November 28, 2018 | Reading Time: 8 minutes

Zero for the Wall, Zero for the Border

Chuck Schumer must stop enabling GOP's fascism. Plus: A sermon by Pastor Dan.

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Chuck Schumer drew the incandescent fury of leftists and liberals yesterday when he seemed to suggest that Senate Democrats would be willing to pony up more than one and half billion bucks for the president’s border wall. I won’t go into the details, but trust me when I say the Senate Minority Leader really screwed the pooch.

Turns out, what Schumer meant to say was that Senate Democrats would support spending as much as $1.6 billion on border security, which is distinct from spending on a border wall. Congressional Democrats have been uniformly opposed to Donald Trump’s signature campaign pledge, and they have been successful in blocking him thanks to the legislative filibuster requiring a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

Border security, as I said, is another matter. It’s there that the Democrats in both chambers have accommodated this president’s demands, as well as the demands of Congressional Republicans going back to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. To be honest, I thought something was amiss when CNN reported Schumer’s border terms. I thought: wall money is out of character for these Democrats. Well, turns out, I was right. Schumer is indeed a poor communicator. Yesterday was no exception to that.

Schumer’s critics were right. But everyone is missing another side of the issue.

If the Democrats are using border security as a negotiating tactic, they are negotiating from Trump’s turf, not theirs. The Democrats should stop playing by the GOP’s rules. They won the House in a wave election. The president is backed up against a spending deadline (Dec. 7). The Democrats have the advantage. Now is a good time to lay down Democratic terms and try forcing the president and the Republicans to swallow them.

As I said in Tuesday’s newsletter, accepting Republican terms on border security is something President Barack Obama did. His administration spent billions to militarize the Southern border. It turned the screws on federal immigration law enforcement. Obama deported more people than all past presidents combined.

It was done in the hope that Republicans would recognize his good-faith effort and agree to comprehensive immigration reform. It didn’t happen (so we can’t say how comprehensive it might have been), because Congressional Republicans never issued their terms in good faith. The border has never been as secure (I’m serious) and illegal entry is now at historic lows (again, serious) but that does not matter to Republicans whose only goal is to usurp the authority of truth with power and tribal identity.

In a very real sense, Schumer, in playing ball with $1.6 billion on the border, is actually enabling the Republican Party’s descent into fascism. The border can never be secure enough. The Republicans would still complain even if there were a 30-foot-tall 3,000-mile-long adamantium steel wall from Brownsville to San Diego. Desperately poor people would still get in. Anyway, these “conservatives” can’t function unless they’re victims. They can’t and won’t take yes for an answer. So why give it to them?

You could say Democrats should give in to their demands for the sake of the Dreamers. Indeed, protecting people registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was the point of $25 billion Schumer offered earlier this year. But DACA is ensnared in numerous federal lawsuits, and will be long past Dec. 7. That’s when Congress must approve spending for the Homeland Security Department, which is in charge of border security and immigration enforcement. (That is, CBP and ICE.)

Indeed, DACA appears to be safe for now. Even a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge in Brownsville ruled in August that the Trump administration can’t stop DACA. This was after the same judge, Andrew Hanen, said that Obama could not expand DACA to include parents. Doing so, Judge Hanen said, was unconstitutional.

So, with DACA tied up in federal court, the Democrats are free (or freer) to establish negotiating terms more to their liking—negotiating terms that are more in keeping with a wave election and their new leverage. I argued yesterday that they should demand opening the border—for demilitarizing and deregulating it so that people and goods can move more freely. I don’t think that will happen soon, but it should be the goal. The first step toward reaching that goal is to stop validating the Republican Party’s bad faith. The GOP is hurtling toward fascism. No need to play along.

Chris Hayes is right. The correct position on funding the wall is nothing. They lost. They should get nothing, and like it. The same should be the case for the border.

—John Stoehr

Love thy neighbor by seeking justice

(Editor’s note: I’m proud to share a sermon by the Rev. Daniel Schultz. Enjoy! —JS)

Many Americans struggled to understand how their own government could be responsible for tear-gassing civilians attempting to apply for asylum at the US-Mexico border crossing in Tijuana. Observers were if not shocked then certainly appalled by this transparently immoral act. How could “we” do this?

One answer to that question can be found in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, every politician’s favorite theologian. Niebuhr’s best remembered by people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and James Comey for his “Christian realism”—a commitment to looking at the world’s situation without sentiment and carefully checking idealism. Niebuhr is also beloved of conservatives because of his critique of liberal thinking. But he’s a good deal more subversive than he gets credit for being.

For example, after World War I, Niebuhr was an ardent pacifist, as were many liberal Protestant pastors of the day. But taking up a pulpit in Detroit exposed him to a very different world than the ideals he’d learned in seminary and graduate school. The city’s rapid industrialization brought all the familiar attending social malaise: substandard housing, inequality, downright abuse of workers.

Niebuhr began to question the assumption that social change could come to Detroit strictly through non-violent means. In that, he proved prophetic: it wasn’t until after a series of violent strikes in the 1930s that the factory owners began to see the United Auto Workers and other unions as a force to be reckoned with. Workers had to sacrifice blood, and rather a lot of it, in order to improve their conditions.

Niebuhr response to this reality began with a simple principle: to enact the commandment to love one another required Christians to promote justice for the oppressed. If that sounds liberal, it was. “Love seeking justice” was the core of Niebuhr’s ethics, and despite neocon paeans to him, he never surrendered it.

He did, however, come to see liberal Christian trust in reason as a barrier to justice. You can’t sit down with warring parties over tea and say, “Well, what’s the right thing to do?” and expect peace to break out! Nor can you tell a factory owner (or bank CEO), “You should really give people who don’t have a lot money some more” and expect them to cough it up. Not in any real way. People with power don’t typically surrender it without being forced to do so. Same for privilege, especially economic privilege.

Power responds to power, Niebuhr believed. It takes the exercise of power—that is, it takes coercion—to change power. If you’re not willing to use power to effect social change, you’re not interested in social change. It’s as simple as that.

So, lesson No. 1: you can sign all the online petitions you like expressing your outrage at tear-gassing babies, write all the op-eds, give all the hand-wringing sermons you like. Those things aren’t bad. But your time is better spent trying to defeat incumbents who support Trump’s policies. Protests and moral denunciations are effective only inasmuch as they carry with them an implied threat: We’re going to remove you from office and/or take away your money if you don’t stop doing this thing that we hate.

The force that makes peace also makes injustice

Things really get interesting, though, when Niebuhr goes on to analyze the discrepancy between ideals and actions. Why don’t people do what they claim to believe is the right thing?

It’s not because we’re bad, Niebuhr says. It’s because we’re anxious. Humans want to live, like any other animal. But unlike any other animal, we have enough self-awareness to see that what we do to live hurts others. We also know that in the grand scheme of things we are insecure, insignificant, and it bothers us.

We try to run away from our existential anxiety most often by trying to make ourselves bigger, more lasting, less prone to—you know—dying. So we seek power, prestige, wealth. We indulge in sensual pleasures to dull the pain. Or we do what a lot of people do, which is get married and start a family so we can live on through our children.

Now, who do you know that is consumed by gaining power, prestige, wealth, sensual pleasure and fathering many children by multiple women? Right! Donald Trump.

Which brings us to lesson No. 2: Trump must be the most anxious man on the planet. His ego is so fragile he can’t abide any threat to it, and he seeks ways to escape the anxiety we all live with through the most perverse and corrupt ways imaginable.

But Trump’s anxieties belong to the nation as much as to him. The US is founded on an anxiety almost without parallel. We are born into the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and the realities of murder, slavery, and oppression.

America is gripped by the grasping anxiety so characteristic of human nature, again almost like no other nation on earth. Niebuhr asked how societies like ours could hold. Why don’t we lapse into anarchy, or battles of faction against faction?

His answer was that societies establish rules enforced by empowered elites. Trouble is, empowered elites always want a little more power to do their job, and a little more money for doing it. This leads to resentment by the people the elites rule over. Eventually, the masses come to resent their rulers and oust them. Then they take their place, and now you’ve got a nice little cycle going. (Think Animal Farm.)

“The same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice,” Niebuhr says. That’s nowhere more true than when elites broker peace with the masses by redirecting their attention to detested outsiders or scapegoated minorities.

Human, deep-seated, and very, very irrational

Now we can begin to see what’s going on with this ugly incident of tear-gassing babies. It’s a contest between two sets of wills: one, the will to live free from violence and the violence of poverty; the other, a will to hold onto power and privilege.

That’s very Hobbesian, but it helps us understand the inevitability of the conflict. It helps us understand especially why minorities in the US weren’t at all surprised to see something like this happen. The leaders of our great nation since time immemorial have established peace in the land by keeping the dark-skinned down.

Inevitably, people get sick of this treatment, or they get so desperate they can’t put up with it, and they refuse to go along. They start to do pesky things like demanding equal treatment under the law, or for the opportunity to have their case for asylum be heard.

That backs the forces of hierarchy into a corner, or up against a wall, if you like. They cannot compromise, because it will cost them their power and privilege, and because such conflicts inevitably become conflicts of identity for them.

It’s your group or mine, buddy, and I’ll be damned if it’s mine. That’s not a rational position at all. It’s human, deep-seated, and very, very irrational.

Open the border, etc.

What can be done, then? There are no easy answers, but just realizing as much is a start. Liberals have to realize that the kind of force on display on the border will not go away. As long as there are people with different skin shades, there will be animosity. As long as there’s any human difference, there will be animosity.

The reality is that some people are always going to try to make themselves feel better by making other people suffer. That won’t change, no matter how big an electoral victory is won.

But! Sane governance can put limits on the inevitable contests, make it harder for the haters to win. ICE can be abolished. Immigration laws can be changed. The border can be opened. Being a racist can be made so toxic Trump becomes a byword for generations.

That’s using power, and it at least begins to “approximate justice,” as Niebuhr liked to say. So get out there and do it. Love your neighbor by seeking justice for them.

—The Rev. Daniel Schultz

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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