Tuesday, January 8, 2019

"The President Has Chosen Fear"

Among my childhood memories from the early years of television were the occasional presidential addresses televised from the White House. Perhaps the most famous (because the crisis was so acute) was President Kennedy's October 1962 televised Oval Office Address at the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But such solemn speeches were already a nation tradition going back (in my memory) at least to President Eisenhower, who addressed the nation on critical occasions, for example, when he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the court order integrating the high school there. 

The memorable thing about such speeches was their solemnity. The President spoke from his desk, as we were reminded at the end when the invisible voice of the commentator would conclude by saying something like. "You have been listening to an address by the President of the United States. The President spoke from the Oval Office in the White House in Washington. And now, our national anthem." 

Times have changed - not necessarily for the better. Presidents have changed - likewise. 

After almost two years in the White House (during which his party controlled the Congress but never gave him his "wall), President Trump has finally attempted to make his case using this old-fashioned method, perhaps hoping that the very formality and presidential dignity, which he has repeatedly eschewed and even mocked, might come to his assistance on this occasion. Certainly sitting at his desk and speaking calmly and from a prepared (and presumably vetted) text represent an improvement in his presidential style. Yet, masquerading as a Presidential Address was something that in the end still seemed really more like a campaign speech. (In this, it was not unlike the contrast between traditional presidential visits to troops in war zones and Trump's Christmas campaign speech in Iraq.)

"Border security" is a sensitive issue. Like the proverbial motherhood and apple pie, hardly anyone is against it. In fact, contrary to the impression the President tried to give, both parties have supported improvements in border security. But the debate about "border security" (as opposed to the actual reality, which is less controversial) has to some extent become a a surrogate for the debate we should be having as a society about how best to respond to differing perceptions about present and future immigration, which is both an actual reality with complicated social consequences and an emotional symbol for feelings about societal change.

As a nation, we have repeatedly failed to address both immigration's actual and symbolic dimensions in recent decades, each failure to enact comprehensive immigration legislation leaving the situation more challenging for the country over the long term. The result has been demagoguery in place of rational debate, and increasingly inhumane and ineffective governmental actions.

Had Trump been more like a more traditional politician, he would probably be remembered for having highlighted many Americans' increased anxiety about immigration's impact, and he would probably have succeeded in getting credit for increasing "border security" in return for bipartisan negotiation and agreement on other sensible policies, such as DACA, etc. All of which could have been accomplished without the absurdity of a partial government shutdown and all the human suffering and social harm that has accompanied it.

But, as Speaker Pelosi pointed out accurately in her response, instead "the President has chosen fear." 

As a result, refugees and immigrants have been the losers. Federal employees have been the losers. Citizens who depend on specific government services have been the losers. In the end, democratic constitutional governance has been the loser, along with morality, common sense, and the standing of the United States.

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