Caracas is not the only place where Trump is orchestrating a coup. In fact, he is attempting one in Washington as we speak.
Is “coup” too strong a word? Perhaps, to some extent. But it is too close for comfort. It’s enough to read The New York Times editorial commenting on the president’s decision to declare a national emergency, a step of unprecedented severity because it “constitutes a reordering of the power dynamic between the branches of government,” and “aims to usurp one of Congress’s most basic responsibilities, the power of the purse,” a “power grab” that should alarm lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
In the US, the political and decision-making role of the president has been expanding over the past decades, and, in parallel, many have been sounding the alarm more and more about the development of an “imperial presidency.” This tendency is also tied to the increasingly casual abuse of presidential executive orders for the purpose of accelerating policy decisions and circumventing Congress—a trend that continued apace during the Obama years as well.
The right used to describe Bill Clinton and Obama as “progressive dictators” because they often used the executive authority granted to the presidency to impose their choices on the American people, even when—according to the conservatives—a majority of the latter was opposed to them.
What now? Even as it has often been sidelined, Congress has always tenaciously and jealously guarded its prerogatives on matters of public expenses and the budget, an area which has been at the core of its power for two and a half centuries, as set out by Article 1 of the Constitution: the so-called “power of the purse.”
This is what The Donald is trying to get his hands on. He wants to grab $8 billion that Congress had denied him—giving him a much lower figure—to fulfill his obsession: building a wall on the border with Mexico.
A national emergency, he claims? Illegal immigration across the border has been going on for many years and is decreasing. While parts of US public opinion may be concerned about it, the situation does not call for the erection of a wall, and it is an even poorer justification for declaring a national emergency. Two-thirds of Americans surveyed in two recent polls are against Trump’s move. As conservative pundit Matt Latimer noted, this move is “totally antithetical to representative democracy and the checks and balances system,” the balance of powers that is the basis of American democracy.
While this doesn’t amount to a coup, the US seems to have reached the “third-world banana republic” stage, says Latimer—a development about which, as he admits, his liberal friends had warned him after Trump’s election. But no, that couldn’t happen: the Constitution was there, he had argued. Or Congress would stop it. Or the Republican Party would. However, what no one predicted was that the only ones who would try to put up a roadblock in front of the Trump Train would be the newly elected representatives—particularly women—of the “new” America, the America that Trump and his supporters hate and dismiss as a supposed fifth column for the “invaders” that the wall is supposed to stop.
Indeed, if the emergency declaration ends up being overturned, this will be in great part thanks to the efforts of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joaquin Castro.
The New York representative and her colleague from Texas have announced they would present a resolution before Congress to overturn the presidential declaration of a state of national emergency, due to being based on “unfounded hype” and setting “a dangerous precedent regarding the constitutional balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches.”
The resolution appears to have the numbers to pass in the House, which would already be an important first step. Then, it would go before the Senate, where the Republicans have a majority, but a narrow one. Then, there is also the president’s veto power to take into account. The resolution faces tough—but not impossible—odds, while in the meantime judges may block the president’s move. In the end, the dispute may come before the Supreme Court.
The positive side of the story from a political point of view is that, with the new crop of politicians elected after the midterms, the Democratic Party seems to be showing new strength as opposition, as could also be seen by Ilhan Omar’s remarkable performance, the representative from Minnesota who mercilessly grilled Elliot Abram, Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, before Congress.
The new breed of Democratic politicians is growing up fast, even with a few missteps along the way, and offers a solid hope that an alternative to America’s current state is being prepared and will be put forward.
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