief.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was called out on one of the administration’s biggest lies by Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” Sanders went for the terror angle: “We know that roughly, nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is at our southern border.”
Wallace wasn’t having it. “Wait, wait, wait — I know the statistic; I didn’t know you were going to use it. But I studied up on this. Do you know where those 4,000 people come — where they’re captured? Airports.”
“Not always,” Sanders protested.
“At airports,” Wallace said. “The State Department says there hasn’t been any terrorist that they’ve found coming across the southern border with Mexico.”
A flustered Sanders finally had to resort to the administration’s standard way of responding to inconvenient facts, which is to lie: “I’m not disagreeing with you that they’re coming through airports. I’m saying that they come by air, by land and by sea.” Except, as Wallace noted, that none have been caught trying to come by land or sea.
Sanders also claimed that drug trafficking was a reason for the wall; however, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, most illegal drugs coming in from Mexico arrive in tractor-trailers and other vehicles at legal crossings. And Sanders mentioned the throngs of Central American would-be immigrants arriving at the border; however, the great majority of these people are seeking asylum and present themselves, again, at legal points of entry.
The administration also touts a border wall as a way to stem illegal immigration. The fact is that since 2007, most immigrants who are here without proper documents arrived legally and simply overstayed their visas. In the 2017 fiscal year, according to Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security, about 700,000 visitors overstayed their visas; the largest number was from Canada (101,281), followed by Mexico (52,859), Brazil (37,452) and China (35,571). It looks as if Trump is worried about the wrong border.
The thing is, these are the administration’s own figures. Trump knows that the wall is a costly and disruptive gesture, a demonstration project for his base — and nothing more. It isn’t designed to make the nation safer. Its only purpose is to shore up his own political standing, especially with nativists who want to halt or reverse the “browning” of America.
We cannot require that our presidents be perfect. But we cannot accept the kind of divisive cynicism that Trump’s wall embodies. The new Congress faces many tasks, but its first order of business must be to fund the normal operation of the government — without wasting taxpayer money on a boondoggle whose purpose is to reinforce a paranoid fantasy of “invasion” by swarthy hordes.
We are at one of those points that Douglass feared. Another quote from the great abolitionist is instructive: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Congress has the power, the right and the duty to tell Trump: Enough. The madness stops here and now. This government was able to survive Andrew Johnson, and it will also survive you.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.