by Matt Welch
In more placid times, news that the president of the United States was encouraging aides to break the law by seizing swaths of private property along the southwestern border to build a wall might have caused more than a day’s ripple.
After all, legitimate controversy over the promiscuous threat of eminent domain (as well as illegitimate fears of a NAFTA Superhighway) dogged former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for a full decade, prompting him to eventually abandon his dreams of a Trans-Texas Corridor tollroad. And Perry wasn’t out there dangling pardons and barking “take the land” to his staff.
As former Fox News and current CNN host Alisyn Camerota asserted Wednesday, “Any time there was any suggestion about President Obama using eminent domain for anything, Roger Ailes, and therefore Fox News, blew a gasket about the idea of seizing private land.”
We are accustomed to some ideological shape-shifting when the White House changes teams. But what’s so striking about this week’s slate of immigration-related controversies — including the one that supplanted the land-grab pardon: the administration’s new rules governing potential citizenship for the children of U.S. service people abroad — is that none of it should come as a surprise.
This is how Trump ran, this is how he won the GOP primary, this is how he beat Hillary Clinton, this is how he has governed. So the question for Republicans becomes, is this how your party will henceforth be known?
Four years ago this month, Trump and the rest of the GOP field engaged in some of the most gruesome restrictionist one-upsmanship American politics had seen in at least two decades. People rightly remember the “rapists” accusation in the president’s campaign kickoff, but some of the real crazy came later: Trump telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that the U.S. citizen children of illegal immigrants — of which there are an estimated 4 million — “have to go.” Vowing to deport legal Syrian refugees. Ending birthright citizenship, Constitution be damned (a stance that, sadly, many of his competitors aped).
That Trump rocketed to the head of a crowded field with such startling rhetoric and policies suggested a conservative appetite for immigration enforcement that would never have been sated by Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” stance (which Trump back in November 2012 called “maniacal”) or John McCain’s embarrassing about-face on big-picture immigration law reform. Before you knew it, candidate Bobby Jindal was using words like “invasion,” Scott Walker was pondering a wall on the northern border, Chris Christie was proposing to track legal immigrants like FedEx packages, and even hapless old Jeb Bush was warning darkly against “anchor babies.”
Meanwhile, Trump in the fall of 2015 was distancing himself even further from the field by proclaiming that the government’s use of eminent domain to seize private property from one owner in order to hand it over to another, as was codified by the infamous 2005 Supreme Court ruling Kelo vs. the City of New London, was “a wonderful thing.” When it was pointed out that Kelo was (deservedly!) unpopular across the political spectrum, the candidate said, with confident inaccuracy: “I fully understand the conservative approach. But I don’t think it was explained to most conservatives.”
In fact, private property rights used to be foundational to the conservative movement. What Trump was advertising here was that he didn’t care. And that Republicans cared a hell of a lot less than they claimed to.
How many times have you heard a variation of the following from someone you know who voted for Trump? “He went too far with the rhetoric sometimes, and I didn’t like the way he talked about __________ [fill in the blank]. But …” Usually that “but” would have something to do with Clinton, or the complacency of the political establishment, or the perceived smother of political correctness. Depending on the Trump voter, there might even have been some expectation that his wilder ideas would be constrained by the more mundane realities of governance.
There is no such cause for hope in 2019. Trump is who he said he’d be, minus a surprise or two (including, happily, criminal justice reform). And, having faced not even token resistance from Republicans in the allegedly co-equal legislative branch, Trump is redefining the GOP in ways Ronald Reagan would not recognize: Anti-trade, anti-grace, anti-refugee.
As new GOP presidential primary contender Joe Walsh asked of his “fellow limited government conservatives” in a tweet this week, “You do have a problem with a President demanding the federal government go ahead and seize private land and then promising to pardon those who seized the land. Don’t you?”
They don’t. At least not as expressed yet in either job-approval polls or primary match-ups. If Republicans want to distance themselves from the kind of overreach that used to make their skin crawl and have any claim on being the party of limited government, capitalism and the rule of law, the time to begin changing that is not November 2020, it’s now.
Matt Welch is editor at large at Reason