Trump’s Lawless Wall and Callous Attacks on Puerto Rico Are Connected

Finish this presidency. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

“The President is calling on you at this critical time to remind AOC and Democrats that this is our country, not theirs.” This is the message that Donald Trump’s reelection campaign conveyed to its supporters in a fundraising email on Tuesday. And it is one that the mainstream press should take both seriously and literally.

In high-profile speeches throughout his first years in office, Trump insisted that his brand of nationalism was color-blind and all-inclusive. Far from being a force for division, a politics that prioritizes the interests of citizens above domestic aliens and foreign publics would help Americans “rediscover our loyalty to each other,” Trump argued in his inaugural address, because “when you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” The president was a “uniter” not a divider.

The commander-in-chief has now dispensed with such pretenses. In his campaign’s view, this country belongs exclusively to his supporters; Democrats have no interests that the Trump administration is bound to respect. It would be scandalous enough for a president’s campaign to promote this sentiment disingenuously, as a cynical means of firing up its base. But Trump’s contempt for his majoritarian opposition is entirely earnest. His campaign’s email does not articulate a demagogic reelection strategy so much as an authoritarian governing philosophy. We are not looking at a presidential scandal, but the makings of democratic crisis.

The teleprompted bromides in his national addresses notwithstanding, Trump has always governed as though Republicans were his only legitimate constituents. Even before he assumed office, the president-elect dismissed Hillary Clinton’s ostensible popular-vote majority as a fiction, insisting that millions of Democratic voters were, in fact, ballot-stuffing, undocumented immigrants. As president, Trump has shown a singular disinterest in appealing to — or showing even the smallest bit of deference to the interests of — those outside his party’s coalition. In both public statements and private meetings, Trump has indicated that he is far less concerned with promoting the interests of America as a whole than those of his base. When Trump was, in his own words, “really ready and psyched to terminate NAFTA” in 2017, macroeconomic projections suggesting the policy would hurt the median American did not persuade the president to change course. Rather, pro-trade White House advisers changed Trump’s mind by showing him a map that indicated the regions most vulnerable to NAFTA’s cancellation were also strongly Republican. “It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good,” Trump told Reuters of his advisers’ presentation. “They like Trump, but I like them, and I’m going to help them.”

This “champagne for real Americans, and real pain for sham Americans” approach to governance informed the structure of the Trump tax cuts (which targeted deductions beloved by blue-state residents), the distribution of hurricane aid, Trump’s call for police officers to brutalize criminal suspects, his pardon of Joe Arpaio, and perennial negotiating “strategy” of using state power to deliberately harm Democratic constituencies in order to bully the opposition into unilateral concessions.

Cataloguing all the ways ways Trump has tacitly affirmed “this is our country, not theirs” through rhetoric would take days. But his decision to spend the final weeks of the midterm campaign accusing the Democratic Party of organizing an “invasion” of the United States — as part of a nefarious plot to rig the elections, and thus, make it impossible for real Americans to reclaim their government through democratic means — was exemplary in its toxicity.

But the sincerity of the Trump campaign’s message in its fundraising email may be most vividly illustrated by two developments from the past 24 hours. First, consider the president’s recent (tweeted) remarks on the hurricane that was then threatening the well-being of more than 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico:

Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end? Congress approved 92 Billion Dollars for Puerto Rico last year, an all time record of its kind for “anywhere.”

We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You - Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!

Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!…And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!

This is not how a president who viewed Puerto Ricans as his constituents (or as equal members of the American nation) would discuss the possibility that an island that lost 3,000 lives to a storm just two years might soon suffer a similar tragedy. In his first tweet, Trump makes clear that “will it ever end” is meant to express the irritation that conservative, mainland Americans might feel at being on the hook for Puerto Rico’s woes: Another natural disaster on the island is not exasperating because the last one killed roughly as many American citizens as the 9/11 attacks, but rather, because Hurricane Maria cost American taxpayers “92 Billion Dollars.”

Trump clarifies this point in subsequent tweets, in which he not only condemns the corruption and profligacy of a local government that is currently in a state of emergency, but also appears to hold Puerto Ricans personally responsible for the prevalence of hurricanes in the Caribbean (“as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico”). Of course, Puerto Rico’s residents did not have the opportunity to vote against Trump in the 2016 election. But the island’s leaders have often been critical of the president, and the islanders’ skin tone sets them apart from the “real American” norm. Thus, the president refers to Puerto Rico’s American citizens as though they were mere wards of the state (and ungrateful, ne’er-do-well wards one would gladly trade for Greenlanders, at that).

The second, more alarming indication that the American president believes our country belongs exclusively to his supporters comes courtesy of a Washington Post update on the status of Trump’s border wall. Recall that the president declared a state of emergency earlier this year in order to divert funds away from the Pentagon and toward his monument to American xenophobia in defiance of Congress’s will and prerogatives. At the time of Trump’s declaration, many observers suggested his maneuver would have little practical significance: Funding aside, the president’s vision required gaining access to privately owned lands, and that would require winning eminent-domain lawsuits that were sure to drag well past the 2020 election.

But such pundits failed to consider the possibility that this president feels less bound by the letter of the law than the will of the Volk:

President Trump is so eager to complete hundreds of miles of border fence ahead of the 2020 presidential election that he has directed aides to fast-track billions of dollars’ worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land and disregard environmental rules, according to current and former officials involved with the project.

The president has told senior aides that a failure to deliver on the signature promise of his 2016 campaign would be a letdown to his supporters and an embarrassing defeat … When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable, Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead, aides said. He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying “take the land,” according to officials who attended the meetings.

“Don’t worry, I’ll pardon you,” he has told officials in meetings about the wall.

Trump denies having offered such pardons. But there is no basis for giving him the benefit of the doubt on this subject. This is not the first time that administration officials have told reporters that the president tried to persuade them to follow an illegal order by promising to immunize them from prosecution.

Trump can prioritize the will of the Fox News faithful above the spirit of the law, thanks to egregious flaws in our Constitution’s design. The pardon power, the two-thirds threshold for impeachment, and the Justice Department policy against criminally indicting a sitting president have conspired to make a mockery of our republic’s supposed “checks and balances.” It now takes 60 Senate votes to amend a single regulation, but just 34 to give the president effective immunity from federal law.

But if our archaic Constitution makes Trump’s fence construction possible, it is the principle articulated in his campaign’s email that makes such actions legitimate: This is the Republican base’s country, not ours — and so their wall trumps our laws.

When applied to a disagreement over how many feet of fencing to build in a desert, the president’s (now explicit) governing philosophy may seem mostly innocuous. If it is ever applied to the results of a closely contested 2020 election, however, it won’t seem that way at all.

Trump’s Lawless Wall and Attacks on Puerto Rico Are Linked