Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that President Donald J. Trump has done in the last several days was to use a faked weather map as a prop to justify his erroneous tweet about Alabama’s possibly being in the path of Hurricane Dorian. The alterations to the official “cone of uncertainty” from the National Hurricane Center were not only amateurish, but they were also — quite literally — criminal.
But that wasn’t the most stunning thing that Trump has done or said recently. Admittedly, rating the irrational moves of an increasingly unhinged chief executive involves lots of debate, many close calls and frequent concessions to personal bias, but my vote for most stunning move of late goes to the president’s insistence on building his infamous wall before next year’s presidential election, even if that involves criminal acts and the use of eminent domain.
According to The Washington Post, Trump has told his aides to pursue the wall at all costs: “Take the land,” he’s reportedly said. Ignore environmental regulations. And if his Cabinet officers and high-ranking aides must break the law to do it, Trump has strongly suggested he will issue presidential pardons.
That’s stunning, but not because the president winks at criminal acts. He has always run the White House as a criminal enterprise, as he does his businesses. It’s not surprising, either, that he behaves like a ruthless dictator who only knows what he wants. He has already confiscated money from the military to fund the wall that he promised, incredibly, Mexico would pay for.
Nor is his detachment from the reality of massive and complicated government construction projects any surprise. The man is increasingly untethered from reality, period. Writing in The Atlantic, journalist James Fallows has already pointed out that Trump’s behavior would likely lead to his being benched if he were a commercial airline pilot or CEO of a publicly held corporation.
No, this move is stunning because Trump’s use of eminent domain is likely to upset some of his most ardent supporters — American ranchers and farmers who own land along the Mexican border. Now, it’s true that Trump has been threatening to use eminent domain to seize land for the wall for months. But it seems that his impatience will speed the process; he wants his underlings to get busy taking his voters’ property just as election season begins in earnest.
Maybe it won’t matter to the president’s re-election prospects. Brendan Buck, a former aide to Paul Ryan, has noted that Trump’s “supporters care far more about the persona than the policy.” Certainly, it won’t matter to the GOP’s elected officials. They’ve defended every lawless, racist, budget-busting, Constitution-defacing move the president has made.
So his seizing of land for his wall is unlikely to move them, even though eminent domain has long been anathema to ultraconservatives. They used to see the government’s power to confiscate private property for “public good” as the ultimate big-government tyranny, a violation of a fundamental American right. They were apoplectic over the U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, which upheld that government authority.
No less a GOP standard-bearer than Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was harshly critical of eminent domain as recently as the 2016 presidential election campaign, when he ran campaign ads criticizing the practice and the “fat cats” — like Trump — who got rich from it. (Trump has used it often in his career as a developer.) But Cruz has been strangely silent about Trump’s enthusiasm for using it to get his way on the wall. Perhaps those Texas, New Mexico and Arizona landowners won’t care, either.
But maybe they will. It’s one thing to laughingly support the persona of a president who goes on national TV to insist that an official weather map marked over with a Sharpie pen showed something that it clearly did not. It’s another thing when that “persona” is seizing your property or emptying your bank account and threatening your livelihood. Just ask those Midwestern farmers whose most lucrative market was cut off by Trump’s ill-advised trade war with China.
Reality may never overtake Trump or his GOP collaborators. But it’s beginning to intrude on some of his supporters.