Let's get right to it: There is no crisis on the southern border.
Donald Trump knows there's no crisis on the southern border. Senate Republicans know there's no crisis on the southern border. The network execs who gave the president their airwaves for 10 minutes last Tuesday night to dissemble about the crisis on the southern border know there's no crisis on the southern border.
There is no crisis on the southern border.
If there were a crisis on the southern border, Trump would have acted when his party controlled Congress. If he believed a border wall were essential to fixing this crisis, he would have accepted the deal Democrats offered last year to trade the wall for protections for DACA recipients.
The crisis only arose when Trump needed to rally his base ahead of the midterms. So he seized on a slow-moving group of a few thousand Central American asylum-seekers – many of them women and children – walking toward the border in hopes of escaping poverty and violence. They moved as a group because the journey is notoriously dangerous and there is safety in numbers.
To listen to the administration, however, these weren't bedraggled migrants desperate for a better life. They were a horde of invaders, who probably included terrorists and gangbangers, coming to rape and pillage. Two weeks before the election, Trump dispatched 5,000 troops to the border, while the conservative media pretended this caravan was the most important story on earth.
It didn't work. Democrats retook the House in November in the largest midterm popular-vote thumping since 1974, an unambiguous repudiation of Trump. The troops were recalled soon after – not because they'd been sent there as a political stunt, mind you, but because, well, mission accomplished or something. The lame-duck Senate unanimously passed a bill to continue funding the government through February, without a wall but with the $1.6 billion in border security funding the administration had asked for in its budget request; the House looked poised to follow suit.
But then, Trump's conservative-media pals got mad at him. "Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything," Rush Limbaugh complained. "Trump will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people," snapped Ann Coulter.
And just like that, we had an honest-to-god emergency on our hands.
Suddenly, the emergency on the southern border was so acute that Trump declared that he would shut the government down if he didn't get $5.7 billion for the wall. So here we are. Week 3 of the shutdown, as the president demands a pointless solution to a crisis of his own invention and ransoms 800,000 federal workers' livelihoods to get it.
Trump's problem, though, is that the wall isn't popular. Shutting down the government to pay for his unpopular wall isn't popular. But his base wants the wall, and Trump needs his base. A CNN poll this weekend had his approval at 37 percent; the longer the shutdown drags on, the more that number will erode. But Trump is terrified that, if he backs down, his supporters will think he's weak.
Trump is boxed in and desperate for an exit ramp, like perhaps declaring a national emergency and building the wall without congressional approval (by diverting funds from disaster relief or asset forfeiture) and then reopening the government. There would be litigation, but when he loses, he could blame liberal judges for his own fecklessness.
Which is to say: This is all a charade. There is no crisis on the southern border.
Some pertinent facts: Illegal border crossings are significantly lower than they were two decades ago; most undocumented immigrants overstay their visas rather than enter illegally; most of the heroin that comes to the U.S. does so through legal ports of entry; immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives; ICE hasn't detained thousands of potential terrorists at the border this year, but rather six people on the watch list; and immigration improves rather than hurts the economy.
To the extent there is a crisis on the border, it's humanitarian – and self-inflicted. Throughout history, American immigration policy has been problematic and often explicitly racist. But what distinguishes the Trump administration is the pleasure it (and its supporters) derives from its own cruelty: targeting Muslims, curtailing asylum, separating kids from parents, jailing migrant children, revoking temporary protected status, speeding up deportations, etc. In the last month, two migrant children have died in American custody, and the Department of Homeland Security basically shrugged.
During his Oval Office address last week, Trump offered the same answer to this toxic admixture of menace and incompetence that he's offered to every immigration problem: a wall and faster deportations.
It's the only tune he knows how to sing.
Right now, his party is singing along, but not because they believe in the wall – at least not the smart ones. Just a few years ago, conservative South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney called the border wall "absurd and almost childish." In 2015, then-presidential candidate Jeb Bush dismissed the wall as "unrealistic," and senator and fellow presidential wannabe Lindsey Graham said it showed Trump "makes no sense."
They don't say that anymore. Mulvaney became the president's chief of staff just in time for the shutdown. Graham has become a first-rate Trump lackey, begging the president to circumvent Congress and build the wall by fiat. It's not that there's really a crisis. It's that, as Graham recently admitted to Fox News, "If we undercut the president, that's the end of his presidency and the end of our party."
There is no crisis on the southern border. There is a political crisis in the White House. That's it. That's the whole thing.
Perhaps the best way to think of the government shutdown, then, is as a national IQ test – an opportunity to see just how gullible the president's base is and how far the Republican Party will go to prop up its increasingly addled leader.