Pondering Tonight’s Oval Office Address

In the last post, I referred to a concept, Naïve Realism, that I should have defined and seems likely to prevail among our people after President Trump’s Oval Office Address this evening.  In return for ending the government shutdown, the President is widely expected to call for the funding of additional wall construction along our southern border to stem what he and his cohort are claiming to be a “crisis” of illegal entry into our country by migrants and terrorists.  Mr. Trump may threaten to declare – although the Washington Post is currently reporting that it is unlikely that he will declare — a national emergency; such a declaration would reportedly provide him with what some pundits have described as largely unfettered authority to divert funds from other defense initiatives to the construction of the additional border barrier.

Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets aggressively point to government data as evidence of the lack of any emergency, and a number of commentators – including Chris Wallace of Fox News – have pretty effectively shown that literally only a handful of the 4,000 suspected terrorists that the Homeland Security Agency states that it detains at our borders every year are apprehended at our southern border.  [There appears to be an ongoing skirmish as to the relative threat posed by the 3,000 “Special Interest Aliens (SIAs)” that U. S. Border and Customs Protection reports it has encountered in 2018 at the southern border.  On one hand, DHS indicates that a SIA may pose a national security risk due to travel patterns and like factors indicating a potential nexus to terrorism; on the other hand, DHS states that a SIA designation does not indicate any derogatory information about the individual.  You be the judge.]

In short, this dispute has evolved into the kind of political rugby scrum that existed before the Trump presidency but has been exacerbated by it:  the President shouting an emotional, disingenuous, divisive message that stokes his base; Democrats and the mainstream media countering with facts that, while overall having the better part of truth, are presented with a highly partisan relish.

Mr. Trump’s supporters hope that his speech tonight will sway a larger segment of our citizens to his position; his opponents fear that such might occur.  This may prove to be another prediction that is only so much Noise, but I don’t think we’ll see much movement.

A while back, one of our sons gave me the book, The Three Languages of Politics, by Arnold Kling.  At one point, Mr. Kling refers to the concept of Naïve Realism, which he describes as “… each of us naively believ[ing] that our perspective is real, even though different perspectives contradict one another.”  He in turn cites a piece by Psychology Professor Matthew Lieberman, who describes Naïve Realism as “an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise adaptive aspect of brain function” which serves us well when perceiving the physical world but can readily betray us in the social domain of understanding, where “… our ‘seeing’ is driven less by external input and more by expectation and motivation.”  A link to Professor Lieberman’s (short) piece is below.


“Naïve Realism” may simply be a highfalutin way of describing what we all know:  that we each more readily accept what we want to believe.  In any event, I would suggest that the President’s supporters – alarmed by the threat they believe exists at the southern border — will be moved by his address, and enthusiastically support any action he takes; his opponents – believing the President’s claims a political sham — will sharply dispute his assertions, and aggressively attempt to counter any measures he initiates.  Those anywhere in the middle will probably dismiss the whole fracas as political posturing – and simply want the government reopened.  Virtually no citizen’s opinion will be altered.  (Indeed, I wonder how many of our people are even still listening; Mr. Trump’s constant maelstrom seems to have exhausted not only his opponents but many of his supporters).

I am concerned about the ramifications of what appears to be Mr. Trump’s current course for two reasons, however:  first, his showing tonight will dilute one of the few tools of the office that he hasn’t already sullied to create a national consensus if our nation is ever confronting a true emergency during his presidency; and second, although his declaration of an emergency, either tonight or in the future, would presumably create a path to reopen the government by getting him – at least in the short run — the funding he demands while enabling the Democrats to have stood their ground, I fear that his invocation of an emergency will give Democrats a rallying cry to attempt to curb a President’s emergency powers.  It may likewise cause a judge to rationalize limits on a President’s powers that will adversely hamstring future Presidents.  The fact that we currently have an unprincipled and ill-suited person filling the office is, in my view, insufficient ground to limit the latitude to act in our behalf that we want at the disposal of an able and well-intended Chief Executive in the time of true national emergency.  (There is, of course, also the countervailing concern that could arise from any challenge to the President’s actions:  a judge’s rejection of limits on the President’s power could cause Mr. Trump, if over time he feels increasingly besieged, to feel dangerously emboldened).  I would submit that Congress – even in a more bipartisan, nationally-focused iteration than exists today – is by necessity too unwieldy to move with the resolve and alacrity required in a true time of need; further, I would venture that the chances are extremely high that we will more quickly return an able, well-intended individual (of either party) to the presidency than we will be able to install a majority of Senators and Representatives able to look beyond their own respective political self-interests to the good of the nation as a whole.

One thought on “Pondering Tonight’s Oval Office Address

  1. This comment is made with the benefit of having heard the president’s speech tonight. Not that I couldn’t have offered much the same note on any day since the government was shut down. This is my naive reality, I suppose.

    I continue to be impressed, indeed disappointed (though no longer shocked) to hear hardly a word from the president that signals genuine interest in a negotiated resolution.

    The politics are difficult for him. A difficulty largely of his own making. He has hitched his wagon to the extremists in the media (Limbaugh, et al) on whom he relies to maintain his core support essential to his survival.

    “Border security” (as distinct from a steel barrier running the length of the border) is not really controversial. It ranks with mom and apple pie for enough members of Congress in both parties to assure a deal is certainly available.

    To maintain his appearance of strength and independence while affording the Dems in Congress a win of some sort would require little more than ordinary finesse. Alas, finesse is not an implement in Mr. Trump’s toolbox.

    Trump comes closest to finesse, if at all, by his drum beat term “crisis.” I foresee him ultimately claiming the crisis required him, for the good of the nation, to deal with Congress when he affords the Dems a face saver. Just my wishful (naive?) thinking perhaps.

    No doubt there are casual listeners who, hearing the word “crisis,” believe it describes (if not the border) the shut down and impasse with Congress. I personally find “crisis” to aptly describe the state of the presidency. There is plenty of crisis to go around.

    Again, I find this ongoing drama truly remarkable: Does anyone doubt that this relatively simple dispute would not have been resolved weeks ago by any president other than trump?

    Congress is ready.

    For example, trump can offer (1) a fix for DACA, which trump himself promoted at one time; (2) immigration reform in some broader terms, which many in his own party would support in some form; and/or (3) a few billion to resource the asylum process — to minimize family separations and assure improved timeliness of asylum reviews.

    Not that trump’s base would necessarily approve. But he has shown he is capable of declaring victory in greater political failures.

    Yes, no doubt trump is seriously entertaining the option to declare an emergency. I suspect he harbors some fear (or ought to!) that declaring emergency where there is none will backfire politically. That is, if he thinks at all, or if he fears anything when taking the kind of aggressive action that his base will inevitably applaud wildly.

    And I too fear that declaring emergency (and, likely, surviving a court challenge) would embolden him to send in the troops in other matters and in circumstances that would be truly nightmarish for our country. I am hard pressed to even imagine how Pelosi and Schumer weigh and account for that not-so-remote risk.

    So, it is clear in the matter of the wall and the immigration issue (of which the hypothetical wall is just an insignificant part), that this president is not at all like any other president. A statement less profound than obvious. And troubling in the extreme.


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