In 2005, with Republicans controlling all of the levers of federal power, George W. Bush was eager to privatize Social Security. To that end, the Republican president went to great lengths to sell the public on the idea that the Social Security system was facing a serious crisis, making his privatization scheme both sensible and necessary.
The program’s progressive proponents responded with a simple, accurate, four-word retort: “There is no crisis.” The point was to make clear that Social Security was fine; no radical changes were needed to save it; and the Bush/Cheney pitch was less about what the system required and more about a partisan and ideological crusade.
The pushback worked; Congress never even considered a Bush-style proposal on Social Security; and for a variety of reasons, Republicans lost control of Congress a year later.
All of this came to mind this week as Donald Trump’s hysterical rhetoric about immigration and border security became progressively louder. The president seems desperate to convince the public that there’s a crisis unfolding – he insisted on Monday that “our country is being stolen” – that requires drastic measures, including the deployment of National Guard troops.
“I think it is something we have to do,” Trump said at a press conference yesterday.
But why is it, exactly, that the president has settled on this course all of a sudden? The New York Times’ report on this included an important data point:
While the president couched his idea as an urgent response to an onslaught at the nation’s southern border, the numbers do not point to a crisis. Last year, the number of illegal immigrants caught at the border was the lowest since 1971, said the United States Border Patrol.
Right. Illegal border crossings began to fall years ago – the Obama administration increased border security, a fact the right prefers to ignore – and have reached generational lows.
Or put another way, there is no crisis. Trump is scrambling to respond to an emergency that exists only in conservatives’ imaginations.
Indeed, there’s a degree of irony behind the latest White House public-relations push. The president spent much of 2017 insisting that illegal immigration was a problem that was slowly vanishing – all as a result of his amazing amazingness.
Sure, much of his rhetoric was exaggerated to the point of willful dishonesty – Trump is Trump, after all – but he nevertheless urged Americans to see the drop in border crossings as one of the great triumphs of his presidency.
“I’m very proud to say that we’re way down in the people coming across the border,” Trump bragged a few months ago, taking credit for developments he had little to do with. “We have fewer people trying to come across because they know it’s not going to happen.”
And yet, here we are, watching the president step all over his own talking points. After a year of boasts about the decline in border crossings, and the efficacy of his get-tough posture, Trump now wants the public to believe there’s practically an open border.
“Never mind all that other stuff I spent my presidency saying,” Trump is now effectively arguing. “You should now believe the problem I said was getting better is actually getting worse.”
Reality, meanwhile, is stubborn. There’s been no spike in illegal border crossings. Like Bush’s Social Security scheme 13 years ago, the Republican White House’s push has nothing to do with the facts and everything to do with an ideological crusade.
And once again, there is no crisis.
Postscript: As Trump prepares to deploy National Guard troops to the border, note that there are some legal and procedural considerations to keep in mind. Roll Call had a good piece on this.