Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
President Trump is taking to the airwaves Tuesday to deliver a prime-time speech he has billed as, “On the Humanitarian and National Security Crisis on our Southern Border.” In one of the most classic gambits of 20th century presidential history, the President will try to use the power of the bully pulpit to increase public pressure on Congress to give in to his demand to finance a “border wall.”
The speech is the latest step in a massive mess President Trump has made of the federal budget in recent weeks. If it were possible to sue for presidential malpractice, this would be low-hanging fruit for the legal community.
Presidents have used televised addresses in all sorts of ways. John F. Kennedy told the nation in October 1962 about the crisis that was taking place over the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba, while Lyndon Johnson surprised everyone in March 1968 when he said from the Oval Office that he would not run for re-election.
In similar fashion, Richard Nixon announced his resignation to the cameras and Gerald Ford said that he would pardon his predecessor. These TV speeches have also been used to build support for legislative proposals — such as Jimmy Carter championing energy conservation or Ronald Reagan tax cuts. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Reagan used a televised address to comfort the nation. After 9/11, George W. Bush tried to shore up our resolve.
How will President Trump use this address?
Predictably, the President is turning to television to further polarize the electorate and to amplify the fault lines that exist in American society. He is trying to drum up fear about a national security crisis at the border and pressure Congress into paying for a wall, or at least a fence.
The speech is just the latest part of a partial government shutdown owned by Trump. Last December most members of Congress were in agreement over the basic numbers that were needed to keep the government running for a few more months. Democrats did not demand any major initiatives and most Republicans were happy to sign on so they could leave town. Few members in either party were interested in the political fallout that could come from shutting the government down.
But then the President stepped in to undo a deal. Faced with criticism from the right-wing coalition of the Freedom Caucus and Fox News commentators, President Trump decided to legislate by holding hostage the federal government — and the citizens who depend on it and work for it.
While Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama entered into government shutdowns in 1995 and 2013, when they stood firm against Republican efforts to cut government programs that Congress had already enacted, President Trump is trying something very different. He is preventing the government from being funded until Democrats agree to a new policy along the border.
Given that Democrats are refusing to agree to an exorbitant amount of money for a wall that won’t have any demonstrable impact — most illegal immigration, which has been steadily declining, takes place by people who come in on airplanes and overstay their visas — the President is literally manufacturing an emergency before our very eyes. He is creating a crisis, the absence of a fully functioning government, stoking fears about a dangerous crisis on the border, claiming against all evidence that terrorists are pouring into the country. This is a massive piece of disinformation, and now the President is doubling down by talking of using his emergency power to achieve his goals and trying to mobilize the public behind his agenda.
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The speech will likely go down as one of the more striking misuses of presidential addresses that we have seen in recent times. Unless he changes his stance, he will be using his access to the airwaves to polarize, to divide, and to drum up tension rather than to achieve real consensus around real solutions.
We can expect the speech, in a nutshell, to epitomize the shortcomings and dangers of the Trump presidency. It should not be viewed as a message to guide the nation, but rather as one that brings us deeper into a political quagmire of the President’s own making.