President Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday night, and the congressional Democratic leaders’ response, offered nothing to the nation that it didn’t already know—that our government is broken, and there’s not much reason to have faith that it’s going to get any better.
The current manifestation is that the nation elected as president someone who has no idea how to do the job, and who is not predisposed to grow into it. Any stray thought that comes to mind gets trotted out as fact or edict, forcing the few people on Trump’s skeleton staff who have an inkling of how governing works to scramble to corral him, persuade him that he can’t do what he wants to do, or find some loophole through which they can drive whatever bugbear Trump is obsessed with at the moment.
We do not, as the president would have us believe, face a national security crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. But we do face a crisis in competence. This administration—as did the Obama administration before it—has been unable to come up with a solution for the number of people arriving at the border to seek asylum.
In Trump’s case, his xenophobia and his politicization of the desperate people seeking to exercise their legal right to ask the U.S. for protection has made the problem worse. Separating children from their parents as a deterrence measure. Imprisoning children for weeks in apparent violation of the 1997 Flores court agreement limiting detention of minors facing deportation. Insisting on a wasteful expanded wall to stem illegal immigration that comes less and less across ill-guarded stretches of the border and more and more through legal channels, then fail to leave as scheduled.
In fact, illegal immigration is broadly down over the last quarter-century as the number of border agents has quadrupled. And Customs and Border Protection statistics show drug seizures by Border Patrol agents, a proxy for drug smuggling, dropped from 2.3 million pounds in 2012 to 882,039 pounds in 2017. Most of that decline came in marijuana seizures.
And most drugs are smuggled through in vehicles crossing staffed ports of entry. Adding to the existing 700 miles of wall and fencing would do nothing to affect that flow.
But the president doesn’t build policy out of facts. He builds them out of fears, aiming not to solve a problem but to shore up his shaky political standing and feed the misperceptions of his loyalists.
How do we get out of this mess? There’s no easy path. Trump’s election didn’t cause the polarization in American politics but arose from it. Public trust in government remains near historic lows since the National Election Study began in 1958, and government shutdowns—even partial ones like this one—don’t engender much faith that the people elected to run the government can actually do so.
But it does feed the cynicism and disillusionment that means presidents get elected by a minority of eligible voters, while more than two of five people who can vote don’t.
That’s the real crisis here. Trump on Tuesday framed illegal immigration and its (exaggerated) effects as “a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul,” but in truth we face a crisis of the democracy. And that’s something else that a border wall won’t fix.