Donald Trump declared himself qualified for the world’s highest office in 2016, on the grounds that his exceptional deal-making acumen and economic expertise more than compensated for his lack of conventional credentials.
On Friday morning, the president tweeted that if Democrats refuse to fund his wall, he will engineer a massive recession (that would all but ensure Democratic victory in 2020) — because he is under the impression that the United States would “profit” by closing its southern border to all commerce, since the U.S. runs trade deficit with Mexico:
We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with. Hard to believe there was a Congress & President who would approve!
The United States loses soooo much money on Trade with Mexico under NAFTA, over 75 Billion Dollars a year (not including Drug Money which would be many times that amount), that I would consider closing the Southern Border a “profit making operation.” We build a Wall or close the Southern Border. Bring our car industry back into the United States where it belongs. Go back to pre-NAFTA, before so many of our companies and jobs were so foolishly sent to Mexico. Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border.
This is not the first time Trump has threatened to “close the border” if Congress defies his will. But until now, what the president meant by that phrase has been ambiguous. His latest tweets confirm that he has, in fact, been threatening to end (virtually) all commerce between the U.S. and Mexico, our nation’s third-largest trading partner. Upward of $30 billion worth of goods are shipped across the U.S. southern border on a monthly basis; interrupting that flow of goods for any significant period of time would paralyze major corporate supply chains, drive countless small businesses into insolvency, and terrorize global markets with the specter of American autarky.
Such a scheme would be so economically devastating — and politically suicidal — it is safe to assume that Trump’s threat is entirely empty. Or, at least, that is what investors appear to believe; hours after the president’s tweetstorm, the Dow and S&P 500 were both up in early trading.
And yet, “Trump would never do X because that would be stupid and politically counterproductive” isn’t the world’s most reliable heuristic. After all, the current (partial) government shutdown is itself the product of the president deciding that he could secure leverage over congressional Democrats by doing something stupid and politically counterproductive.
To review: Trump refused to support bipartisan legislation that would have kept the government open through the holiday season, in order to pressure Democrats into appropriating funds for his border wall. Which is to say, the president sabotaged the basic functioning of his own administration to draw attention to the fact that the Democratic Party does not support an extremely unpopular immigration policy, out of the ostensible belief that doing this would force Chuck Schumer to do his bidding immediately (instead of, say, waiting for Nancy Pelosi to collect the Speaker’s gavel next week).
This plan proved to be less than airtight. Recent polling shows that a large plurality of Americans blame Trump for the shutdown, and oppose his border wall. Meanwhile, the president’s approval rating in Morning Consult’s polling just dipped below 40 percent for the first time since he defended the “very fine” neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.
Trump’s threat to “close the border” appears to be a desperate attempt to secure some kind of leverage over negotiating partners who show no signs of caving. And it is (arguably) true that the president could at least temporarily shutter the U.S.-Mexico border by invoking his national security powers, and that this would inflict some economic pain on Democratic constituencies. It is also true that Trump has unilateral authority to initiate a thermonuclear armageddon, and that Nancy Pelosi would probably prefer to fund a border wall than perish in an atomic holocaust.
But our president is the kind of demented nihilist who threatens to use his national security powers to inflict suffering on the American people, for the sake of narrow legislative gains — not the kind who would actually do so! Or, probably not, anyway!
And that is apparently enough to persuade congressional Republicans that they have no responsibility to remove a demented nihilist from the Oval Office.