NEW YORK — Watching the struggle over funding for a border wall, I am struck by the way in which, in one sense, Donald Trump has already achieved success. He has been able to conjure up a crisis out of thin air, elevate this manufactured emergency to national attention, paralyze the government and perhaps even invoke war-like authority and bypass Congress. He may still fail, but it should worry us that a president — any president — can do what Trump has done.
Facts on Illegal Immigration
As has often been pointed out, far more people are coming to the U.S. legally and then overstaying their visas than are crossing the southern border illegally. But it’s important to put these numbers in context. Over 52 million foreigners entered the U.S. legally in 2017. Of this cohort, 98.7 percent left on time and in accordance with their visas. A large portion of those remaining left after a brief overstay, and the best government estimate is that maybe 0.8 percent of those who entered the country in 2017 had stayed on by mid-2018.
As for drugs, the greatest danger comes from fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances, which are at the heart of the opioid crisis. Most of this comes from China, either directly shipped to the U.S. or smuggled through Canada or Mexico. Trump has addressed the root of this problem by pressing the Chinese government to crack down on fentanyl exports, a far more effective strategy than building a physical barrier along the Mexican border.
Even the DEA acknowledged in a report last year that while the southern border is the conduit for most of the heroin entering the United States, the drug typically comes through legal points of entry, hidden in cars or mixed in with other goods in tractor-trailers. In other words, a wall would do little to stanch the flow.
Using Presidential Power to Create Fear
And yet, the power of the presidency is such that Trump has been able to place this issue center-stage, shut down the government, force television networks to run an error-ridden, scaremongering Oval Office address, and now perhaps invoke emergency powers. This sounds like something that would be done by Presidents Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, not the head of the world’s leading constitutional republic.
Media Culture Distorts Reality
And yet, presidential powers have kept expanding. Modern media culture has made it easier for presidents to set the agenda, since the White House is a central and perpetual point of focus and now receives far more attention than it ever did. Trump has managed to use this reality and turn good news into bad, security into danger, and almost single-handedly fabricate a national crisis where there is none.
I have been an advocate of a strong executive for most of my life. I don’t much like how Congress operates. I now realize that my views were premised on the assumption that the president would operate within the bounds of laws, norms, and ethics. I now believe that an urgent task for the next few years is for Congress to write laws that explicitly limit and check the powers of the president. I would take polarization over Putinism any day.
About the Author
Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.