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Conservatives Continue to Clash Over Trump Emergency Edict

Authoritarians versus libertarians at a level not seen since the Patriot Act and warrantless surveillance.
rand paul levin

Congress is unlikely to have the votes to override President Donald Trump’s veto of its resolution revoking his national emergency declaration over the border wall. But the debate over its constitutionality, especially among conservatives, isn’t going anywhere.

When Senator Rand Paul announced he would oppose Trump’s national emergency, conservative talk host Mark Levin slammed the senator as a “phony constitutionalist.”

Levin wasn’t alone. Many on the Right, including politicians, pundits, and former White House deputy assistants, had less than kind words for the libertarian-leaning senator who pledged to join a minority of Republicans and most Democrats on a resolution to block Trump’s order.

There were conservatives who sided with Paul. When former Republican Senate candidate Austin Petersen of Missouri asked talk show host Glenn Beck whether conservatives now attacking Paul were being “phonies” themselves, Beck replied, “Yes.”

It’s worth noting that Beck and Levin work for the same media company.

The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson backed Paul and said he was “taking a principled stand.” National Review’s Katherine Timpf wrote, “Senator Rand Paul has announced that, despite supporting improvements in border security, he will vote against President Trump’s emergency declaration on the grounds that it’s an abuse of executive power—and he’s absolutely right.”

Timpf cited Paul’s Fox News op-ed in which the senator declared, “Every single Republican I know decried President Obama’s use of executive power to legislate. We were right then.”

Six years ago, Levin called Obama an “imperial president” due in large part to executive power abuses. “You would think that the Constitution is just another statute for these guys to play with,” Levin said in 2013. “This is why I’m furious. Because once we lose the Constitution, and we’re losing it big, what’s left? How do we keep these people in check?”

“If we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing,” Paul said of Trump’s overreach.

While most Republicans backed Trump’s border decree, 13 House Republicans voted with Democrats (including, not surprisingly, libertarian-leaning Republicans) to oppose it in late February. Last Thursday, 12 Republican senators joined Democrats to rebuke the president.

Still, the Republican majority onboard with Trump’s order emphasized the need to defend America’s borders by any means necessary. Other conservatives stressed that while strengthening our borders is vital, an executive dictate is simply not the way to do it.

Who was right? Who is right?

What is the true conservative position on this issue?

It depends on what kind of conservative you are.

For the libertarian camp that stresses constitutionality first, few if any national emergencies—even on something they might agree with—are enough to justify ditching the rule of law.

Most executive order border wall advocates claim that the 1976 National Emergencies Act makes Trump’s dictum constitutional, but that was basically Obama’s rationale many times when he ruled by “a pen and a phone.” No conservatives bought that argument at the time. Even Trump criticized Obama’s executive abuse.

Supporters of Trump’s declaration said that if anything qualified as a legitimate national emergency, it’s our current broken borders. They have a point, particularly with the spike in border apprehensions in February.

But might a future Democratic president claim that climate change or gun violence also represents a legitimate national emergency? What’s to stop them if it’s what their constituents want and they feel it’s politically advantageous?

The Constitution is supposed to stop them.

But many on the Right now say constitutionality is a secondary concern. The conservative camp that takes this view, the opposite of libertarians and constitutionalists like Paul, is what one might label “authoritarian.”

I do not use this term to slander or belittle those who have legitimate concerns about America’s porous borders. Those worried about national security in general are not necessarily “authoritarian” in their ideology or character. In fact, I share many of their concerns about our overall immigration system.

But their priorities are coming from a different place than strict constitutionalist Republicans in their support of the president’s methods on this issue.

The definitional opposite of “liberty” is “authority.” There has always been a strain on the Right that values security over liberty, usually in the form of enhanced authority when given the choice.

The George W. Bush era was a good example of this trend. Levin, who rose to fame during that time, has also often represented this tendency. The popular talk show host appears to believe that border security takes precedent over any constitutional concerns right now.

Levin once used similar reasoning in his defense of the Patriot Act. In his 2009 bestselling book Liberty and Tyranny, he wrote:

The Statist has also opposed the interception of enemy communications, such as email and cell-phone contacts, without approval from a court…he claims the practice threatens Americans civil liberties. Where is the actual evidence of widespread civil liberties abuses against American citizens? It is nonexistent.

This is Levin, using the Bush-Cheney-Orwellian language of the Republican Party 10 years ago, condemning civil liberties advocates worried about abuse of the Patriot Act. He even called those concerned about due process abuse “Statists.” Wrap your head around that one.

But that was the pro-war narrative of the time: those more concerned about constitutional rights than fighting the terrorists were actually aiding terrorists. For that kind of conservative, including neoconservatives, America’s security was always more important than its liberty. To them, anyone who disagreed didn’t give a damn about America, period.

This sentiment is similar to how most of Trump’s executive order backers view those who worry about the constitutionality of the president’s current actions.

This divide on the Right is not new. In 2007, authoritarian-leaning Senator Jeff Sessions said, “The civil libertarians among us would rather defend the Constitution than protect our nation’s security.”

He was talking about the war on terror. This echoes what most of Trump’s executive order supporters espouse today. They believe, even if they don’t say it, that the ostensible security to be gained is worth any liberty sacrificed.

It can be a conservative position. It is an authoritarian position. It is not a constitutional one.

Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.



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