Michael Gerson

So far: President Trump has announced a crisis that isn’t actually a crisis, requiring a wall that is not really a wall, funded by Mexican pesos that are really American tax dollars, to keep out murderous migrants who are (as a whole) less violent than native-born Americans, leading to congressional negotiations that involve no actual negotiations, resulting in a government shutdown undertaken on the advice of radio personalities, defended in an Oval Office address that consisted of alarmism, prejudice and falsehood.

We are seeing the federal government — Trump supporters and opponents — trying to explain and respond to an impulsive, emotive, selfish, irresponsible and fundamentally irrational force at its center. Trump walks in and out of meetings, repeating scraps of his stump speech, unpredictable to his staff, unconcerned about the pressure on his allies, contemptuous toward congressional opponents and with no apparent end game except their total surrender.

This is a case study in failed and erratic leadership. The shutdown happened because Trump — under pressure from partisan media — reneged on a commitment to sign the spending bill the Senate had passed and the House was ready to pass. Then, in an Oval Office meeting with the Democratic leaders, he said he would gladly own a shutdown, presumably because he figured it would look good on TV. Trump apparently did this without talking to congressional Republicans or his own staff. Then, they were forced to defend his impulse as a strategy. But this has proved difficult, because Republicans have no leverage. So now the whole GOP is left pretending there is an emergency at the border, and that a multi-year construction project is the best way to deal with it.

This is the Republican legislator’s lot in the Trump era — trying to provide ex post facto justifications for absurd presidential choices. The border “crisis” did not break because of some tragedy caused by a porous southern border. It did not result from some serious determination of national security priorities. The whole GOP strategy and all the arguments they are using are really backfill for an intemperate choice made by a president in response to media coverage.

It has fallen to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to provide justification for the irrational. And this has turned a serious public servant into a font of deception and bad faith. She warns darkly about a terrorist threat crossing our southern border, though both the size and details of that threat are too “sensitive” to release. “I am sure all Americans,” she explains, “would agree that one terrorist reaching our borders is one too many.”

So, we know that the number of terrorists intercepted at the southern border is equal to or greater than one. What we don’t know is how this terrorist threat compares to other dangers that require funding as well.

I have never met a counterterrorism expert who mentioned the construction of a physical barrier with Mexico as an urgent priority in the fight against global terrorism.

But security arguments would certainly be at the core of Trump’s justification for declaring a national emergency and building the wall with American troops — if he makes that choice. Then the ignorance, arrogance and stubbornness of one man would turn a budget crisis into a constitutional crisis — and turn Republican defenders into abettors of creeping authoritarianism. All to justify a fool’s impulse.